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Rick Neuheisel, who coached John Wolford, swears backup QB will be hero for Rams

Arizona Hotshots coach Rick Neuheisel, center, talks with quarterback John Wolford.
Arizona Hotshots coach Rick Neuheisel, second from left, talks with quarterback John Wolford (7) during the first half of an AAF game against the Orlando Apollos on March 16, 2019, in Orlando, Fla.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

A desperation heave by the Rams. A human Hail Mary.

That’s how a lot of people see backup quarterback John Wolford, who has yet to throw a pass in an NFL game yet will be starting Sunday in place of Jared Goff in a do-or-die finale against the Arizona Cardinals.

Rick Neuheisel is not one of those doubters.

“I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t win,” said Neuheisel, the former UCLA quarterback and coach who had Wolford as his starting quarterback with the Arizona Hotshots of the Alliance of American Football. “I’m just telling you, Johnny Wolford is going to come through.”

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Now, that could be the rosiest forecast this side of Pasadena, especially when things have been so bleak for the Rams lately. However, Neuheisel, who knows quarterbacks in microscopic detail, is convinced Wolford is going to distinguish himself in his debut.

Goff will miss the first meaningful start of his career Sunday, having undergone surgery Monday for a broken thumb on his throwing hand. Coach Sean McVay said he’s hopeful Goff will be able to return if the Rams make the playoffs, his team having lost consecutive win-and-they’re-in games against the New York Jets and Seattle.

Neuheisel is convinced the Rams did not make a mistake by failing to have an experienced veteran backing up Goff, and instead going with the 6-foot-1 Wolford, who was signed by the Jets as an undrafted rookie in 2018 and was on their practice squad before the Rams signed him in April 2019.

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“In McVay’s offense, and with Wolford’s knowledge, he’s going to go in there, give three claps, and that offense is going to go,” Neuheisel said.

Neuheisel said as much in a text to Wolford late Sunday night after hearing Goff probably wouldn’t be available to play.

“I just said, ‘Stars close the show. It’s time for you to deliver,’ ” Neuheisel said.

The coach didn’t read back Wolford’s specific response, only saying the quarterback was “very encouraging that he’s ready for this deal.”

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Now, of course a young player is going to be excited and encouraged about getting his first opportunity, especially on such a grand stage. If Wolford were wracked with doubt, the Rams would be more concerned than they actually are. And let’s be realistic, it would be a monumental upset if Wolford were anything more than a cautious caretaker, looking to not make a mistake and letting the Rams defense dictate the outcome.

Rams backup quarterback John Wolford warms up before a scrimmage at SoFi Stadium in August.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Yet Neuheisel is convinced that the player who led the AAF in touchdown passes (14) and excelled in the run-pass-option scheme at Wake Forest is going to surprise people.

“The first time I talked to him, I said, ‘I just want you to know that you’re the pick I wanted,’ ” Neuheisel said. “He said, ‘You’re going to be glad you wanted it, coach.’”

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Neuheisel compared Wolford’s arm to that of Case Keenum — respectable, and able to make the required throws — and his intellect to that of Pat Haden, lofty praise considering Haden was a Rhodes Scholar.

“From our first practice, and we practiced for three weeks, this guy had it,” Neuheisel said. “More than just having it, he was also cerebral enough to come in and offer tweaks as we were putting in RPO stuff, because he came from an RPO background. Honest to God, this guy could be a great coach.”

The AAF isn’t the NFL. Not even close. Yet, Neuheisel is convinced that even in this compressed preparation period, McVay will find ways to move the ball with Wolford.

John Wolford has no NFL regular-season snaps, but he believes in his skills and says he’ll be ready to go if Jared Goff’s streak of good fortune ends.

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“Maybe more stuff on the edges [than with Goff] because you might be worried about John’s size,” Neuheisel said. “Maybe more full play-action, where you’re rolling right, rolling left. And a lot of RPO. He comes from a world of RPO.”

One of Neuheisel’s early memories of working with Wolford was the quarterback lying flat on his back in the meeting room to watch film. Wolford wore special glasses that had mirrors in them that allowed him to have his head pointed toward the ceiling yet his eyes focused on a screen in front of him.

“I’d say, ‘What sort of weirdo are you?’ ” Neuheisel recalled with a laugh. “He goes, ‘Coach, you should try these.’”

Wolford discovered a different way of looking at the world. Now he has a chance to change the way the football world looks at him.


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