Baylor QB Nick Florence impresses as leader and follow-up
SAN DIEGO — Nick Florence didn’t need this.
The Baylor quarterback already had his degree in economics. He was a fall semester from earning his MBA. Life could have been so simple.
Instead, he embraced a difficult job. A really difficult job.
A year ago, Robert Griffin III was the first player from Baylor to win the Heisman Trophy. There are weekly reminders, with Griffin having an exceptional rookie season with the Washington Redskins.
Florence was next up in Waco, Texas.
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“I never told him that he shouldn’t expect to be Robert,” Baylor Coach Art Briles said. “But I put it out there that everyone else shouldn’t expect that. I think, arguably, he had the toughest position to fill in America, following a guy who won the Heisman and is as dynamic as Robert is on and off the field.”
The thing is, Florence has come close to matching that.
There was no trip to New York for this year’s award ceremony, but Florence has put up Griffin-like numbers. He has passed for 4,121 yards and 31 touchdowns, and run for 531 yards and nine touchdowns.
Florence didn’t get a Big 12 Conference title for the Bears — neither did Griffin — but he did engineer an upset of then-No. 1 Kansas State. The victory started a three-game winning streak that closed the season and put Baylor in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl against No. 17 UCLA on Thursday.
“For me, I looked at it as ‘Hey, I get the opportunity to play college football,’” said Florence. “I had waited a long time to get the job. A lot of people don’t get the opportunity.”
And even fewer have to replace a Heisman Trophy winner when they do get it. Not a week has passed this season without the topic’s coming up.
“I happened to follow a Heisman Trophy winner,” Florence said. “That had nothing to do with who I am.”
Florence knew what he faced when he came to Waco from Garland (Texas) South Garland High in 2009. Griffin, considered one of the nation’s top high school quarterbacks the previous year, was the Big 12 Conference freshman of the year.
Florence anticipated a waiting period.
“Football is a huge part of my life, but it is not my entire life,” said Florence, who has been named to the dean’s list three times. “I felt this is where I was supposed to be. Faith is a big part of who I am. The education was good, the community would challenge my faith and I would still get to play football.”
“Nick graduated second in a class of 600 in high school,” Briles said. “He knew the situation.”
Griffin passed for 4,293 yards and 37 touchdowns last season. He also ran for 699 yards and 10 touchdowns. It started with a thrilling 50-48 victory over No. 15 Texas Christian in a nationally televised opener and ended with a 67-56 Alamo Bowl victory over Washington.
The Bears finished with a 10-3 record, only the second 10-win season in the school’s history.
Florence’s season lacked the same pizazz. The Bears were 3-4 by the end of October. Not that it wasn’t interesting. Florence passed for a school-record 581 yards and had five touchdown passes in a 70-63 loss to West Virginia.
“Nick is not following anybody,” Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk said. “He’s not RGIII, he’s Nick Florence. What Nick does makes him great.”
Others say that what Baylor’s speed-of-light offense does can make any quarterback look great. The numbers, by both Griffin and Florence, have an inflation index.
Baylor “makes you defend every blade of grass,” UCLA Coach Jim Mora said. Florence had 300 or more yards passing in five of the first six games. He and All-American receiver Terrance Williams were rolling up numbers, but not victories.
The emergence of Seastrunk took the pressure off. Seastrunk had 693 yards rushing in the last five games, four of which were Baylor victories.
“Having a guy like that to hand the ball off to is huge,” Florence said. “He can go 80 yards in one play. I don’t have to throw for all of it.”
Still, this is Florence’s show.
“I never asked Nick to be Robert,” Briles said. “I only asked him to be Nick.”
That was a known commodity. In 2009, Florence, then a first-year freshman, threw for 1,786 yards in seven starts after Griffin and backup Blake Szymanski were injured.
A year ago, Griffin was knocked out in the first half against Texas Tech. Florence passed for 151 yards and two touchdowns as the Bears beat the Red Raiders for the first time since 1995.
This season was different. He was handed the keys at the start of the season.
“Coach knew I wasn’t RGIII and I knew I wasn’t RGIII,” Florence said. “I don’t run a 4.4 in the 40. But this offense is about distributing the ball and all I had to be was myself.”
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