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updated: 9/18/2013 11:28 PM

Former Meadows QB has EIU offense rolling

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  • Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo of Rolling Meadows and wide receiver Erik Lora of Miami are creating problems for defenses this season. Garoppolo has thrown for 14 touchdowns in three games, and Lora has 31 receptions and 6 TDs as well.

      Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo of Rolling Meadows and wide receiver Erik Lora of Miami are creating problems for defenses this season. Garoppolo has thrown for 14 touchdowns in three games, and Lora has 31 receptions and 6 TDs as well.
    Photo courtesy of Eastern Illinois Athletics

 
 

Anyone who plays fantasy football and reads this article is likely to have the following dream:

You've entered an FCS (that's the former Division I-AA of college football) fantasy league and Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo is your quarterback.

In Week 1 of the NFL season, Peyton Manning tied a 44-year-old record by throwing 7 touchdown passes in a game. Last Saturday against Illinois State, Garoppolo tossed 6 touchdowns -- in the FIRST HALF.

Garoppolo, who played at Rolling Meadows High School, and his primary receiver, Miami native Erik Lora, are posting video-game numbers on actual football fields. In the first three contests this fall, Garoppolo has thrown for 361, 440 and 480 yards, with 14 touchdowns and 1 interception. Lora has 31 catches for 409 yards and 6 touchdowns.

Eastern's dynamic duo will get a Chicago-area showcase Saturday when the Panthers (No. 8 in Sports Network FSC poll) face Northern Illinois in DeKalb (6 p.m., ESPN3).

Garoppolo's statistics haven't been limited to small-school opponents. EIU opened the season at San Diego State and won 40-19. That performance prompted unsolicited praise from Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, whose team faced San Diego State the following week.

"Eastern has really one of the best quarterbacks I've ever seen," Meyer said. "I didn't even know who he was until I watched him. He's a great player."

A casual football fan will quickly notice what makes Garoppolo special. He's developed a rapid-fire release and can put the ball anywhere it needs to be.

Lora is listed at 5-feet-11, so he doesn't have a height advantage on many defenders. But he grabs everything within reach and is extremely slippery once he catches the ball. Terrified defenders who give Lora a 10-yard cushion usually have no luck bringing him down for a short gain.

EIU offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert calls Lora "The Astronaut" because he works so well in space.

"He has tremendous moves," Garoppolo said. "He's a bit of a science geek, too. So it all ties together. The nickname fits him well."

Two years ago, no one would have imagined Charleston, Ill., as home to the most powerful offense in college football. Garoppolo and Lora might as well have emerged from the cornstalks surrounding EIU. No one saw this coming.

In 2011, Garrapolo led the Panthers to a 2-9 campaign -- the final season in an otherwise successful 25-year career for former head coach Bob Spoo. Lora didn't play that season because of a hip injury.

The final piece to this perfect storm arrived when Eastern hired Dino Babers as the new head coach. A San Diego native and Hawaii graduate, Babers was the receivers coach and special teams coordinator at Baylor, which meant he had a hand in the magical RGIII Heisman season.

Babers installed Baylor's fast-paced, no-huddle attack -- Eastern is averaging 91 offensive snaps this season -- and it turned out his players were perfectly suited for it.

"Last Saturday for the first half, (Garoppolo) was as hot as I've ever seen any quarterback, and I've seen Robert Griffin III mighty hot in a couple of games in the Big 12," Babers said. "I would not have wanted to be Illinois State in the first half of that game."

Late start, quick release

Garoppolo comes from an athletic family and is the third-oldest of four brothers, so it made sense that he was mostly a running back-linebacker during his youth football days with the Arlington Cowboys.

Not until his junior year at Rolling Meadows did he become a full-time QB.

"My freshman year, my best friend (Joe Cardella) was the starting quarterback," Garoppolo recalled. 'We were in the middle of a game, he got hurt and the coach was looking around because we didn't have a backup. He was like, 'Does anybody know how to throw the football?' I was like, 'I can throw it pretty good.'

"So they put me in there. I lasted two games, then I broke a finger on my throwing hand, had to go back to running back and I didn't play quarterback again until my junior year. The rest is history."

Garoppolo believes a turning point in his football career came when he met quarterback coach Jeff Christensen at a 7-on-7 tournament. Coincidentally, Christensen is one of three EIU quarterbacks who went on to play in the NFL, along with Tony Romo and New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton.

"He came up to me, gave me his card and offered me some lessons," Garoppolo said. "He developed my speed, my release, all that stuff. Just completely changed my entire throwing mechanics. I just kept working at it. I've really got to credit Jeff for a lot of that."

Christensen is convinced Garoppolo will be an NFL draft pick next spring and a large number of pro scouts are expected at Huskie Stadium, where another highly touted quarterback, Jordan Lynch, has yet to lose a home game.

One question is whether Garoppolo can thrive outside of Baber's offense.

"In this offense, it's hard not to have good statistics with all the running and passing we do," Garoppolo said. "It's a fun system for the quarterback, especially."

Florida to farmland

The history of great Cuban football players is either very small or nonexistent, but Lora belongs on the list. Both of his parents were born in Cuba, though they immigrated to the United States at a young age.

"Cuba is definitely more of a baseball country," Lora said. "My dad was a soccer player. But growing up in Miami, football is everywhere. That's kind of the culture down there. Ever since I was a little kid, that's what I wanted to do."

He played football every year, starting at age 6. Lora attended prestigious Christopher Columbus High School, which was previously home to Miami Dolphins greats Mike Shula and Brian Griese.

His third year at Eastern Illinois was a turning point in his football career. Lora struggled through spring practice and when an MRI showed bone spurs created labral tears in his left hip, Lora decided sitting out a year and having surgery was the best option.

"I needed a year of sitting out, physically and mentally," he said. "Leaving for a year really put football back into perspective. It really showed me what type of hole in my life would exist without it."

Feeling rejuvenated, Lora set an FBS record for receptions in a season with 136 in 2012. His 1,664 receiving yards ranked fourth all-time.

"Eric Lora is a throwback, old-fashioned football player," Babers said. "He is a guy that comes to practice every day with a smile on his face and just works his tail off. He loves the game. He works extremely hard at every single technique, every fundamental."

Both Lora and Garoppolo felt playing unsupervised 7-on-7 this summer, when coaches are not allowed to watch, helped build chemistry. Besides Lora, Adam Drake and Keiondre Gober have also posted close to 300 receiving yards in three games.

With so many receptions up for grabs, even a Miami lifer can learn to love a summer in Charleston.

"I haven't been here for five years for no reason," Lora said. "I love the people around here and the community and being part of a small town."

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