NIU's Lynch too good to pass up

MIAMI -- Jordan Lynch grew up playing tailback, still runs like one and detests sliding.

He lives with three offensive linemen at Northern Illinois because their personalities click. One of his former college coaches says Lynch can play in the NFL … as a safety. His current coach likens Lynch to Tim Tebow, whose status as a quarterback is debated more than the fiscal cliff. His Northern Illinois bio lists Steve Prefontaine, the legendary distance runner from Oregon, as an athlete Lynch admires.

No wonder Lynch had such a tough time selling himself as a quarterback coming of high school.

The man who's third in the nation in total offense (4,733 yards), set four NCAA records and led Northern Illinois to the Discover Orange Bowl plays for the only college team that pursued him as a signal-caller. In fact, NIU was the only team to offer a scholarship to Lynch, who committed the summer after his junior year. While many of Lynch's milestones can be attributed to his legs, his success as a passer -- 24 touchdowns against only five interceptions, 152.98 quarterback rating (25th nationally) -- cannot be dismissed.

"I didn't go out there trying to prove people wrong," Lynch said. "I went out there to do what I know. … Along the way, I think I've proved to people that I can throw it."

Is Lynch one of the biggest recruiting whiffs in recent memory, or are there reasonable reasons for why so many teams passed on him as a passer? Yes and yes.

The easiest explanation is that Lynch played in an offense -- the split back veer, used by Frank Lenti at Chicago powerhouse Mount Carmel High School since 1984 -- not designed to showcase the quarterback's arm.

"It's definitely hard to sell yourself in the triple option," Lynch said. "We only threw the ball seven, eight times [a game]."

Fortunately for NIU, Jerry Kill knew Lenti and the split-back veer. Kill, who coached NIU from 2008-2010, used the same offense when he started his career and continued to incorporate option into his scheme.

Kill and Lenti have been friends for 20 years, and when Lenti called about Lynch, Kill listened.

"He said, 'I think he's the best quarterback we've had here since Donovan McNabb," said Kill, now the coach at Minnesota. "Frank Lenti, if you know him, he never does that. He's usually like, 'Hey, take a look at this kid and you do what you think.' When he endorses somebody like that, you take him."

NIU invited Lynch to a one-day camp, offered a scholarship and received a commitment. Kill then waited and hoped no one would notice.

"We just kept real quiet and told Frank not to say too much," Kill said, laughing. "We felt like we kind of stole one."

Kill projected Lynch as a quarterback at NIU, but if Lynch didn't develop or couldn't get on the field there, safety was another option. Lynch played safety and served as the captain of the 2009 USA Football junior national team, recording seven tackles and a forced fumble in three games.

Although Kill and the staff knew they had a special quarterback when Lynch arrived, Kill thinks the 6-foot, 216-pound Lynch could make it in the NFL as a safety.

"He's that explosive," Kill said. "He plays quarterback like a safety plays on defense. He's one of those guys you coach once in a lifetime. He's fearless."

The fearlessness spawned from playing street football in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood on Chicago's far southwest side. Lynch played running back and modeled his game after the blue-collar men who coached him. In Mount Greenwood, as Lynch puts it, "You don't slide."

Lenti immediately moved Lynch to quarterback at Mount Carmel, where he led the team to back-to-back state semifinal appearances and accounted for 31 touchdowns (16 passing, 15 rushing) as a senior. But the position switch didn't take the running back out of Lynch. Nothing can.

"When you're under duress, you do what comes naturally to you," Lenti said. "You can't change those types of things. He's a physical monster."

Lynch backed up record-setting NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish in 2010 and 2011. Not surprisingly, he had a run-heavy package of plays, logging 76 rushes and only 26 pass attempts.

He has capitalized on additional carries as the starter, eclipsing 100 rushing yards in 12 of 13 games this season. No other FBS player has more than nine 100-yard rushing performances this fall.

The NCAA record for consecutive 100-yard rushing performances by a quarterback had been five, held by five players, most recently Michigan's Denard Robinson in 2010. Lynch has more than doubled the mark with 11 straight entering the Orange Bowl.

The junior ranks third nationally in rushing yards with 1,771 -- 500 more than the next highest quarterback (Ohio State's Braxton Miller).

"A lot of running quarterbacks just keep it on the zone read, take off and outrun people," said Dave Doeren, who coached NIU in 2011 and this season before leaving Dec. 1 to take the same post at NC State. "That's not what he does. He's patient, he can read blocks and he has vision to find holes.

"He's a true tailback when he carries the ball, which makes him different than a lot of running quarterbacks."

Rod Carey, who served as NIU's offensive coordinator this season before replacing Doeren as the team's head coach, chides Lynch about being a Tebow fan (Lynch claims his affinity is diminishing). But when looking for a comparable quarterback to Lynch, Carey cites the former Florida star.

"Tebow would probably be the closest one, and I just saw that from afar," Carey said. "No disrespect to Tebow, but I think Jordan's faster, and Jordan throws the ball better. So have I seen anybody play like him? No."

Lynch's record-setting season left such an impression on Doeren that the coach emailed Heisman Trophy voters in November, trumpeting Lynch for the award. No campaign gimmicks; just a coach gushing about his star not long after Lynch became the first player in NCAA history to eclipse 400 passing yards and 150 rushing yards in the same game (407 passing, 166 rushing against Toledo).

Doeren's email reads in part: "In my 17 years of coaching college football I have never seen a tougher, multi-skilled, [more] consistently productive quarterback than Jordan."

Lynch, who returns next season, finished seventh in the Heisman voting with three first-place votes.

"What he had done, I hadn't seen anybody do that before at quarterback," Doeren said. "Being a mid-major school, the head coach needs to take that role to help him get the attention he deserves."

Lynch certainly has Florida State's attention heading into Tuesday's showdown. The Seminoles will be the fastest and most physical defense Lynch has seen to date.

But don't expect Lynch to let off the gas.

"I've never been hurt," he said. "You get hurt when you try to slide, when you try to be cautious."

Carey holds his breath every time Lynch carries the ball, but he knows that if he tells Lynch to slide, Lynch will shake him off.

"He thinks he's the toughest dude on the field," Doeren said. "Could be."

Lenti knew that from Lynch's early years at Mount Carmel, when he established himself as a star in the weight room.

"We talked about [how] you can be the hammer or you can be the nail," Lenti said. "Jordan Lynch was going to be the hammer."

Lynch's approach to the game appeals to the men blocking for him. He lives with three offensive linemen, tackles Matt Krempel and Tyler Loos and guard Jared Volk. The upside: The linemen are always jolly, according to Lynch. The drawback: They sometimes eat all his food.

Although the coaches knew what they had in Lynch from his practice performances, they had legitimate concerns about the line, which had to replace all five starters from 2011. But the new-look line came together, creating plenty of room for Lynch.

"He's so close with us," Volk said. "It's easy to block for him. You want to block for him."

Lynch no longer has to sell himself as an FBS quarterback. Tuesday night, he and his teammates face a harder sell: convincing the country that they belong on the big stage.

"We get to go out there and show the world that we can play with them, show the world that we're no joke," he said. "We're ready to go."