JOE AND TINA FLORENCE, BAYLOR CLASS OF '76, HAD DECIDED TO WATCH THEIR ALMA MATER play Texas Tech at Tina's parents' home instead of driving the 37 miles to Cowboys Stadium last November. Their son, a junior, was backing up the Bears' Heisman candidate quarterback, Robert Griffin III, and Nick Florence hadn't thrown a pass all fall. With one game left in the season he was expected to redshirt, though he did get ample television time from his sideline post alongside coach Art Briles. "Every time the cameras would pan, we'd say, 'There's Nick,'" recalls Joe, who had seen Griffin get shaken up on a play at the end of the first half. "We didn't even see the kickoff [for the third quarter]. Then Tina looks at the TV and says, 'There's Nick!' It was a different kind of 'There's Nick.'"
Yes, there was Nick, filling in for Griffin, who had a suspected concussion, burning the redshirt by appearing in a game Baylor led by only 31--28 at the half. "If it meant throwing away a year, it meant throwing away a year," says the ever-optimistic Nick. "We had a win streak going, and I knew if we won that game, it would probably mean a better bowl."
By the end of the second half Florence had completed nine of 12 passes for 151 yards, including 46- and 40-yard touchdowns. The Bears had a 66--42 victory and their first eight-win season since 1991.
"It was big knowing that I hadn't played in two years and I still got this," says Nick, who now has the opportunity to have the starting job to himself. "Even for Baylor fans I think a lot of them are less worried and stressed because they've seen what I can do."
Earlier they had seen what an unprepared Nick Florence did when he was a third-string true freshman from South Garland High outside Dallas listed generously at 190 pounds. Griffin went down in the third game of 2009 with a season-ending knee injury, and backup Blake Szymanski hurt his shoulder that same day. The following week Florence started in a 31--15 win over Kent State. "He got thrown to the wolves a little bit," admits offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Philip Montgomery, who then sent Florence out to face Oklahoma in Norman a week later; in the 33--7 loss Florence went 22 of 41 for 220 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The next three weeks meant more struggles, but against Missouri on the road, something clicked. Florence threw for a school-record 427 yards, passing for three scores and running for another in a 40--32 upset, Baylor's first road Big 12 win since '06 and the team's only conference win of the year.
Florence, of course, relinquished the starting job to Griffin the following fall. "The great thing about Nick," says Montgomery, "is, he's very confident in himself, but he understood the situation he was in and knew when Robert came back that Robert was going to be the starter."
Whereas Griffin created positive yardage even when plays broke down, eluding defenders with his feet as well as torching them through the air, Florence will be out to show poise as he delivers the ball to others. "He'll be that true point-guard-type guy who does a great job of distributing the football, getting the ball into our playmakers' hands," says Montgomery.
Florence, who recently bought a house in Waco with his wife of one year, Rachel, knows there's pressure on him, but in his typical way, he's reframing the situation, looking at it as a blessing rather than a burden. "I'm replacing the Heisman Trophy winner," he says. "How many college athletes get to do that?"