Jarrett Stidham's Return from CFB Rock Bottom Has Auburn on the Brink of the CFP

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterNovember 22, 2017

AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 11:  Jarrett Stidham #8 of the Auburn Tigers reacts after rushing for a touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs at Jordan Hare Stadium on November 11, 2017 in Auburn, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

We begin in Pecos County, Texas, 5,000 square miles of forgotten badlands less than 90 minutes from the Mexican border. May as well be the middle of nowhere.

He tracked the giant mule deer for almost two miles across that barren terrain—along a hillside and down a deep, daring gorge. Because that's how it works in Texas: You go where the hunt takes you.

Even if it means tracking a deer into the belly of a steep, 3,000-foot canyon for the kill, or traveling nearly 1,000 miles from home and into a meat grinder college football conference to jump-start a forgotten career. One is a microcosm of the other.

The hunt—and the process of finding yourself that goes with it—has never been more important.

"There's a certain feeling I can't explain when you're out there hunting," Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham says. "It's like when I'm on the field. There are no distractions, no drama. It's just me and a clear head."

CLEMSON, SC - SEPTEMBER 09:  Quarterback Jarrett Stidham #8 of the Auburn Tigers warms up before the start of the Tigers' football game against the Clemson Tigers at Memorial Stadium on September 9, 2017 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Mike Comer/Ge
Mike Comer/Getty Images

And the beginning of a long road back.

Stidham is almost three months into his first season at Auburn, a rocky but rewarding journey that's but a few obstacles from reaching the mountaintop, beginning with this weekend's annual Iron Bowl game against bitter rival Alabama.

He's two years removed from his last game at Baylor, and from that life-defining hunt in the south end of Pecos County where no more than 40 people live and they're asked to keep their lights off at night because the McDonald Observatory is doing astronomy heavy lifting in the skies above.

Stidham's family leases 700 acres in that southwest Texas tract, but they're not staring at the Big Dipper. Once they got to the bottom of the canyon that day in late December 2015, the real job was carrying the 300-pound deer back up a steep mountainside: through leathery cacti and their needle sharp fingers, through soil so parched and hard, they may as well have been walking on black ice pavement, through 12-degree temperatures and the wind whipping at 30 mph and God only knows where the wind chill was pegged.

Halfway up, Matt Copeland, Stidham's guardian, was feeling light-headed from the altitude, or maybe from the half tin of Copenhagen he'd swallowed on the way down. Either way, that left Stidham, still in a walking boot from a broken ankle suffered in the last game he played for Baylor a few weeks earlier—the last game he'd ever play for Baylor—dragging that deer more than 1,500 feet with little help from Copeland. Dragging and resting. Dragging and resting.

There are three feet in a yard, and 100 yards in a football field. Stidham hauled that thing five football fields up a gorge.

Three-and-a-half hours later, they had the deer home and a story of sheer perseverance to last a lifetime.

Nearly two years from that day, Stidham has a chance to write another of those stories at Auburn.

"He's feeling it now, you can tell," Auburn tailback Kerryon Johnson said of Stidham after the Tigers' biggest win of the season, two weeks ago against Georgia, setting up a winner-take-the-SEC West game in the Iron Bowl. "He's playing with a lot of confidence.

"This is the player we knew he would be."

This is the player he was—ever so briefly—at Baylor. Then the unthinkable unraveling of a dark secret began on the Baylor campus, and the next thing you know, Stidham was out of football.

He had to leave that toxic environment in Waco amid a sexual assault scandal that rocked the football program and resulted in the firing of wildly popular coach Art Briles. Had to walk away and take a year off football to recalibrate and reassess his future, finding a home at Auburn and easing into a championship-ready team that only needed efficiency and stability at the most important position on the field to play for it all.

And now here we are: The end of the hunt is near, and he's trying to pull Auburn through the steepest part of the all-encompassing canyon that is beating SEC king Alabama. This is why he was recruited to Auburn—why he chose the Tigers over Texas A&M and Florida, with the idea that there could be no better comeback story than winning the best conference in college football and earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.

"When we signed [Stidham], we all knew what it could mean if everything fit," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn says.

He woke one spring morning in 2015 to his phone buzzing like a kicked-over hornet's nest. Hundreds of texts and voicemails from people he didn't know and/or hadn't heard from in years.

"I thought it could only mean one thing," Stidham says. "Someone had died."

Or a whole program had.

When it all went down at Baylor, when the most successful coach in school history and the man whose success built a brand-new $300 million stadium on the banks of the Brazos River was fired, it really was like a death in the family for Stidham.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Growing up in the small Texas town of Stephenville, everyone knows everyone. They know the folks who run the world's largest rodeo, the annual extravaganza that makes Stephenville the unofficial Cowboy Capital of the World.

And they know the man who coached Stephenville High School to all those state championships. The population of Stephenville is 17,000, and Briles had nearly half (8,000) stuffed into Memorial Stadium every fall Friday night to watch his Yellow Jackets win four state titles.

He eventually moved on to the college level and coached his alma mater Houston before accepting the job at Baylor to rebuild of one of the worst major-conference programs. It took the better part of his eight years there to make Baylor an elite program, and a sexual assault culture that Briles was alleged to have covered up to bring it all down.

His last year there was Stidham's first, a season that began with Stidham backing up starter Seth Russell and eventually replacing him after a season-ending injury. Stidham started two-and-a-half games for the Bears before his season ended on a bitterly cold November night in Stillwater, Oklahoma, when his foot got tangled up on a sideline scramble and he broke a bone in his ankle.

Six months later, Stidham woke to that phone buzzing over and over, and the reality that his days at Baylor were likely over.

"I had no idea that stuff was going on," Stidham says. "For a while, it was like every day or every week something new was being said or happened. Life came at me pretty quick there. But I figured I wanted to take my career in my own hands, and if anybody was going to screw it up, it was going to be me."

That didn't make it any easier for his teammates to handle. They already had watched while one by one, nearly every member of the 2016 recruiting class asked out of their commitment. Now the future of the program was walking away, too.

They called him a quitter, said he bailed on them when they needed him most. The texts, the calls, the emails from friends he thought he'd spend four years of his life with.

STILLWATER, OK - NOVEMBER 21:  Jarrett Stidham #3 of the Baylor Bears and Chris Johnson #13 of the Baylor Bears walk offsides the field after the Baylor Bears beat the Oklahoma State Cowboys 45-35 at Boone Pickens Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Stillwate
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

They were staying and riding it out. He wasn't.

"That was a really unfair deal," a former assistant at Baylor under Briles tells Bleacher Report. "You're really going to dog-cuss your friend because he's looking out for himself? Listen, when Art was let go, it was every man for himself—players and coaches. It was an ugly time. I don't blame [Stidham] in the least for walking away."

They had no idea who he was when he pulled up in his pickup truck at Midway High School in August 2016, reached back in the bed and pulled out shoulder pads and a helmet and strolled onto the practice field.

Was he a move-in? A guy they'd never seen before whose parents moved to Waco from another city? Maybe he was a player who moved and followed new coach Jeff Hulme, who earlier in the year accepted the job at Midway after leading Mansfield to the Class 6A Division II semifinals in 2015.

Then Stidham stepped on the field at Midway and started throwing with the other quarterbacks.

"It was pretty apparent who he was after that," Hulme says.

When he decided to leave Baylor, and when it was clear he wasn't transferring out of haste to another FBS program and didn't want to play junior college football, Stidham decided to hang around Waco and take classes at a local community college to earn his associate's degree and put him one step closer to earning his college degree.

He asked Hulme, who like Stidham played for Briles at Stephenville High, if he could come by and throw with the team. He'd do whatever the team needed, he said.

"Best scout-team quarterback I've ever had," Hulme cracks.

Two years earlier, Stidham was leading Stephenville into the Class 4A state playoffs and was a 5-star recruit and Elite 11 quarterback camper who originally committed to Texas Tech before signing with Baylor. When he pulled away from Tech, he and Copeland got a firsthand look at the ugly side of recruiting.

Media reports around Lubbock claimed Copeland, a Texas Tech graduate, had steered Stidham to Baylor. When Stidham turned 18 prior to his senior season at Stephenville, he moved in with Copeland and his wife, Katy, and they quickly became Stidham's legal guardians.

There's not much more to this than it is: Stidham was 18 and an adult and chose to live with the Copelands. He still speaks to his biological parents, but he says his familial bond is with the Copelands.

When he left for Auburn, he may as well have moved halfway around the world for four-year-old Larsen Copeland. She wouldn't talk to Stidham on the phone or FaceTime for two months because she thought he abandoned her. Instead, she took his picture off the refrigerator and would walk around the Copeland house talking to it.

"I love my family more than anything," Stidham says now. "They've been such a blessing."

Matt Copeland's dad, Mike, was born with one arm and played center field and first base in college. The current athletic director at Stephenville, Mike Copeland thinks hitting a baseball with one arm is easier than doing it with two.

When he was a baby, his mother would put his bottle across the room so he had to crawl and get it and be like everyone else. There are no excuses in life; whatever hand you're dealt, that's what you go with.

More important, no matter what you're dealt, everyone needs a little help. Mike raised his son Matt to believe the most important thing in life is serving others, and not surprisingly, that's how Matt and Jarrett met.

Matt Copeland and his brother, Mitch, hire a handful of Stephenville High students every summer to work building apparel shops throughout the South.

"It's so inconsequential what we've done," Matt Copeland says. "Everything is on him. I swear it is. He is such a unique young man. When he came to live with us, we told him, 'In life you learn from other people's mistakes and don't make the same mistakes twice.' I told him, 'Jarrett, we raise people that want to help other people.'"

Michael Woods/Associated Press

So there was Stidham, standing on that field at Midway High, the one-time Elite 11 recruit, throwing scout team for the local high school while biding time until he could restart his college career.

He wasn't any better than anyone else for those eight weeks, and he made lasting friendships with younger players who couldn't believe they were catching balls from the guy who threw for 419 yards and three touchdowns—and no interceptions—in his first college start on the road against Kansas State after taking over for Russell.

Every day at the end of practice, after he'd throw as long as the Midway defensive staff needed, he'd toss the shoulder pads and helmet in the back of his truck and drive away to go study and earn that associate's degree. All part of climbing the mountain.

"He was on a journey," Hulme says. "When I first met with him over lunch, I could tell he was overwhelmed. You could see it in his face. Having a place for him to come and just throw and be around football was really therapeutic for him. Physically, emotionally, everything. It was a big relief for him to come out here for an hour or two and sweat and be around the guys."

Chandler Cox walked into his apartment this spring, and staring back at him was a deer head on the wall. A colorful choice of decoration from his new roommate.

Cox was born in Salt Lake City and grew up in Orlando, and the closest thing he got to deer was the Country Bear Jamboree at Disney World. He had no idea what a 10-point buck looks like, or what a score of 140 means.

"It's kind of hard to miss. It's huge," Cox says.

So is its relevance. When you've scored 140 points on a shot—especially a first kill—you've successfully outwitted one of the smartest big-game animals in the forest. Whitetail deer that big likely have survived at least three or four hunting seasons, a rarity in Texas.

Deer hunting, Stidham will tell you, is as close as you can get to competing in sports. It's you vs. the big game. You have to be smart and patient, have to be willing to put time and effort into the hunt and see it through.

Which is no different than his 10 months at Auburn, where he arrived as a recruiting class of one—he was part of the 2017 recruiting class, but he's two years older than everyone else—and had to fit in quickly to win over his new teammates. And that wasn't the only adjustment.

Stidham went from playing with freedom in a pass-friendly system, to playing it by the book in a downhill run scheme. Baylor's offense has receivers at the numbers and forces safeties to make a choice: Stay at the hash to stop the run game, or move outside to bracket coverage and help cornerbacks.

That quarterback-friendly system thrives with a player who has an NFL arm and can get throws quickly to the numbers in various routes. The Auburn system is bunched, mostly at or near the hashmarks and based on misdirection and deception.

It's not that it's a bad system; it's just that it might not have been the perfect spot for Stidham.

"When you have a guy that has that kind of arm talent, you have to adjust to him to take advantage of what he does best," an NFL scout explains to Bleacher Report. "You're talking about a player who will play in this league and could be a high [NFL draft] pick with the proper development."

The climb up the mountain hasn't been an easy one. It began with an ugly loss to Clemson in which Stidham was sacked 11 times. Eleven times.

CLEMSON, SC - SEPTEMBER 09:  Quarterback Jarrett Stidham #8 of the Auburn Tigers eludes defensive end Clelin Ferrell #99 of the Clemson Tigers during the football game at Memorial Stadium on September 9, 2017 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Mike Com
Mike Comer/Getty Images

The Auburn offense is built around the run game, and Stidham began the season with no ability to change plays at the line of scrimmage. He ran what he was told.

When he threw for more than 400 yards in his first career start at Baylor when the wind was blowing hard off the Kansas plains, Stidham had complete authority to change plays at the line of scrimmage. In fact, he was encouraged to do so if he needed to get the offense out of a bad play.

Slowly, and over the course of the first 12 weeks of the season, Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey have given Stidham more flexibility. They're using more intermediate and deep throws, and defenses can no longer load up to stop Johnson and the power run game.

"It's a process," Malzahn says. "We all tend to forget, because Jarrett is so talented, that he only played in three games before he got here. He's learning and growing in the position."

He's still climbing up that mountain and still in the hunt. He's playing better than ever and is a big reason Auburn could be the first team other than Alabama representing the SEC West in the SEC Championship Game since Malzahn's first Tigers team in 2013.

You go where the hunt takes you. If you're lucky, you'll learn more about yourself than you could ever imagine.

"When you're sitting on that mountaintop and you see the sun come up, there's nothing quite like it," Stidham said.

He's almost there at Auburn. All it's going to take is the biggest catch ever to get there.


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