Texas Tech QB has sights set on conference crown

LUBBOCK, Texas -- Wearing a hat backward and up, showing just a touch of his curly hair, Patrick Mahomes II waltzes into Texas Tech's football facility around 7 a.m. to grab breakfast.

His immediate focus is on a business test later in the morning, which he's more than prepared for, but he's hoping to get in some last-minute studying.

Mahomes then talks about his long-term college goal, which is something far grander.

"I want to bring a Big 12 championship to Tech," the junior quarterback said. "At Tech, a lot of quarterbacks have put up stats and had great careers. But none of them took Tech to the next level with a Big 12 championship.

"If I could do that, it would be an awesome thing."

To those outside Lubbock, the idea of Texas Tech winning a Big 12 championship might seem like a reason to crack a joke. The Red Raiders haven't seriously contended in the conference since 2008, when quarterback Graham Harrell led Tech to a three-way share of the Big 12 South Division title. In the meantime, the Red Raiders have cultivated a reputation for producing system quarterbacks who stand stationary in the pocket and throw for bunches of yards but struggle to make plays when pitted against the league's powerhouse teams. That's one reason the Red Raiders claim just one double-digit win season dating all the way back to 1976. Last year, Tech went 7-6, with five of those losses coming to the four ranked teams in the Big 12, and LSU in the bowl game.

Yet at Tech, there's a budding confidence around campus that, with Mahomes, things could be different. Because not only is he far different from any quarterback the Red Raiders have had before. But he might also be the most dynamic quarterback in the country.

"He can extend plays as well as I've ever seen," said coach Kliff Kingsbury, himself a former Tech quarterback. "And his accuracy when plays break down, as far as a thrower, moving around, throwing from different angles ... Pat's the best I've ever been around."

That's high praise from Kingsbury, who mentored two of the most electric freestyle quarterbacks in recent college football history in Texas A&M Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and Houston's Case Keenum, who remains the FBS record holder for career passing yards and touchdowns.

The numbers, however, back that praise up.

As a true sophomore last season, his first as the full-time starter, Mahomes finished fourth in the nation in passing with 358 yards per game. And since taking over as the starter in November 2014, Mahomes has tossed 50 touchdowns. No returning quarterback in the nation has thrown for more over that span.

But the scary part is that Mahomes might just be scratching the surface of his potential, which should be no laughing matter to the rest of the league.

"I have a lot more to improve on, a lot of potential to be better," said Mahomes, who gave up baseball at Tech after one year to focus more on quarterback and to nail down his passing motion, which would be off-kilter coming out of baseball. "That's why I'm up here every day with Coach Kingsbury trying to take my game to the next level."

Unlike so many quarterbacks in this era of college football, Mahomes was hardly a polished prospect when he arrived at Tech.

He didn't begin playing football until the seventh grade and didn't start for Whitehouse (Texas) High School until midway through his junior season. Mahomes' father, Pat Mahomes, was a pitcher in the major leagues for 11 seasons, and so Patrick Mahomes' focus growing up was baseball with the hopes of someday playing in the big leagues, too. With baseball consuming his summers, Mahomes didn't go to football camps, and he didn't practice with quarterback coaches. Instead he leaned on a past of playing pickup football behind the Whitehouse stadium.

"There was no line blocking for you," he said. "So you had to run around to throw the ball."

That style is why, despite putting up monster numbers at Whitehouse, Mahomes was lightly recruited. The Red Raiders came across Mahomes while recruiting his teammate, Dylan Cantrell, now a starting receiver at Tech. At that time, only North Texas, Rice and Houston were giving Mahomes a serious look.

"He didn't have great footwork, didn't have great mechanics; he's drifting on drops, rarely throwing on time," Kingsbury said. "But he dominated. Absolutely dominated. Over the last seven years I've seen three highlight films where guys dominated like that: Johnny, [former five-star prospect] Kyler [Murray] and Pat.

"You watch his high school highlights, and you tell me why nobody recruited this kid. I was shocked. To me, it was no-brainer. He was a gamer."

Under Kingsbury, Mahomes has gradually improved his fundamentals. And that, combined with his innate knack for turning broken plays into big ones, has his him knocking on the door of becoming college football's next star.

"Early on, I thought it was luck, the things he was doing," said Red Raiders offensive assistant Eric Morris. "Throwing across his body for 60 yards down field. But he can do things you can't teach."

Some of Mahomes' teammates have begun calling him "The Musician." And like a jazz virtuoso, improvising is what he does best.

"You never know what's going to happen when he starts scrambling," Cantrell said. "Usually receivers throttle down when a quarterback starts scrambling. It's the opposite with him. Everyone speeds up because you know the ball could be coming at any second."

Kingsbury said he believes Mahomes is capable this year of breaking former Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons' single-season FBS passing record of 5,833 yards.

Still unknown to much of the college football world, Mahomes is flattered by that. But stats are one thing. Another number will bring the biggest spotlight.

"I believe if we come out and win 10 or 11 games, I'll get all the attention that's needed," he said. "The quarterbacks that win ... those are the quarterbacks that are talked about for being great."