Jeff Durden saw it from Kyle Lauletta on film before he was hired as Richmond offensive coordinator for the 2017 season. He saw it again during fall practices. He knew it wasn’t a mirage when he saw Lauletta play in Richmond’s season opener.
“You know when I knew? Sam Houston, the first game we coached,” Durden said by phone this week. “I’d seen it in camp and I’m like “wow.” This guy, his brain is fast. That game was really speeded up for us. That was when I said, yeah, he is a pro.”
That’s a game that Richmond lost, 48-34. Lauletta completed 36-of-56 passes for 546 yards, 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in the game, keeping the Spiders in a game against a superior opponent. Durden had also coached against Sam Houston, an FCS playoff team the past four seasons, as an assistant at Chattanooga the season before.
“Better than advertised”
In Durden’s view, a player who is “better than advertised ... better than what people know.”
An offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at a variety of schools for more than 20 seasons, Durden said “I know what good looks like, and Kyle’s good.”
Perhaps the best-known quarterback coached previously by Durden was Jacob Huesman at Tennessee-Chattanooga. Huesman, you might recall, tried to make it with the Giants as a fullback last season.
“I think that’s pretty smart by somebody over there.”
When the Giants drafted Saquon Barkley second overall, bypassing Sam Darnold and the other supposed top quarterbacks in the 2018 draft class, many wondered what the Giants — with 37-year-old Eli Manning at the helm — would do to avoid long-term “quarterback hell.”
The answer turned out to be patiently waiting for their opportunity, then drafting Lauletta in the fourth round to compete with Davis Webb to be Manning’s backup and potential long-term successor.
“I think they ended up better than the Browns [who took Baker Mayfield No. 1 overall] because they could have taken Saquon Barkley and had one of the four big dogs [quarterbacks],” Durden said.
“The thing with Kyle, they were really smart. I’m surprised they waited. I thought he might be, not in front of Lamar Jackson, but a better fit for the Giants because of the offense.
“I think that’s pretty smart by somebody over there.”
Fighting the FCS stigma
The success of Carson Wentz, who played collegiately at North Dakota State, might be changing the perception of FCS quarterbacks somewhat. Durden, though, said it can be difficult for someone like Lauletta to get the attention from the NFL that he deserves. Durden thought Lauletta could have been drafted, on talent, as early as the second round.
“I think that’s really hard for people to justify. You are what you are, the guy’s an FCS product, and it’s really hard for those guys to spin regardless of what he did,” Durden said.
“You’ve gotta trust your eyes. All these scouts, they walk onto an FCS campus and some of ‘em are like ‘this is not gonna be good,’ pre-determine the outcome and write up the report to justify it.
“When you come and you watch and you see the spin rate on the ball and the accuracy. This is a good player, man.”
Thank you, Phil Savage
After the Giants selected Lauletta, head coach Pat Shurmur said the Senior Bowl is where the Giants really became aware of the quarterback’s skills.
“We found out there was a lot there that we liked,” he said.
GM Dave Gettleman agreed.
“I heard all the stuff about him from the scouts, but after watching that Senior Bowl, I said, ‘We’ve got to dig into him. You guys have to dig into him. There is something here. We just have to figure out what it is.’ “
Durden said Senior Bowl director Phil Savage, former GM of the Cleveland Browns, got Lauletta the opportunity to participate in that game.
“If Kyle doesn’t get in that Senior Bowl he probably doesn’t go in the fourth round,” Durden said. “Phil Savage deserves all the credit for getting him in that game and performing. I really do think that’s what put him over the top.”
Whatever “it” is, Lauletta might have it
Albany and Richmond meet every year in Colonial Athletic Association contests. Paul Schwartz of the New York Post talked to Albany coach Greg Gattuso about Lauletta. After watching Lauletta beat his Great Danes in overtime two years in a row, Gattuso has seen enough.
“Sometimes I can’t tell you what ‘it’ is, but I know it when I see it. He kinda has that ‘it’ thing. He makes plays. I’ve just seen this kid over the years, I really think Kyle Lauletta is a good quarterback. I don’t think he’s going to embarrass himself by any means by going to the Giants.’’
Durden isn’t going to argue.
“Guy’s got, yeah, it. Greg Gattuso’s right,” Durden said. “It for me is probably the discipline, he can do it in the moment.
“It’s in his blood. You put kids in those situations, the pressure, and he wasn’t afraid of the light, being in the spotlight.”
When I spoke with Lauletta a few weeks ago, he talked about going through the Leadership School at Richmond. Durden said his leadership is apparent.
“I didn’t see his teammates gravitate to him. I saw him go into the huddle and command respect. That’s what I got to witness,” Durden said.
“The discipline maybe, probably is what separates him from a lot of guys. Doing what you have to do as good as you can all the time, that’s what discipline is to me. That’s what Kyle does different. He just does it all the time.”
“Only people [who] like change are babies.”
Durden was the fourth offensive coordinator Lauletta played for at Richmond, and installed the third system Lauletta played in.
Whether he liked going from a pro-style offense to an RPO-driven, no-huddle, run a ton of plays style or not, Durden said that Lauletta “bought in.”
“Only people [who] like change are babies,” Durden said. “It’s hard.”
Durden said he asked Lauletta to process information faster. He gave an example of a play call the quarterback was used to vs. what he would get from Durden.
“H net right flip 68 bubble Z go Y under check with me on 2. Ready, break. … I run the same play and call it ‘Jungle.’ “
“I saw him speed up b/c he had to,” Durden said. “He got coached differently here, I’m not a progression guy. I’m not gonna go one to two to three. I couldn’t protect him, we weren’t very good up front.”
All of that change should, however, serve Lauletta well in the NFL.
“Anybody who can do that. The total opposite would be taking these spread guys and now putting them in an NFL system. They struggle. This guy’s done both -- I’ve seen him be successful doing both,” Durden said.
“A very good quality I think is flexibility … that’s one of the things he gives you that none of them other guys are going to have.”
But, what about arm strength?
The knock on Lauletta, other than having played at an FCS school, is that he doesn’t possess elite arm strength. The NFL Draft Report says Lauletta has “just decent arm strength.”
Durden doesn’t think it matter.
“He’s got tremendous anticipation. One thing that I am in awe of to this day is to stand behind him in team periods. He can see it. He is a great anticipator. When you do that it really doesn’t matter, the ball is going to be right there. It might have come out a little bit earlier -- is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. That does not concern me one bit,” Durden said.
“His mechanics are pretty flawless. I don’t see that being a problem at all. He’s going to find out where you’re weak and that’s where the ball’s going to go. He might just get it out quicker than everybody else. I’m sure the line coach won’t complain about that.”
Durden is only one voice, and a biased one at that. If he turns out to be right, though, that the Giants ended up with both Saquon Barkley and a quarterback of the future out of this draft class that’s a pretty good haul.