Rutgers quarterback Gavin Wimsatt returns after playing high school and college games in a wild 2021

Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- When Rutgers quarterback Gavin Wimsatt entered the field for the first time at Illinois last season, he'd turned 18 years old the day before. He played three high school football games earlier that fall, didn't have his driver's license (he still doesn't) and arrived at Rutgers after the school had already played its first game.

But with starting quarterback Noah Vedral sidelined for a play, Wimsatt entered the field that October day in Champaign with Rutgers facing a fourth-and-five on the final play of the third quarter.

Wimsatt took a shotgun snap, rolled to his right and deftly whipped a pass across his body to Bo Melton for a 13-yard completion. He exited to a jubilant sideline of veteran teammates mobbing him for his impromptu contribution, the key play in a 20-14 Rutgers win.

"Everyone was super happy for me, dapping me up and hitting me on the helmet," Wimsatt said. "It was one of the most exciting moments that I've had."

That shotgun debut -- both in formation and situation -- offered a window into both a future building block of Rutgers football and a potential new archetype for the sport. Wimsatt left at the start of his senior year of high school to start college early and, somewhat, take advantage of NIL opportunities. But the steep scale of Wimsatt's adjustment comes with a warning that the early leap to college isn't for everyone.

"He's a little bit of unicorn that way," Rutgers offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson said. "I don't think [what he did] is for every kid. I think he was a unique case because of the personality traits he has. A lot of things roll off his back really easily. If he's a guy who takes himself too seriously, thinks he's going to win the job the first day he arrives, it would have been powder keg."

Wimsatt's decision to leave Owensboro (Ky.) High School last September to enroll at Rutgers came in part after consulting with Quinn Ewers, the star Texas high school quarterback who'd made his decision to enroll early at Ohio State in August of 2021. It just didn't receive a fraction of the attention.

But Wimsatt's decision allowed Rutgers to both secure and develop the most highly-rated quarterback recruit in school history -- Wimsatt was an ESPN 300 recruit and ESPN's No. 7 ranked quarterback -- and give him a full season to develop physically and mentally.

"He's way ahead of the curve in his development, as he should be," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano told ESPN this summer. "He's also physically developed quite a bit. He looks like a man."

Since arriving in New Jersey nearly a year ago, Wimsatt jokes that he's learned to walk faster to adjust to the Northeast pace and now folds his pizza before he eats it. Getting up to speed -- both in life and on the practice field -- proved both necessary and challenging at times, as there are distinct cultural, academic and football leaps that came with leaving a high school in western Kentucky for college in central New Jersey.

"I used to make the joke that a lot of people in New Jersey couldn't drive, they're so aggressive," Wimsatt said. "Now I get it. I'm up to speed."

Wimsatt's progress transcends statistics, as he played in four games and completed nine passes for 45 yards. But his development during nearly a full season of practice, games and both social and academic immersion was immeasurable. Wimsatt is still competing for the starting spot with Evan Simon and Vedral for the opener at Boston College on Saturday (Noon, ACC Network), but his raw talent and potential have him labeled as Rutgers' quarterback of the future.

Will others follow his path? That's not such a sure thing, as the past 11 months have found him catching up to a whole new pace.

How did Rutgers end up with a quarterback that had a gilded offer list from schools like Notre Dame, Michigan and Oregon? They dug in early and outworked everyone.

Owensboro coach Jay Fallin credits the entire Rutgers staff for identifying Wimsatt and building indelible relationships. That started with Augie Hoffmann, now the offensive line coach, who has Kentucky in his geographic area and reached out first.

It continued with Gleeson and Schiano, who made sure no detail was left to chance once they identified him as a target. Not only did they build relationships with Fallin and Wimsatt, but Fallin notes they were one of the few schools to court a relationship with longtime Owensboro offensive coordinator Jeff Reese, who retired after 30 years as a coach and teacher.

When Wimsatt returned this May to take part in graduation with his class, Fallin appreciated that Gleeson, who was on the road recruiting, swung by to attend the ceremony.

"I thought they did a very thorough job and really cared about recruiting Gavin's family," Fallin said. "They built a relationship with both parents and both his brothers."

If Wimsatt lives up to his potential, part of the lore of his arrival at Rutgers will be that the recruiting restrictions of COVID likely helped in his recruitment.

The Rutgers staff saw a social media post of Wimsatt throwing on a field in Owensboro. "The drone video showed all the things you see now," Gleeson said. "Clean release and great motion. And a raw, big body that he's now since grown into."

Gleeson admits that the combination of the restrictions from the pandemic and the generally remote location of Owensboro helped Rutgers land a generational recruit. "We surrounded that kid and endeared ourselves to him in a really weird moment," he said.

Everything didn't unfold perfectly. When Wimsatt and his family packed into their Chevy Malibu for the 12.5-hour drive to check out the school on an unofficial visit, the Rutgers staff couldn't meet them or show them around campus because of pandemic restrictions. The same coaches who tend to micro-manage every minute of a visit cringed at reports of a toilet overflowing in the hotel the family was staying in. "They were pretty mad about it," Wimsatt said of the staff. "It's funny looking back at it now."

Wimsatt committed to Rutgers in April of 2021, and he said the notion of him leaving early to go there started as a joke with his family later that summer. Wimsatt was preparing academically to leave early for Rutgers in December, so they explored what it would be like to leave a few months earlier. When there was a possibility, they asked Gleeson and Schiano. Wimsatt texted Ewers to get his version of his early exit to Ohio State.

Wimsatt then knocked out the necessary coursework to make it happen. In a few short weeks, what seemed improbable became a reality. He worked while starting his season for Owensboro, taking part in camp and playing the first three games. After the third game, he told his team in the locker room following the game.

"I feel like a lot of people, they were shocked," he said. "But I still think I had a lot of support from the community. It was really nice to know they were behind me."

Fallin took a global perspective on losing his best player.

"We tried to take the approach that if this young man was a prodigy of medicine or law and he could graduate early and enroll in college, no one would want to stand in his way," he said. "Selfishly, would he have made us a better football team? Sure. But we can't stand in the way of a young man with an opportunity like this and pretend what we're doing is for kids."

Gavin Wimsatt's introduction to college football came not long after arriving to campus in the days after Rutgers' season-opening win against Temple in September.

He walked in the quarterback room, which had defenses diagrammed on the walls in preparation for that week's game at Syracuse. Orange defensive coordinator Tony White runs an exotic 3-3-5 defense, and it looked like nuclear physics to Wimsatt.

"The Xs and Os of the game, defensive coverages and regular football situations," he said. "The first weeks were crazy. We're in the meetings before, and I have no clue what they're talking about on the defensive side of the ball."

Schiano complimented Gleeson for the plan they put together for Wimsatt, considering he almost needed a completely different track than the incumbent quarterbacks, who were busy preparing for games. Learning an offense through the prism of game-specific situations and the defense of that week's team is generally inefficient and ineffective. The types of installation periods Wimsatt would have taken part in had he arrived for spring practice had to come outside the normal rhythms of the quarterback work.

The staff also designed periods for Wimsatt to master the basics of the playbook, including the game-specific situations that Schiano values.

"What we tried to do was continually have special times for him where we ran our base offense, not our game plan-specific offense," he said. "I think as an offensive staff and all the young coaches, I think Sean did a very good job of investing time."

Wimsatt is expected to get his driver's license in the next few weeks. But he's already handled the jug-handle turns of life that came with his whirlwind decision to be a trailblazer.

He left his family, including his two brothers, 12 hours away, where his dad works as a welder and his mom works in a factory. Along with adjusting to not seeing his family every day, Wimsatt got dropped into what are essentially two full-time jobs -- college student and major college football player.

Early on, Gleeson noticed there were days in practice that Wimsatt lacked his halogen smile. His energy level vacillated. They had a talk, realizing that Wimsatt wasn't getting enough sleep.

Wimsatt began setting a 10:30 p.m. bedtime, and both his demeanor and performance improved once he fell into a routine. He also got significantly stronger, as he said upon arrival he couldn't do two pull ups and can now easily execute five sets of five. About four weeks in, he said he felt like he was in a groove. Improved play coincided with familiarity and comfort.

"I have a lot more confidence now, I'd say," he said. "Especially like going through the season and spring ball. Especially with my teammates who've helped me. From when I got here until now, I feel almost like a whole new person."

How much of Wimsatt we'll see at Boston College this weekend is still undetermined. But it's safe to say we'll see plenty of him later this year and beyond, as his pure arm talent and athleticism project a high long-term ceiling.

As for Wimsatt, he's pleased in retrospect that he blazed this unusual path to college. But when asked what he'd advise a current high school senior facing the same decision, he paused and pondered.

"I would probably say, hmmmm," he said. "It will benefit you in the long run. You have to look at the bigger picture. Because a lot goes into the decision. The decision could probably almost shape your future, really."