BY JACK PARODI
With controlled criticism, Murray State head coach Mitch Stewart shifted the focus of his halftime speech to single out his quarterback, Drew Anderson, during a 2018 contest against Southeast Missouri.
“Stop it,” Stewart bluntly said as he pointed at Anderson. “Stop turning the ball over.”
The blame was well-warranted. His team trailed 31-7 through two quarters due in large part to Anderson’s four turnovers — two of which were returned for touchdowns. Aside from those mishaps, the Racers were beating the Redhawks in every other facet of the game.
Anderson, seemingly unfazed by his coach’s harsh words, nodded and gave a simple, yet meaningful thumbs up in response.
Among a locker room full of slumped shoulders and dejected bodies sat Anderson, calm and confident as ever. It didn’t matter that he was in the midst of one of his worst career performances; there were still 30 minutes of football to be played.
One play, one series and one quarter at a time, Anderson led Murray State back to within four points of the Redhawks, trailing 31-27 with just under two minutes left in the game.
With the ball on the Southeast Missouri seven yard line and 1:46 left on the clock, Anderson clapped his hands twice and took a snap in the shotgun.
He took a quick three-step drop, looked left toward wide receiver LaMartez Brooks’ direction and fired a bullet to his outside shoulder. Brooks leaped up and snagged a perfectly-placed ball to effectively erase a 31-point deficit and give the Racers a 34-31 lead with 1:42 left.
The Murray State defense buckled a bit at the end, though, allowing the Redhawks into the end zone with just 20 seconds left. An improbable comeback looked all but out of reach at this point.
But return man Malik Honeycutt picked up a bouncing kickoff at the 22-yard-line and weaved and cut his way into the Southeastern Missouri end zone with three seconds left, capping off the “Miracle in Murray,” — a historic comeback that wouldn’t have been possible without Anderson’s heroic second half that included three touchdowns, 235 yards passing and no turnovers.
“He took the team after halftime, and we kind of crawled our way back into it,” Stewart said. “That was the biggest thing he’ll leave at this place. I mean, guys will be talking about that for a long time.”
For comparison, only two FBS programs have come back from larger deficits than the 31-point margin the Racers trailed Southeastern Missouri by, and the largest comeback in NFL history came when the Bills erased a 32-point deficit against the Oilers in the 1993 Playoffs.
Murray State, not known for its football program, put itself on the college football map that week; and the university has the talented, cool and confident Anderson to thank for making it possible.
While Stewart and the rest of the coaching staff knew Anderson had the arm talent to make it at the next level as soon as he visited Murray, making a living out of playing the hardest position in sports takes a certain mentality. On that wild Saturday in November, Anderson showed that he has the poise and ability to rally a team around him to make something special happen.
Fast forward five months following a season in which he accumulated over 3,000 total yards and 20 touchdowns, Anderson was right in the middle of the conversation regarding late-round sleepers in the 2019 NFL Draft.
As the seventh and final round rolled around, the Arizona Cardinals called Anderson and informed him that they were either going to draft him with their final pick or sign him as a priority undrafted free agent.
His name was never called in the draft, but it didn’t take long after the final selection was made for Anderson make a decision on where he would play.
The Cardinals’ newly-hired head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s spread offense emulated what Anderson played in at Murray State, and with the backup and third string quarterback positions undecided, Arizona presented the best opportunity for him to make football a full-time profession.
The road to the NFL from an FCS school typically is a scripted one: A lightly-recruited high school player only has a couple offers, signs with a smaller school, works hard and after his senior year and gets a chance to try out for an NFL team.
But Anderson’s road is one even the best movie directors couldn’t think of creating.
Murray State was the fourth stop in a five-year college career that included a poorly-fitting walk-on opportunity, a community college stint and an injury that cost Anderson a chance to start full-time at an FBS school.
In fact, he was paying schools to play football for two years of his collegiate career. It’s not often you find a quarterback on an NFL roster that didn’t have any Division I offers out of high school; but thus is the case for Anderson.
In the middle of an all-important junior season at Miramonte High School in Orinda, Calif., he fractured his right scapula — the shoulder blade on his throwing arm — forcing him to sit out the most important year for recruiting.
And even though Anderson willed a third-seeded Matador team to its first North Coast Section Championship in 10 years during a senior campaign in which he threw for 4,074 yards and 47 touchdowns, not a single Division I football program offered him a scholarship.
So when San Diego State came forward with a walk-on opportunity during his senior year, it was good enough. Anderson was going to be an Aztec.
However, his tenure in Southern California wouldn’t last for long.
“It wasn’t a great fit,” Anderson said. “We had, like, seven quarterbacks (at San Diego State) when I first got there. The offense that they ran wasn’t a great fit for me, either. It was probably something I should have recognized then, but it is what it is.”
But with a positive mindset, trying times can bring about valuable lessons; and that’s what Anderson took away from his year in San Diego.
“It was good for me to see that level of play and see kind of where I needed to get to,” Anderson said. “I could tell that I wasn’t ready to play at that level yet at that time, so it was good for me to see that.”
Anderson was a lanky six-foot-four, weighing just 180 pounds going into college. He saw that, sloppy footwork and mechanics as his major weaknesses, aiming to improve those facets of his game to become a Division I-caliber quarterback.
And while he knew lifting weights and paying attention to detail would pay dividends for him in the long run, there’s nothing quite like game experience — something he had a slim chance of getting at San Diego State as a redshirt freshman.
So Anderson packed his bags and headed halfway up the coast of California to play at Diablo Valley College — a community college close to his Bay Area home in Orinda.
“I just wanted to get a Division I offer,” Anderson said. “But, I mean, on a smaller scale, it’s just trying to get better every day and getting to that level I needed to get to. When I left high school, I was very raw as a player and just not very defined yet. But going to DVC made me much more polished.”
Anderson picked apart a multitude of weak junior college secondaries in his lone season as a Viking, totaling 3,459 yards and 33 touchdowns.
An improvement in his body and mechanics, coupled with a dominant freshman year, made plenty of Division I coaches take notice. Anderson had conversations with coaches from Buffalo, Hawaii, Toledo and others, making his goal of playing college football at the highest level a reality.
“Living at home, playing in community college and knowing where you want to get to, there’s some impatience with that,” Anderson said about his decision to forego playing another year at DVC. “I was just excited to get back to the Division I level, and Buffalo was the first school that offered me. So I went and visited there, liked the coaches a lot and thought it’d be a good fit.”
And in many aspects, Buffalo was a great fit. It ran a spread, pass-first offense that Anderson thrived in. The coaches and the environment bred competition. The problem was, he was competing for the starting quarterback job with another 2019 NFL prospect, Tyree Jackson.
Jackson started nine games for the Bulls his freshman season in 2015, providing a bit of an obstacle for Anderson, who was heading north to upstate New York the year after.
A sophomore season of backing up followed, but an injury to Jackson in the middle of a 2017 Week 4 game against Florida Atlantic provided a window for Anderson to show he’s capable of being a Division I starting quarterback.
He threw for an efficient 109 yards on seven of nine passes, notching his first career touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Bulls’ 34-31 win. The momentum carried on from there, as Anderson led Buffalo to a decisive 27-13 trumping over Kent State the following week in his first career Division I start.
The Drew Anderson hype train was rolling in Buffalo, but it hadn’t seen anything yet.
597 yards, 35 completions, eight total touchdowns and no interceptions.
That was Anderson’s stat line against Western Michigan in his third game at the helm for the Bulls. His miraculous performance set both school and Mid-American Conference records in yards and touchdowns in a game, etching his name in the record books for what one can assume will be quite some time.
But in the second quarter of what was looking like yet another staggering game a week later, Anderson tore his right pectoral muscle, ending a four-game stretch in which he threw for 1,039 yards, 10 touchdowns and completed 62 percent of his passes; all while throwing just one interception.
In the midst of that stretch, Buffalo fans were calling for Anderson to start full-time when Jackson returned from a knee injury. And it was warranted. But Anderson’s torn pec seemingly doused any shot he may have had of beating out Jackson for the starting quarterback job, forcing him to hit the transfer portal once again.
It’s not like this is anything new, though. Anderson was about to enroll at a fourth college in five years, still with the hopes of playing at the highest level.
While larger Division I programs were deterred by his recent injury, a smaller FCS school in Murray State was dazzled with Anderson’s arm strength and accuracy down the field — two qualities that fit perfectly in the Racers’ offense.
An offer wasn’t on the table when Anderson came to Murray, however. Coach Stewart and his staff are strong proponents of holding off on signing quarterbacks until they see them throw in person.
“He had an NFL presence when we first met him,” Stewart said. “And when we saw him start throwing, he made a couple of NFL-type throws and could make those throws with ease.”
During that throwing session, it was evident Anderson was going to be the Racers’ quarterback in 2018. Not only because he could make every throw on the field, but also because of the way the team immediately gravitated towards him.
“All the wide-outs wanted to throw with him,” Stewart said. “Matter of fact, we had to calm all the wide-outs down. They were like a kid with a new christmas toy.”
And who can blame them? It’s rare for an NFL talent to come play at an FCS school. Anderson was making throws these wide receivers had never seen before. It was going to be a fun year to be a Murray State football fan, and the coaches knew it, too.
Following Anderson’s first workout with the team, Stewart and his offensive coordinator, Nick Coleman, knew they had a steal. The two looked at each other in the hallway walking back to their offices, nodded and said, “Oh yeah. Oh yeah. He’s what we thought he was.”
Even though the Stewart and Coleman knew the talent they had at quarterback, Anderson still did things they couldn’t believe. From the Miracle in Murray to an All-Conference selection, a California kid found himself a home in Murray, Kentucky.
“I wish I knew about Murray out of high school,” Anderson chuckled, alluding to his unorthodox college career.
It’s rare for one to find a place to call home when bouncing around to so many places in a five year period. But that’s how it was all meant to be from the beginning.
Anderson’s road to the NFL certainly wasn’t normal, but normal isn’t always right. Normal is comfortable, and stepping out of our comfort zones is what makes us who we are.
“It wasn’t exactly what I planned to do or what I wanted to do out of high school, but it’s what I needed,” Anderson said. “There’s things at all those places I went that have helped me in a lot of ways.”
Anderson’s road was the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.