DALLAS — Tim Holt was driving around the West Texas town of Big Spring in his Ford diesel pickup that winter day in December 2006. Seated beside him was a tall, wiry teenager who graduated a semester early to enroll at Texas A&M.
As the football coach of the local high school team, Holt thought a lot of the kid.
He had seen him throw a rocket on a backside curl, pegging the receiver in the numbers 17 yards away. He had watched him blast a punt 84 yards downfield in a game his team desperately needed to win. And he’d witnessed the boy moonlight as a receiver, bedeviling defensive backs by turning them around like confused dogs chasing their tails.
“Man, there is something there,” Holt said to himself when he first saw the kid jump like a deer during a practice drill.
But what exactly was it? Recruiters really didn’t know as they tried to figure out what position he’d play. The kid, Ryan Tannehill, received only one scholarship offer from a BCS school after a scouting website rated him the seventh-best quarterback in Texas. It frustrated Holt that almost no one else could see what he did.
“I know nobody has told you this, but you’re special,’” he told Tannehill. “And if you do things right, you’re going to play on Sundays. You really have a legitimate chance to play on Sundays. When you get to A&M, do things like they tell you to do, and you’ll be fine.”
More than five years later, the player nobody knew quite what to make of was in the McFerrin Indoor Practice Facility on Texas A&M’s campus, zipping passes all over the field as a gaggle of pro scouts, executives and coaches studied his every move. They had flocked to College Station to catch a glimpse of Tannehill, the 6-4, 221-pount quarterback who has soared up the draft boards to become this year’s most intriguing prospect, in part because of the long, strange journey that led him to this point.
The outside world wants to know how a player once lightly recruited out of high school — a receiver his first two seasons in college — is now being considered a top-10 pick.
It’s not easily explained. But most talent evaluators have come to the same conclusion that Holt once did: Man, there is something there.
“He hasn’t put it all together,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “None of us know if he ever will. However, he has all the tools.”
Mayock didn’t come to that realization until last summer at the Manning Passing Academy, when he saw Tannehill throw spirals that looked as if they were launched from a cannon. Mayock was shocked.
“In my mind, I was just thinking he was a receiver.”
So did practically everyone else. The exception was Tannehill. Deep down, he knew his true identity.
“I still always thought of myself as a quarterback,” he said.
But like a good actor, he stepped into character and completely absorbed himself in the role he was given at the outset of his college career. He did so while concealing his disappointment that Aggies coach Mike Sherman moved him to split end after naming Stephen McGee the starting quarterback before the 2008 season.
“I was frustrated,” Tannehill said.
To soothe his hurt feelings, Sherman told Tannehill he would have another opportunity to win the job. Just be patient, Sherman said, perhaps unaware that a generation before, Tannehill’s father, Tim, had gone through a similar experience at Texas Tech in the mid-1980s.
Recruited as a quarterback, Tim Tannehill initially competed against Billy Joe Tolliver to become the team’s starter before he was moved to receiver. He could have quit or transferred.
“But once you make a commitment to your team, you need to honor that and stay with your team,” Tim Tannehill said.
So he remained a Red Raider. And more than 20 years later, Ryan remained an Aggie. As a redshirt freshman, Tannehill led the team in receptions and receiving yards. A year later, he was an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection. Tannehill was glad to be playing instead of being rooted to the sideline, holding a clipboard and charting plays.
“He was just a really unselfish person,” former Texas A&M wideout Jeff Fuller said. “Wherever he felt he could help the team the most, regardless of whether that was his premier position or not, he was going to do it. He was definitely into what he was doing.”
But Tannehill’s ambition to play quarterback never wavered, and he would carve out time during practice to throw passes after he worked in other drills catching them. Tannehill knew his opportunity would come. He just didn’t know when. No one thought it would materialize his junior season. After all, quarterback Jerrod Johnson was selected the preseason Big 12 offensive player of the year. But following off-season shoulder surgery, Johnson slid into an inexplicable slump.
And in the second quarter of a game against Kansas in October 2010, Tannehill was thrust into action.
“I finally got that chance.” Tannehill said. “I wanted to make the most of it.”
He did, completing 75 percent of his passes and accounting for four touchdowns. The next week, he started and set a school record when he threw for 449 yards against Texas Tech. Tannehill’s days as a receiver were over.
The statistical evidence in Tannehill’s file doesn’t tell the whole story. He started only 19 games. But he commanded an offense designed by Sherman, a coach with an NFL background.
He completed 61.6 percent of his attempts last season. But Mayock doesn’t remember watching a team drop as many passes as the Aggies did in 2011.
Tannehill misfired on only one of the 68 passes he threw at his pro day. But that performance was scripted, and a more accurate assessment of his ability could have been formulated at the NFL combine workout and the Senior Bowl — two events Tannehill missed because of a broken right foot he suffered in January.
That injury kept the buzz about Tannehill from starting earlier, according to former Texas A&M quarterbacks coach Tom Rossley.
“Because without a doubt, after anything he does that exposes his talent, he’s going to skyrocket,” Rossley said.
And sure enough, Tannehill moved up the draft boards after his pro day workout was witnessed by several teams looking for a quarterback to take the pass-happy NFL by storm. Showing off his strong arm with crisp, accurate throws and demonstrating his speed by running the 40-yard dash in 4.62 seconds, Tannehill drew rave reviews.
Ties to Sherman
One of those clubs that seemed impressed by Tannehill’s performance was Miami, which recently hired Sherman to be its offensive coordinator. It has been mentioned as the team most likely to choose Tannehill with the eighth overall pick. If the Dolphins select Tannehill, they would be making the right choice, according to Chris Weinke, the former Heisman Trophy winner who has trained Tannehill recently.
“I’d put him up there with anybody in this year’s draft,” Weinke said. “There is no question in my mind he is a franchise quarterback.”
That confidence in Tannehill, which is shared by Rossley, is based on a lofty assessment of his size, athleticism, ability to process information quickly and experience working in an NFL system.
“He’s quality,” Rossley said.
But former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick is skeptical. The high regard for Tannehill’s physical attributes, Billick said, has led to the same irrational exuberance that caused the stock of quarterback JaMarcus Russell to soar before he was selected by the Oakland Raiders with the first overall pick in 2007.
Just more than three years later, Russell had crashed out of the league and was labeled one of the biggest flops of all time. Tannehill is positive he won’t meet a similar fate.
“You have to be confident in who you are,” Tannehill said, “and I am confident in who I am.”
But who exactly is Ryan Tannehill? Is he the next great quarterback? Is he the next big bust?
To this day, the kid from Big Spring remains a mystery. Nobody quite knows what to make of him, but almost everyone agrees there’s something there.