Baylor quarterback Nick Florence picks up yardage in the Bears' win over Sam Houston State on Sept. 15.
MORGANTOWN - All things considered, it would be hard for Nick Florence to look at his college football career at Baylor with any regrets. So he doesn't.After all, consider that now, three games into his senior season, he is quarterbacking a Top 25 team and leads the nation in total offense.Consider that as a true freshman in 2009 he started seven games and was instrumental in beginning a revival of Baylor football that ended 14 consecutive years of losing seasons.Consider that that revival of Baylor football has led to the construction of a magnificent new riverfront stadium, expected to open in 2014.
Oh, and to boot, Florence has already graduated with a degree in economics, is working on his MBA and in May celebrated his first wedding anniversary."No,'' Florence said. "It's hard for me to look back and regret anything that has happened since I came to Baylor.''There is, however, this one nagging issue that causes Baylor fans to just cringe. But for a 90-minute period in a game against Texas Tech two days after Thanksgiving last year, Florence would not be a senior quarterback for the Bears right now. He'd instead be a junior. Instead of one year of eligibility remaining, Florence would have two.But even that doesn't gnaw at the 23-year-old quarterback."I don't regret burning that redshirt at all,'' Florence said. "That was the most fun half of football I've ever played. Sure, I might have one more year, but I've got one year now and I'm going to take advantage of it.''That includes Saturday's noon game between No. 25 Baylor (3-0) and No. 9 West Virginia (3-0) at Mountaineer Field. It matches the top two total offense producers in the country so far this season - Florence and No. 2 Geno Smith.Of course, sharing a field with a Heisman Trophy short-lister like Smith is nothing new for Florence. Until this season his career at Baylor was played out in the shadow of last year's winner of the award, Robert Griffin III. Occasional injuries to Griffin over the last three years are the reason Florence has both played very little (starting just 10 games) and played too much (unable to redshirt).As a true freshman in 2009, Griffin tore an ACL, backup Blake Szymasnki was injured and Florence was forced into action. In a game against Missouri he broke the school record with 427 passing yards.As a sophomore it was back to the bench behind Griffin, but he played seven games as a backup. Last year was supposed to be the year he used his redshirt while Griffin was wowing the nation, giving him two years as the starter after Griffin left.But then, in the 10th game of the season, Griffin took an elbow to the head and couldn't play the second half against Texas Tech. Baylor led by just 31-28 at that point and coach Art Briles asked Florence if he wanted to play, knowing it would burn his redshirt. He never hesitated."He said, 'Coach, whatever it takes to win.' Those were his exact comments,'' Briles said. "It's not an individual sport. It's a team sport. Your job is to help the team win, so they all understand that when they play football.''
Baylor will petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility for Florence, but that seems like the longest of long shots. Normally, the NCAA only grants those exceptions in extreme cases, usually involving a serious medical or personal issue. Florence will clearly have played three full seasons and his choice to play late last year was simply that, a choice.Again, though, Florence has no regrets, in large part because he's been part of something wonderful at the same school that graduated both his parents."It's like night and day,'' said Florence, who graduated from high school in Texas in 2008, took one course at Baylor in the fall of 2008 but delayed his full-time enrollment until January of 2009. "When I got there we hadn't had a winning season in who knows how long [13 years]. And then we won four games [when he was a part-time student], then won four games again, then made it to a bowl game and then won a bowl game and had 10 wins. Now we want to win a Big 12 championship."The perception has changed. There are still people who are going to write us off and that's the way it's always going to be. But we get respect now. People aren't going to look at us on the schedule and say, 'That's a win.'''After 16 straight years without a bowl game appearance, Baylor can set a school record this season with its third straight. No, he's not RG3 - although some have taken to calling him NF1 - but Baylor is trying to prove that its recent surge has more to do with building a program than with recruiting one Heisman winner.Florence is proud to be playing a part in that.
"I think we imagined it changing around. I mean, that's why we signed with Baylor,'' Florence said. "When our senior class signed, we were nobody. I think we all knew we could change it. We just didn't know what it would look like. I don't think any of us thought it would be a new stadium. That's crazy. It's going to be the most beautiful place to play college football in America.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.