Football is funny sometimes. Two years ago — to the week — Garrett Shrader entered the transfer portal listed as a Mississippi State wide receiver.
But that’s not who Shrader is. He’s a quarterback, going back to elementary school, when he told his dad that was the position for him. He grew into an elite recruit, winning two state championships in North Carolina, and yes, starting at quarterback in the SEC for the Bulldogs.
Following a coaching change after the 2019 season, Shrader was asked to switch to receiver and play special teams in 2020. He did it because he wanted to help his team, but also he knew it wasn’t him. Shrader believed he could be an elite starting quarterback somewhere in the country with a coach who believed in him.
He just had to find that coach.
Enter Dino Babers.
When Babers pulled up the Shrader game tape, this is what he saw:
“I saw somebody that loved winning, that was willing to give up his body for his teammates,” Babers said. “I saw someone that was competitive, and traditionally, if you take those guys and make them your quarterbacks, people will follow them.”
Now in 2022, Shrader is in the midst of a breakout season at quarterback, leading No. 14 Syracuse to its first 6-0 start since 1987 and into a top-15 showdown against No. 5 Clemson (7-0) on Saturday afternoon (noon ET, ABC). As fate would have it, Shrader is running parts of the Air Raid offense under new offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who incorporated some of those principles into his own philosophy after working under Mike Leach at Texas Tech from 2000 to ’02.
The same Mike Leach who asked Shrader to play receiver at Mississippi State.
See, football is funny sometimes.
“Garrett bet on himself,” said Anthony Boone, his longtime trainer at QB Country Charlotte, and a former ACC quarterback at Duke. “And now he’s getting exactly what he’s been working for all these years. He took the long route, but he continued to work and got an opportunity, and it’s a great spot for him.”
Garrett Shrader keeps it himself on a run-pass-option and dices into the end zone for a 5-yard Mississippi State touchdown.
Shrader is matter-of-fact when he talks about his time at Mississippi State. When the Bulldogs brought Leach in, nobody in the Shrader camp knew how it would go because he did not fit the mold Leach likes for his quarterbacks. Shrader is a runner and Leach wants his quarterbacks to throw the ball at lightning speed.
Making matters more complicated, Shrader missed fall camp in 2020 with COVID-19, taking him out of the quarterback competition. Once he returned, coaches asked him to move to receiver.
“I don’t know what they were thinking — they saw me as a big, athletic guy,” Shrader said. “They knew I ran the ball well, and I was a really good athlete, and so they thought I would be a better contributor for the team there. It ended up not being that way. But it’s just part of my story. Things have all worked out well and I’ve got a greater appreciation for the game where I’m at now, and I’m grateful for the opportunity coach Babers has given me.”
Shrader arrived to Syracuse last season in a quarterback competition with incumbent Tommy DeVito. He started the final nine games, showing off his ability to run — the second most rushing TDs (14) and yards (781) by a quarterback in program history — but the offense was not consistent enough in the passing game.
The Orange went 5-7, and Babers knew a staff shakeup was in order. He began interviewing candidates for offensive coordinator, but a curveball was thrown into his plans when Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall stepped down unexpectedly in early December.
Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae had just led the No. 3 offense in the country. But more than that, the Anae and Babers football trees had always coexisted but never intertwined.
Football is funny sometimes.
While Anae was at Texas Tech with Leach, Art Briles was on staff as running backs coach. Babers comes from the Briles coaching tree. As Babers explains it, the Briles offense is cousin of the Air Raid.
Though the two had never worked together previously, Babers and Anae had been influenced by many of the same coaches and philosophies and also shared a background in Hawai’i (Babers played and coached there; Anae was born and raised on the islands and coached at Hawai’i, too).
Mendenhall made the first phone call to Babers, as he tried to help his staff land new jobs, believing Anae and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck would be a “magical fit.”
“I knew Dino was under pressure and needed results, and he needed results with a limited resource program,” Mendenhall said. “That’s exactly where Robert and Jason — that’s been their training. The two of them form a really powerful team of not only developing quarterbacks, but scoring a lot of points while they’re maximizing resources in a system that’s been customized and designed, specific to the place they are because of all the experiences they’ve had.”
Babers was sold on the pitch. When Anae came in for the interview, both his offensive philosophy and the one Babers favors meshed together well. Essentially, they were able to speak the same offensive language during their discussion.
What sets the Anae offense apart from what Leach does is the reliance on a running quarterback. During his time as offensive coordinator at BYU and Virginia, Anae has worked hand-in-hand with Beck to develop elite dual-threat quarterbacks, from Taysom Hill to Bryce Perkins and Brennan Armstrong.
After talking to Anae, Babers thought: “This is a no-brainer.” Babers had already hired Beck, and though the two did not necessarily come together as a package deal, their chemistry and history together was evident.
In Beck, Babers found a coach who is “knowledgeable, had a lot of confidence yet he didn’t have a giant ego. I thought he would fit well with Shrader.”
Babers compares the Beck-Shrader relationship this way: “They’re like Batman and Robin. Garrett is a little high-strung, and Jason has a long fuse before he blows up. I think together they’re a good combination.”
Mendenhall describes Beck as a calming force, no matter the situation. “I used Jason for all of the stress management and two-minute-crisis timeout management situations because he is unflappable. You cannot rattle him.”
Garrett Shrader finds Oronde Gadsden II for the Syracuse touchdown with seven seconds left.
Shrader’s time under Leach has given him some familiarity with what Anae wants to do. But, as Shrader describes it, what Anae does is a “much more complex, moving and developed version.”
Anae has incorporated elements from multiple offensive styles, going back to Lavell Edwards at BYU through Rich Rodriguez at Arizona. There’s even some from Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, with whom Anae has had a relationship going back to their days at BYU in the early 1980s.
“Everybody kind runs the same concepts. It’s just the mentality behind the way that we do things,” Shrader said. “Everything’s not black and white. They just want you to go out there and play football and not be rigid. There’s more of a backyard element than there is to a set of rules in the way you play.”
When spring practice rolled around, Shrader and his offensive teammates immediately felt excited about the possibilities. Not only was Shrader returning, with a heavier emphasis on the passing game, Syracuse also returned its leading rusher in Sean Tucker, a veteran offensive line and a young group of receivers who showed flashes of potential.
The progress they made in the spring and fall has translated on the field. The stats make it clear: In nine games last season, Shrader threw for 1,445 yards, 9 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, completing 52.6% of his passes. In six games so far this year, Shrader has thrown for 1,434 yards with 12 touchdowns to three interceptions and is completing 69.7% of his passes.
Syracuse averages nearly 100 more yards per game passing than a year ago. Receiver Oronde Gadsden II has three 100-yard receiving games and leads the ACC with five receiving touchdowns. Tucker has improved as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, though his rushing numbers have gone down as the Orange have tried to achieve more balance with their passing game. Some of that is also a function of what Shrader brings to the run game as well.
“You get the running game going, and that just sets up for the passing game,” Gadsden said. “And vice versa. When we get the pass game going, then the defense has to back up and worry about third down and medium. What if we pass the ball? And then we run it for a big run and get the first down. We just keep the defense on their toes, not knowing what we’re going to do.”
Perhaps the biggest key is along the offensive line, where the Orange have started the same five players in every game this season. This is the best offensive line Syracuse has had since 2018, a 10-3 season that is the best to date under Babers.
The most challenging part of the schedule is up next. Of the six teams left on the schedule, five are .500 or better. It starts at Clemson, where the Tigers have won 37 straight games at home. Three of the past five times these teams have played, the game was decided by four points or less. Syracuse has only won one of those, back in 2017 at home.
“I know we can absolutely go down there and beat them,” Shrader said. “But we’ve got to play good football, because they are a good team, and they’ve been playing pretty well right now. I think it’ll be fun.”
Mendenhall has been paying attention in Montana, where he and his wife Holly have settled down. Though he does not watch games on Saturdays, he checks the final scores. He said he has “zero surprise” that Anae and Beck are doing so well with the Orange. After each victory, he sends the two of them a fist bump emoji to let them know he sees what they are doing.
As Syracuse sees it, the first six games are just a start. Shrader says the Orange haven’t played their best football yet. What happens when they reach that level?
“There’s going to be a lot of points on the scoreboard and there’s going to be a lot of yards and touchdowns,” Shrader said. “We’re flirting with it right now, so hopefully, we can put it all together this weekend.”
Shrader, driven to prove to those who gave up on him he can play quarterback, won’t stop until they do.