An unexpected journey: Stidham takes over for Russell

After beginning the season 7-0 and being ranked No. 2 in the nation, Baylor had many experts predicting a College Football Playoff berth.

But an unfortunate loss has put the Bears’ playoff hopes in serious jeopardy. True freshman Jarrett Stidham will be under center for the Bears for rest of 2015.

It was revealed on Monday afternoon that junior quarterback Seth Russell would be out for the season after fracturing a bone in his neck. No one knew how to react upon hearing the news.

“It was hard,” said junior wide receiver Corey Coleman. “Everybody was sad. I just wanted to leave the room.”

Russell had been impeccable through seven games as he amassed 2,506 total yards of offense and 35 touchdowns for the No. 1 offense in the country. Russell’s play made scoring look effortless at times.

Several Baylor players said they were heartbroken when the news came out and they realized their leader was lost for the remainder of the season.

The ill-fated injury prompted Russell to give an emotional speech to the team on Tuesday, telling them to not make the situation about him and to play for each other.

Russell spoke specifically to Stidham, telling Stidham to step up and take ownership in his absence.

“[Seth] got emotional, so it made all of us kind of get emotional,” Drango said. “We’re right behind him. He’s not going to be gone forever. He’ll still be around helping out where he can.”

Despite the loss, Baylor’s season is not over. In a way, it’s just beginning, players said.

Stidham takes the reins of the most prolific offense in college football, something that he has been aiming for ever since he arrived on campus.

Many of his teammates are amazed at his confident demeanor and skillset at such a young age.

Stidham is a born leader, members of the team said.

“It blows my mind that he’s a teenager,” said junior wide receiver Lynx Hawthorne. “You wouldn’t guess that. I personally look up to the guy and I’m four or five years older than him.”

While head coach Art Briles has a history of taking lower recruits and maximizing their play in his proven offensive system, Stidham is a different story.

Coming from Stephenville as the No. 3 quarterback recruit in the nation, Stidham is unlike anything Briles has seen before.

In other words, he’s no work in progress.

Briles has been so impressed by the 19-year-old that he called him the best young quarterback he’s ever been around.

That’s saying something, considering Briles coached many successful quarterbacks, including Heisman winner Robert Griffin III.

Stidham showcased his ability from the moment he stepped foot on Baylor’s practice field, challenging Russell for the starting job and pushing the junior quarterback to the level of a Heisman candidate.

“I said, ‘This guy is going to be special,’ as soon as he got here,” Coleman said. “He’s really talented at a young age and, especially coming in at quarterback, it’s hard to come in and learn the offense so fast. The reason why Seth was so good was because Jarrett was pushing him.”

The true freshman came in as a highly recruited player, but he had to win the respect of some members of the team.

All it took was for Stidham to show off his ability to throw the football.

“When I first saw [Stidham] throw a ball, I was really impressed,” said junior center Kyle Fuller. “I didn’t know that he had an arm like that. I had heard a lot of hype about him, but I just thought it was all hype. After I saw [him throw], I was like ‘Man, that kid is good.’”

There’s little difference between Russell and Stidham, Fuller said. Yet many people doubt the capability of Stidham to carry the offense. The lineman said that may come back to haunt them in the end.

“The way he plays and handles himself is similar to [Russell]” Fuller said. “With him being a confident person and being who he is, I know that he’s going to bring some fire, because a lot of people are doubting him.”

Baylor’s bye week could not come at a better time, players said. The added time off gives Stidham extra reps to prepare for an expected hostile environment on Nov. 5, when the Bears take on Kansas State.

Drango said Stidham wouldn’t have any leeway to get comfortable in the starter role with Baylor playing the seventh-toughest schedule in the nation for its remaining games. But he doesn’t believe the new quarterback needs any time to adjust.

“He knows the offense well,” Drango said. “He can throw just as good as Seth, so it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts. But I have full confidence in his ability to run the offense.”

Another group that believes in Stidham’s talent is the receiving corps. They are excited about the prospect of catching passes from Stidham and said there’s a lot of chemistry with the QB.

“We’ll miss [Russell] greatly, but catching a pass from Jarrett is almost like a gift from God,” Hawthorne said.

Heisman contender Corey Coleman said with a guy like Stidham leading the offense, none of the dreams or aspirations that the team had with Russell as quarterback are in doubt.

Coleman was clear about his message to doubters of Baylor with a change at the helm.

“They’re crazy. We’re a hungry football team and we know what we want. It’s right there, so now we have to go get it,” Coleman said.

The All-American receiver said there’s no reason why Stidham can’t lead the Bears to a national championship. The QB has one of the best offensive lines in the country, great running backs, and a stellar group of pass-catchers, Coleman said.

“He did a great job when he was playing [as backup],” Coleman said. “Now he gets to come in and play with better guys around him. So he will step up his play even more.”

After visiting with players, it became evident that Stidham’s teammates don’t think he acts like a freshman, nor is he treated that way.

The coaching staff plans on changing nothing and expects the gameplan to remain the same.

While it is certainly unexpected, Baylor’s national title hopes lie on the shoulders of a first-year player.

And Baylor believes.

“He’s not scared, he’s not worried, and he’s ready to go,” Hawthorne said. “If there’s somebody that’s capable of taking over the reins, it’s him. I have full trust in Jarrett Stidham.”