In our Quarterback Connection story on November 1, 2023 we offered up the Falcons’ Taylor Heinicke as the prototype backup QB in the NFL. Taylor was not highly recruited out of high school, in part thanks to a modest 6’ 1/2” frame. He turned to the FCS level where he excelled at Old Dominion and broke numerous school and NCAA records, including 132 career TD passes. But Heinicke went undrafted by the NFL in 2015. Taylor Heinicke was driven to succeed, and to that end, he has been an endless grinder through his NFL career. Finally, with his 6th NFL team he is being recognized as a huge asset in the Atlanta Falcons’ Quarterback Room and rotation. He has also been compensated accordingly with a new $14 million two year contract in 2023.
This week in college football there is another “under the radar” quarterback a lot of people are talking about, and he clearly possesses many of the same qualities found in Taylor Heinicke. His name is John Paddock, and his school is the University of Illinois. Like Heinicke, his road has been long and winding.
Three Generations of Paddocks
This story starts generations BEFORE John Paddock is born. You see he comes from a long line of ballers, and in particular, Illinois Illini footballers. John Paddock’s great grandfather, Bob Wright, started it off at Illinois and he was followed by grandfather John Wright Sr. and uncle John Wright ll. The latter two were both great receivers and two-time Academic All-Americans at Illinois. John senior was also an NFL second round draft pick in 1968. But let’s get back to today’s John.
The current playing Paddock went to Bloomfield high school in Bloomfield, Michigan. By the time he graduated he was the all-time winningest QB in school history and a two-time honorable mention All-State. He also set school records for yardage (4,086) and TD passes (26). The problem was he was listed at 5’11” and ranked as a two-star by most recruiting organizations. His offers were mostly from FCS schools including Southern Illinois and Fordham in the Patriot League. Then late in the recruiting process Ball State entered the picture.
If He’s Good Enough for Drew, Well…
The head coach at Ball State is Mike Neu and what really caught John Paddock’s attention was the fact that Neu had coached another “undersized” Quarterback, Drew Brees, when Neu had been Quarterback coach with the New Orleans Saints. John Paddock eagerly accepted the Ball State offer, but opportunity would be slow to develop for Paddock. In fact, he would sit behind Quarterback Drew Pliitt for the next 4 years. Plitt would take advantage of the extra COVID year and stay at Ball State for 6 years. Over his 39 starts, Plitt would throw for over 9,000 yards and 68 TDs, while Paddock threw only 32 total passes.
Finally, with Plitt’s graduation John Paddock was anointed QB1 by coach Mike Neu. By this time Paddock was a red-shirt Junior. When asked if he had ever considered the transfer portal during his four years on the Cardinals’ bench Paddock replied, “The opportunity to be in this locker room, to be around these people on a day-to-day basis, was much more attractive to me than to go somewhere else.” That my friends is what loyalty and leadership is all about. By all reports John Paddock was driven to improve and succeed. He was a positive, high-energy guy day in and day out at practice and in the classroom. Paddock added, “I had faith in coach (Mike) Neu. I committed to him, he committed to me, and I was confident that when my opportunity came I was gonna run with it.”
Not Everyone Plays on a Winner
Not everyone familiar with the Ball State program was high on Paddock nor the Cardinals entering the 2022 preseason. The team had graduated not just the starting QB Plitt, but 24 other seniors from a team that went 6-7 (4-4 MAC West). Ball State was picked to finish dead last in the MAC West in 2022. John Paddock, with only four games and 32 total pass attempts in four years on his resume, was ranked between 128th-131st among the 131 QBs preparing to start the FBS 2022 season.
The preseason prognostication for the Cardinals would prove to be in the ball park. For starters, the team opened in Knoxville, Tennessee against the Vols. Yikes. John Paddock’s first collegiate start for Ball State was in one of the most hostile college football environments against a team picked to challenge Georgia in the SEC East. There were 100,000 screaming fans in attendance to welcome him to college football. The results were pretty true to expectations: Tennessee 59, Ball State 10. I think you’d have to conclude that John Paddock’s line score of 27 of 43 for 269 yards was almost heroic. He also managed his first career touchdown pass against two interceptions.
Highlights and Lowlights
The 2022 season for both the Cardinals and John Paddock would prove to be a roller coaster. After opening with two losses, the team bounced back in the 3rd game vs Murray State to win 31-0. Paddock was the lightening rod, hitting 27 of 44 for 227 yards and 3 TDs. The highlight of the season came against Northern Illinois in a thrilling 44-38 win. Late in the game and down by seven, Paddock threw the tying touchdown pass with :36 seconds left in regulation. The Cardinals won 44-38 in overtime. John had a massive day hitting 40 of 58 for 403 yards and 3 touchdowns. It must have been the highlight of John’s college career. Until now.
The 2022 Ball State season would end with three straight losses. The final game was a loss to Miami of Ohio 18-17 and Paddock struggled to generate points, throwing for only 119 yards and two pics. The season finished at 5-7 (3-5 MAC West). While not in last place the forecast was pretty accurate. Less so on Paddock who would end with 2,719 yards and 18 TD passes against 14 interceptions. Given the team performance these could be considered very respectable results.
But for John Paddock, Mike Neu and Ball State the five year honeymoon was over. It’s not completely clear what the motivations were, but with one more year of eligibility remaining Paddock entered the transfer portal after the 2022 season. The team and the Quarterback displayed a mutual respect for one another during the process. Sometimes it’s just time to change. I think of all those great years Sam Hartman had at Wake Forest before transferring to Notre Dame for the 2023 season. There is a lot at work in a decision like this and I’m sure it was not an easy one. But, it would turn out, there was something else out there for John Paddock. There was something calling.
Now it Gets Interesting
Three generations of football Paddocks had played at the University of Illinois. Young John Paddock had grown up going to Illini games in Champaign. He knew where Memorial Stadium was and he knew his way all over the campus. Moreover, his grandfather, John Sr lived on 80 acres outside Champaign where he raised bird dogs and hunted and fished in semi-retirement. He was frequently joined by his grandson John who ate up all the old football stories. When John would visit he would frequently bring along a teammate or two. “It’s a special thing for us… to have your grandson want to come over and spend time with you,” says John Sr. He added, “We’re not the Mannings… but, yes, we are a serious football family.”
When John Paddock hit the transfer portal he got a bite from Illinois head coach, Bret Bielema. Illinois was fresh out of Quarterbacks and was looking for some experience in the QB Room to start 2023. The starting Quarterback for the Illini in 2022 had been Tommy DeVito who had transferred in (from Syracuse) for one season before graduating and moving on to the NFL as a free agent in 2023. In fact, just last week DeVito, playing for the New York Football Giants, was the 10th rookie QB to start an NFL game in 2023. DeVito had posted nice numbers for Bielema in his one season, but Illinois had no one coming back who had taken a snap in 2023.
John Paddock sat down with Bielema and Illinois OC Barry Lunney Jr. to discuss the opportunity and was invited into the program as a walk-on (by this time John had graduated from Ball State) in graduate school. Moreover, Illinois was looking to bring in another experienced QB along with Paddock. No promises were made regarding playing time. Bielema related, “Hey, there is an opportunity here to compete – we don’t know 100% what that looks like but there will be a competition.” John Paddock’s answer, “Bring it on. Let’s go.” And oh, by the way, I don’t need the campus tour, I know my way around!
Ultimately, Illinois would also sign Quarterback Luke Altmyer via the portal from Mississippi. Altmyer was a highly ranked D-1 prospect recruited not only by Ole Miss but programs like Alabama, Florida State, and LSU. But in an abbreviated (two years) stay in Oxford Luke would see very little playing time. He made an appearance in the Sugar Bowl after an injury to QB1 Matt Corral and made his one and only start for Ole Miss against Central Arkansas where he completed 6 of 13 for 90 yards and a touchdown. However, coming into Champaign from a high-powered SEC offense, he was the favorite to start 2023 as Illinois’ QB1.
That is exactly how the 2023 season started, with Luke as QB1 and John as his backup QB2. Illinois entered the third game of the season vs Penn State with a 1-1 record and Altmyer taking all the snaps. But in the 30-13 loss to the Nittany Lions Altmyer struggled with four pics, and John Paddock saw his first action in the second half going 10 of 16 for 129 yards and one TD with zero interceptions. Not a bad Big 10 debut, but it was dulled by the loss. Over the next five games Paddock would see limited action (6 passing attempts) as Illinois’ record stood at 3-5 going into the Minnesota game. For over three quarters in that game Altmyer was playing well (3 TD passes) against the Gophers, but the Illini still trailed 26-21. Altmyer was leading the team on the final drive of the game when it happened: He went down with a concussion.
Enter John Paddock. Having only thrown 6 game-day passes in the last 6 weeks it’s clear now he was keeping himself ready. Staying sharp. Working with those receivers after practice to keep an edge. That’s what it takes as QB2 and sometimes it pays off. John entered the game with 1:25 remaining and facing a 4th and 11 from his own 15 yardline. (Gulp) No worries. John converted the 4th down with a 20 yard completion. He then drove the 85 yards on 3 of 3 passing including the last 46 yards to WR Isaiah Williams for the winning score! Holy Red Grange!!
Week 10 vs Indiana
The following week Luke Altmyer was still in the concussion protocol and Bielema didn’t hesitate to name Paddock as the starter against Indiana in Memorial Stadium. Imagine the luxury for John to have a full week of practicing the game plan with the Illinois number ones! This was his game. His time. It’s what he envisioned when he told Bielema at their transfer meeting, “Bring it on.” And bring it on he did! But it would not be easy as the Hoosiers were up to the task as well.
The game was 9-7 Illinois after the first quarter and 27-26 with Indiana leading at the half. Both John Paddock and Indiana’s redshirt freshman Brendan Sorsby were spectacular and almost flawless. Both would toss two touchdown passes in the first half and Sorsby would run for another to give the Hoosiers the lead. Paddock hit Isaiah Williams (again and again) for another score to give Illinois the lead 33-27 heading into the final quarter. After trading touchdowns, Sorsby would hit DeQuece Carter for a 26 yard touchdown with just :28 left to cut it to a two point game. Sorsby would then hit EJ Williams for the two point conversion to tie the game. Good grief!
In OT Indiana scored first to go up by three 45-42. Illinois was down to a 3rd and 6 from the 21 yardline. And then, to close out John Paddock’s magical day, he hit Isaiah Williams one more time for the 21 yard touchdown pass to win the game 48-45! The final play was off-platform. Paddock dropped back and had nothing with the pocket collapsing. From the left hashmark he scrambled all the way out to the right hash on a dead run and flung it to Williams who took it in on the four and went untouched into the end zone. Bielema: “The greatest Quarterbacks I’ve been around are the guys that can make plays out of nothing.”
In a game that will go down in Illinois history forever, John Paddock completed 24 of 36 passes for 507 yards and 4 TDs with only one interception. The 507 yards is second all-time in Illinois history and is the 2nd highest total this year in the FBS behind Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders’ 510 yards vs TCU. Wow.
Gallop with the Ghosts …
So what happens next you might ask? Well, if Luke Alymyer is healthy this week Bret Bielema has a big decision to make. Illinois is a program trying to break through on the national stage in its 3rd year under Bielema. The team stands at 5-5 thanks to John Paddock’s heroics the past two weeks. The Illini play at Iowa (8-2) Saturday and home against Northwestern (5-5) November 25. Obviously they need one more win to become Bowl eligible.
Bielema said a few days ago, “Do we think we have a Quarterback controversy? No. I think we have two really good Quarterbacks.” Well coach, that may be, but you need to pick one of them. My money is on the best backup QB in the country right now: John Paddock. He’s got the Mo. And he’s got something else. He’s got three generations of Illini Paddocks with blood, sweat, and tears spread all over Memorial Stadium. If I can tune in on an Illinois game the next two weeks I’m all over it to get a glimpse of this very special young man. The only better view would be sitting next to grandpa John and watching his eyes light up.