On the night last May when Jimmy Garoppolo was drafted, his personal quarterback coach, Jeff Christensen, had a hunch. He called his son and predicted that Garoppolo would be chosen by the New England Patriots.
“He goes, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘I just think they are; I can feel it,’ ” Christensen said. “Because visually, and maybe even emotionally, Jimmy probably reminds them of Tom.”
Christensen, a former N.F.L. quarterback who now runs an academy for quarterbacks and receivers outside Chicago, had been tutoring Garoppolo for about seven years, ever since Garoppolo started playing quarterback as a high school junior.
Their first day together, Christensen showed Garoppolo videos of Tom — Tom Brady — and compared their mechanics. From Brady’s footwork to his knee bend to his grip on the ball, his technique was perfect. Garoppolo’s was not. But he was an apt pupil, determined and relentless and unflappable. If he listened and worked hard and practiced, Christensen told him, perhaps Garoppolo’s throwing motion would someday be as flawless as Brady’s.
Late in the second round of last year’s draft, with the 62nd overall pick, New England selected Garoppolo, who had grown up in Chicago’s northwestern suburbs not only admiring Brady but emulating him. With Brady aging and Bill Belichick never having taken a quarterback so high while New England’s coach, Garoppolo arrived at Patriot Place out of Eastern Illinois as the team’s most alluring backup since Brady himself. He represented the future in a more urgent way than others — Matt Cassel, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett — ever did.
Garoppolo performed well in his rookie season in limited playing time behind Brady while preparing for a moment that has come far sooner than New England could have expected.
He is poised to start for the Patriots until Brady is reinstated from a four-game suspension. The N.F.L. handed Brady that punishment on Mondayfor probably knowing, according to a league-commissioned report, that New England staff members had deflated footballs in an effort to gain an advantage against Indianapolis in the A.F.C. title game on Jan. 18.
Garoppolo, 23, has thrown 27 career passes — 12 fewer than Cassel had when he replaced an injured Brady in the 2008 season opener — but has four months to prepare for the Sept. 10 opener, against visiting Pittsburgh. Those who know Garoppolo well say he will be ready for the occasion, just as he was ready to become a quarterback in high school, as he was ready to star at Eastern Illinois, as he was ready to make his debut last year in a Sept. 29 blowout loss at Kansas City, a game in which he completed 6 of 7 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s one of those guys that surprises you,” said Dino Babers, who coached Garoppolo in his final two seasons at Eastern Illinois and is now the coach at Bowling Green. “He just seems to be able to do more than what you think he’s capable of doing. He gets more out of a situation than what people give him credit for.”
The first time Babers watched Garoppolo practice, he came away wondering two things — first, why Garoppolo was playing on a Football Championship Subdivision team.
Babers knew what a good quarterback looked like — he was on the coaching staff at Baylor when Robert Griffin III played there — and he was certain that Garoppolo was a good quarterback. But only two other colleges had offered Garoppolo scholarships, Illinois and Montana State, in part because he changed positions fairly late, after playing linebacker his first two years at Rolling Meadows High School.
Garoppolo’s high school coach had called Christensen, a friend, and asked him to assess Garoppolo’s prospects at quarterback. Garoppolo was raw, naturally, but his prowess in other sports — baseball and basketball — provided a solid base. A pitcher and a deadeye shooter, Garoppolo was able to use his fingertips to make the ball spin, and that was something Christensen could work with.
“You sit him down and show him films and pictures and start proving it to him,” Christensen said in a telephone interview. “And he just took to it. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen.”
Babers also wondered why Garoppolo did not have much success in his first two years at Eastern Illinois, when the Panthers went 4-18. Hired before Garoppolo’s junior season, Babers installed an up-tempo offense that showcased Garoppolo’s best attributes: his intelligence, his accuracy and his quick release — the quickest Babers has seen, he said, behind only Dan Marino’s.
“We needed a trigger guy like that to open up our offense,” Sterlin Gilbert, who was Garoppolo’s quarterback coach and offensive coordinator under Babers and is now a co-offensive coordinator at Tulsa, said in a telephone interview. “It was the perfect storm, having the right coaches and the right guy like Jimmy to throw. He found his niche in an offense that was highly productive and quarterback-friendly and got only better and better.”
As a junior, Garoppolo threw for 3,823 yards and 31 touchdowns, and he approached that off-season, Babers said, with a renewed commitment. One day, Christensen recalled, Garoppolo dropped by Christensen’s academy unannounced to put himself through two hours of drills, just to make certain his timing and his mechanics were sound.
In the 2013 season opener at San Diego State, Garoppolo solidified himself as an N.F.L. prospect, at least in Gilbert’s mind, when he threw for 361 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in a 40-19 victory.
“You could just see a different guy,” Gilbert said. “As the season went on, he played at a different level.”
Garoppolo finished the season having thrown for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns, shattering the team record for career completions (which had been held by Tony Romo) and winning the Walter Payton Award as the best F.C.S. player. Every N.F.L. team visited Eastern Illinois, Gilbert said, and coaches there started believing Garoppolo could be taken as early in the draft as the second round. A few months later, Christensen knew — or thought he knew — for sure.
“You think the kids are hearing the message when they’re looking at you, and most of them are, but only a few are going to hear it, believe it, buy into it, apply it and hang on every word you say and be an overachiever,” Christensen said. “That was Jimmy. Without knowing it, he was taking a visual picture of everything ever said to him and putting it into his mental bank. And that’s why he’s got to this point.”