Memphis QB Paxton Lynch tries to shed 'project' label

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Paxton Lynch had just finished a hot breakfast at D1 Sports Training in Lake Mary, Florida, when his fellow football prospects started ribbing him over what was happening on an overhead flat screen TV.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper was on air discussing how Lynch, a first-round talent with midround experience, could slip out of the first.

"Second round! Second round!," the players chirped.

Lynch smiled and played along. But his new quarterback coach, Charlie Taaffe, figured Lynch wasn't laughing inside, based on the way he had worked in recent weeks.

Taaffe was right.

"I definitely note it and use it as motivation," Lynch said of the moment.

Lynch is one of the most intriguing quarterback prospects at this week's NFL combine, in part because of the perceptions he is battling. Although Kiper and many others recognize Lynch's unique skill set, at 6-foot-7 with fluid athletic ability and natural arm strength, in some NFL circles Lynch is considered raw because of his experience in a no-huddle, shotgun offense at Memphis.

If we're talking media labels, Lynch might as well write "project" on an index card and tape it to his forehead for interviews. Analysts have pounced on his 17-for-38 performance against Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl. Teams wanting polish from Lynch right away might "be a little disappointed," Kiper said.

But the NFL-ization of Lynch began in earnest about six weeks ago. Paired with long-time college coach Taaffe, Lynch has been immersed in a world of audibles, defensive fronts, footwork and in-huddle play calling for about nine hours a day, five days a week.

The goal is clear: Expedite the learning curve.

Taaffe said Lynch looks the part. Lynch said he feels the part. Now, it's time to show the part.

"[The Birmingham Bowl] is the taste in everyone's mouth right now," Lynch said. "That's why I'm excited for the combine."

At Memphis, Lynch looked to the sideline for the coaches' play call, then took the snap and ran that play. This process is common with no-huddle quarterbacks, including Tennessee's Marcus Mariota, who is now a poster child for successful transitions.

These days, Lynch is in a film room learning various age-old NFL offensive staples, from West Coast to Air Coryell, both of which Taaffe knows well.

Taaffe coached Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles at UCF, and he sees a similar mental makeup with Lynch, whose only scholarship offers out of Deltona, Florida, were from Memphis and Florida A&M. Lynch takes copious notes, retains information well and loves to explain plays, Taaffe said. It became obvious to Taaffe early on that Lynch knew the responsibilities of all 22 players on the field when breaking down 2015 Memphis plays.

NFL terminology has been an awakening for Lynch, but that doesn't mean he isn't getting it. He very much is, Taaffe said.

"I've been around some good ones, and he's right there," Taaffe said. "He's very well-grounded, not caught up in the success, only the process. I'm trying to teach him the concepts of what he has to do [in the NFL], and he has grasped that so far."

Taaffe, 65, retired from UCF after the 2014 season and wanted to coach quarterbacks independently. He ran Ralph Friedgen's offense at Maryland, a pro-style set rooted in Bobby Ross' San Diego Chargers attacks from the '90s. Taaffe's running backs coach at Maryland? Texans head coach Bill O'Brien.

After the season, Lynch met with famed quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego, the EXOS group in Phoenix and Taaffe, who works in affiliation with David Morris' QB Country out of Alabama. Lynch decided he wanted to stay close to home while training.

At QB Country, Lynch and other D1 athletes show up at 8 a.m. for breakfast, meetings, speed work, lunch, more meetings, field work, weightlifting and dinner. Taaffe has Lynch making a variety of throws from three-, five- and seven-step drops, along with play-action/bootlegs. Taaffe didn't touch a shotgun play for the first few weeks.

"Eighty to 90 percent under center, a two-back offense," Taaffe said.

Lynch, who throws to Orlando Predators receivers most days, said he needed three practice tries to feel natural making a seven-step drop.

Lynch and Taaffe review basics: Identifying a middle linebacker, properly calling a play from the huddle. In the film room, Taaffe will teach a defensive coverage, then ask Lynch to illustrate that coverage on the washboard while Taaffe quizzes him. Lynch said he likes the complexities of NFL offenses because "you're calling it like you see it" at the line of scrimmage and can take ownership of the offense.

If teams feel comfortable with Lynch's acumen, Taaffe believes his skill set will do the rest.

"He's so loose in the hips and so athletic that he generates a lot of strength in his release," Taaffe said. "He doesn't have to muscle it, which a lot of guys do. You don't see him strain 50- to 60-yard balls. That's pretty rare."

Many NFL evaluators make up their minds on prospects based on game tape, but in a quarterback class that is deep but lacking star power, Lynch can help himself with productivity in Indianapolis. Fair or not, Lynch is viewed as the classic "reach" pick for quarterback-needy teams in the top half of the first round -- at least for right now.

"He has a ton of talent," Kiper said. "There aren't many 6-foot-6, 245-pound quarterbacks with his ability. It may qualify as a reach, but it won't matter if he's a good quarterback a few years down the road."

Taaffe expects O'Brien will call him about Lynch, as O'Brien did many times about Bortles. The Texans need a quarterback and pick 22nd overall. Two years ago, Taaffe thought the Texans were very interested in Bortles with the first overall pick but couldn't pass on Jadeveon Clowney's athleticism. Bortles threw 35 touchdown passes the past season for Jacksonville, which selected him third overall.

Teams will inevitably ask Lynch about his 104-yard game against Auburn, a stark contrast to his previous work against the Southeastern Conference: A 384-yard, three-touchdown torching of Ole Miss in October.

One Auburn coach said Lynch didn't look clueless against the Tigers -- just "checked out" and focused on the NFL. Lynch takes responsibility for the rough day, but he knows there's much more to him.

"I'm not one to make excuses. Fact of the matter is we didn't play well," Lynch said. "If people say it's all about that game, we did some really good things last season. The Ole Miss defense was better than Auburn's, in my opinion, though Auburn was probably better than we expected."

Taaffe isn't excusing the performance, but he thinks judging Lynch on one game would be "shortsighted," as Lynch's coach, Justin Fuente, accepted the Virginia Tech job a month beforehand and left job-searching assistants to prepare players.

Perhaps a stellar throwing session this week will reshape perceptions -- or at least showcases Lynch's newly learned NFL footwork.

Honoring the advice of Bortles, Lynch is making sure to savor the moment while recognizing how far he has come. When Bortles visited D1 recently, he told Lynch he'll only undergo this process once. Lynch even enjoyed the prank from a D1 strength trainer who hung a picture of Kiper for Lynch to see during a recent workout.

"I've kind of been overlooked at times in my career, kind of an underdog," Lynch said. "I'm very eager to get out there and impress those coaches and general managers watching and scouts watching me run and throw and jump. I know also a big part of it is the one-on-one meetings when they put you on the board. I'm excited for that too."