Jeff Christensen can talk all day about the traits that make Jimmy Garoppolo a quality quarterback. But he has a nonfootball description about the quality of his character that New England fans — both fervent and casual — can relate to.
“He’s just a normal Bostonian, Irish type-of-mentality kind of kid, you know?’’ said Christensen, Garoppolo’s former QB guru. “He’s grounded. He’s just a normal dude. And I think he’s going to be very good.’’
Erik Lora is another who can extol Garoppolo’s virtues on the field. But his initial thoughts when asked about his former teammate at Eastern Illinois had nothing to do with football.
“Jimmy’s Jimmy,’’ said Lora, Garoppolo’s top target over their final two seasons together as Panthers. “He’s just a great guy to be around . . . He’s the guy you call when you need a dependable guy.’’
The Patriots have made that call.
With Tom Brady suspended for the first four games of the season, the team will soon find out (opening night is a mere seven weeks away), and those who’ve worked closely with Garoppolo are predicting positive results.
Christensen, who started working with Garoppolo when Garoppolo was a sophomore in high school, believes he’s in a perfect situation to succeed. One of the biggest reasons for Christensen’s optimism is the amount of time Garoppolo has spent in the Patriots’ system. He’s had the benefit of watching Brady on the field for two seasons and how he prepares off it for the better part of three years. He’s also been working under the watch ofBill Belichick and Josh McDaniels.
“Jimmy’s a visual learner,’’ Christensen said Wednesday during an airport layover as he crisscrosses the country working with his pupils, including current NFL starters Kirk Cousins (Redskins), Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins), and Brock Osweiler (Texans). “He’s also devoted, competitive, and a perfectionist. I have absolutely no reason to believe Jimmy will do anything but succeed.’’
Observation skills are one thing, but a player must have the physical skills and mental makeup to be a starting quarterback. Christensen is confident in this area, too.
Asked about Garoppolo’s strengths on the field, Christensen, a Bengals draft choice out of Eastern Illinois in 1983, pointed to three specific traits.
“Well, No. 1 is he has that critical ability to retain information,’’ said Christensen, who played eight seasons in the NFL and now runs Throw It Deep Academy. “No. 2 is his technique. He has great footwork and his ball comes out so quick — and that allows him to throw the ball in tight spaces. And No. 3 is his moxie. He just has a natural ability to not let things bother him.’’
Perhaps no player knows more about Garoppolo’s style than Lora. Over their final two seasons in Charleston, Ill., the pair connected on 241 catches for 3,079 yards and 30 touchdowns.
“I’m a little bit biased but I think his quick release is unmatched. I think it gives defenders a little less time to react to a ball already thrown,’’ said Lora, who spent time with the Jaguars but is now retired from football. “His impeccable timing is another thing. He’s able to read a defense so quickly.’’
That ability, coupled with his penchant for making the right adjustments, was a hallmark for a Panthers team ranked No. 2 in the FCS in 2013.
“Our offense at Eastern Illinois, that is what we were known for: our ability to go to the field and to adjust and react to what teams were doing, and that is definitely one of Jimmy’s strengths,’’ Lora said last week from his home in Miami.
Lora, who spent the majority of his time playing in the slot in Eastern Illinois’s four-receiver sets, was also in awe of Garoppolo’s leadership skills. He noted how Garoppolo took over a “struggling team’’ during his freshman year and by the start of his sophomore season had established himself as the program’s rock. He also warned not to get fooled by his seemingly calm presence. There’s a fire burning inside.
“Jimmy liked to have fun but he was also the guy who would grab you by the facemask and say, ‘Hey, that’s enough. It’s time to go to work.’ ’’
Lora also was impressed by how Garoppolo would pick his spots as a leader.
“He got in guys’ faces when he thought he needed to — when he thought it was appropriate,’’ said Lora. “Sometimes he would let others do it but when he thought it was his time to do it then he would do it.’’
Christensen also had some insight into how Garoppolo gained his mental toughness.
“He’s a normal guy that’s got two older brothers,’’ Christensen said with a laugh. “So he got wailed on pretty good as a kid. But he’s just a normal cat.’’
Christensen kept coming back to how this situation — running the Patriots’ offense — is perfect for Garoppolo.
“I think it’s kind of eerie how it worked out,’’ he said. “Many, many days we studied Brady film over the years when we were working out with him. ‘Let’s watch what Brady did with his feet here, let’s watch what he did here.’ Then we’d tailor our workouts around that.’’
Now it’s time to see if Garoppolo is a perfect fit in New England.