FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Things couldn't have been much better with the Eastern Illinois football team when then-head coach Dino Babers saw the potential for something even better with his developing quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo.
With a player who was so smart, in command and quick to correct mistakes, Babers decided to give him the reins to a revamped offense.
It was the 2013 season, and the personable coach really had no reason to make such a dramatic shift in his approach. Eastern Illinois was 2-0 after season-opening road wins against San Diego State and Southern Illinois, and in both games, the team had scored 40 points.
But he did it anyway. The results were explosive.
"We changed a lot of the parts of our offense, started to bring in 'check-with-mes' and blitz checks that we had never done before," Babers recalled. "The kid was just so sharp that he deserved the right to have an opportunity to affect the game on the football field and not waiting for the football coaches to give the absolute perfect call."
In a "rival game" against 18th-ranked Illinois State, Eastern Illinois rolled to a 57-24 victory as Garoppolo was pulled early because the outcome wasn't in doubt.
"It just wasn't fair; he knew what do to. And you give someone like that the kind of access to the playbook -- along with his physical skills -- it was an impressive thing to watch," Babers said.
Eastern Illinois lit up the scoreboard in losing just two games over the rest of the season, which ultimately led Garoppolo to be selected by the New England Patriots in the second round (62nd overall).
Three seasons later, Garoppolo now finds himself in the spotlight again, as he will start the first four games of the season while Tom Brady serves a four-game suspension as a result of the NFL's Deflategate penalties.
Mental aptitude is one of the critical traits the Patriots covet in their quarterbacks, and though few can match Brady -- who former assistant coach Bill O'Brien once dubbed "IBM" because of his uncanny recall and ability to store football data -- Garoppolo has shown early signs of potential in that area.
Babers saw it at Eastern Illinois. Several teammates in New England have also been impressed behind the scenes. That explains why those around the team are confident the Patriots will still compete at a high level in the four games he steps in for Brady.
The first thing to understand is how the Patriots' offense is different than most.
"The quarterback is asked to do a lot in New England," confirmed Ryan Lindley, who spent a month with the club in 2015 training camp when Brady's status was still uncertain. "It's different everywhere. There are some places I've been where you don't do much in protection, and there are others where you do everything -- you make the 'mike' point [by declaring the middle linebacker] and decide which way [linemen] are sliding. New England is one of those places. The run game, the pass game, there is never really a play off, where as a quarterback you just kind of sit back, take the snap, and try to throw it to the right guy or hand the ball off. There is a lot that you have to do to put everybody in position.
"I was really impressed with the level Jimmy was on, for a second-year guy [at the time]. To jump into a system like that from college is tough, and the little time I spent with Jimmy, he's all dialed in, really far ahead from any guy I've seen at year two."
In June, Garoppolo touched on the demands of the position in New England, saying, “The quarterback position is never-ending, mentally [and] physically. Learning the guys in the locker room off the field, on the field, all that stuff. It's a never-ending list.”
Lindley figures Garoppolo has made even more strides since the time they spent together last summer, which he said is hard not to do when there is an opportunity to learn from Brady himself and play in a system that has a knack for putting players in a position to be successful.
That's why he wouldn't be surprised if parts of the offense look different with Garoppolo than they would if Brady was playing.
"Jimmy is a good athlete; that's kind of the first thing that jumped out at me. He spins it really well and has a really quick release, but the one glaring thing that I think is going to be different is that he is going to be a little more mobile," Lindley said.
"I don't think that means there will be zone-read implemented in the game plan -- I guess there could be -- but he definitely has the ability to extend plays and move around in the pocket and pick up yards on the ground. I think that's going to be one thing that sticks out once he takes the field."
For his part, Babers has long lauded Garoppolo's quick release, saying it's the second fastest he has ever seen, behind Dan Marino. He also called Garoppolo the "William Tell of college football" because of his marksmanship, while also noting his humble approach as a result of the values that his parents, Tony and Denise, instilled in him.
Those are the type of traits that drew the Patriots to Garoppolo after what offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called an "exhaustive process" back in 2014.
“We obviously liked what we saw when we first brought him in,” McDaniels said of the pre-draft process in the year that Garoppolo was the fifth player at the position selected, behind Blake Bortles (No. 3, Jaguars), Johnny Manziel (No. 22, Browns), Teddy Bridgewater (No. 32, Vikings) and Derek Carr (No. 36, Raiders). “That would be the same thing with Jacoby [Brissett this year]. We go through a strenuous examination of all those guys before we even bring them in, and if we feel like they have the opportunity to learn what we do, and perform well in it, then we have an opportunity to do it.”
Garoppolo's mental aptitude, especially in an offense such as that of the Patriots, was viewed as a positive and was something stressed by Eastern Illinois' coaching staff.
"This is a young man who picked things up very quickly, was very hard on himself and didn't make the same mistake twice," Babers said.
"Jimmy understood mismatches and that type of stuff, which you don't always see from a lot of young guys," Lindley said.
Without their "IBM," the Patriots hope that shows up in regular-season action, in which Garoppolo has attempted just 31 passes over the past two years. On Wednesday, New England coach Bill Belichick said the team's priority is to get Garoppolo ready for the start of the season.
He's getting the keys to the offense, much like he did at Eastern Illinois in 2013.