Kyle Lauletta’s football career is built on a lie. When Kyle was 4, his father, Joe, volunteered to coach a flag football team for Kyle’s older brother, Trey. Kyle was a year below the cutoff age for the team of 5- and 6-year-olds at Marsh Creek State Park in Pennsylvania, but Joe snuck him onto the team anyway.
“I’m like, ‘Well, Kyle could easily play in this,’” Joe says. “It was the easiest thing in the world. It’s not like we had to show birth certificates or anything.”
Two decades later, Kyle is attempting a transition slightly harder than a 4-year-old playing with 6-year-olds—going from a Football Championship Subdivision school to the NFL. In the past four drafts, 46 quarterbacks have been picked, and just two have come from the FCS.
“If you’re an FCS guy you’ve gotta put in film for two, three years to even get recognition,” Kyle says. “You have one good year [and] nobody’s gonna be like, ‘Yeah this kid is a second-rounder. Unless you’re 6-foot-5 and you’re Carson Wentz, you’re just another fish in the sea.”
Lauletta has none of the physical traits that let previous FCS prospects stand out, like the Westworld 3-D-printed quarterback build of Carson Wentz, or the huge arm of Joe Flacco. In fact, nothing about Lauletta’s measurements screams NFL quarterback.
Yet scouts are convinced he’s a catch. Eric Edholm of Pro Football Weekly called him Bill Belichick’s ideal successor for Tom Brady. Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier wrote that he had the skill set that every team looks for in a quarterback, not just the Patriots. Mel Kiper’s April 10 mock draft has him going in the second round. Why is a kid who played at the University of Richmond in front of high-school-sized crowds who never threw for even 3,800 yards or 30 touchdowns in a season and who has no outstanding physical abilities being touted as a future NFL starter?
“Nothing’s too big for [Kyle],” Joe says. “There was a time when Penn State was recruiting him and they were going through the sanctions and they had a quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, who was the no. 1 or no. 2 quarterback recruit in the country. I remember having conversations with Kyle saying, ‘Do you really want to go to a place and play behind Christian Hackenberg?’ And he’s like, ‘Dad, I’ll beat him out!’”
None of the major schools that recruited Lauletta ended up offering him a scholarship, and he went to Richmond. I also went to the University of Richmond, and in case you were wondering what the football atmosphere was like at a school with fewer than 3,000 undergraduates, the Richmond athletic department occasionally offered Jimmy John’s sandwiches to the students who stayed into the fourth quarter.
In the rare moments when Richmond played on a big stage, Lauletta shined. In a game visited by ESPN’s College GameDay at James Madison University in October 2015, the Spiders went to Harrisonburg as 13.5-point underdogs. Lauletta completed 19 passes on 31 attempts for 415 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions as Richmond won, 59-49. The following year, Richmond opened its season in Charlottesville against the University of Virginia as a 12.5-point underdog. Lauletta completed 24 of 35 attempts for 337 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions in Richmond’s 37-20 win.
“He’s not even thinking about how big the moment is,” Trey says. “He’s just so locked into the next step and what he’s doing, that’s why pressure doesn’t really get to him. He doesn’t think of those kinds of things.”
Lauletta also shined the week of the Senior Bowl in January. Surrounded by seniors from FBS, Lauletta stood out to Pro Football Focus’s Sam Monson (among many others) during practice in the week leading up to the game.
Richmond QB Kyle Lauletta is some kind of end zone fade throwing savant. I mean, just look at these. These are all from the same drill: pic.twitter.com/t0pFCcygHq— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) January 29, 2018
Lauletta surpassed everyone’s expectations when he completed 8 of 12 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns and earned the Most Outstanding Player award.
“I had no idea I’d won the award,” Lauletta says. “The reason I figured it out is all the NFL Network cameras were literally on me, I’m standing on the sideline and they’re all zooming in on my face and I’m like, ‘Fuck, I think I might have gotten it.’”
The cameras closing in on Lauletta at the end of the Senior Bowl serve as a microcosm of his predraft experience: His profile soared after that game. That’s when many of the comparisons to Jimmy Garoppolo began. Garoppolo, like Lauletta, was an FCS prospect with strong intangibles and leadership qualities. Lauletta also played lacrosse in high school, a Belichick obsession.
Yet a look at Lauletta’s tape shows an even stronger Belichickian quality: the ability to play in any scheme.
Lauletta started at Richmond for three years, but he was the only constant amid a carousel of coaches. In his five years at Richmond, Lauletta played under four different offensive coordinators (!) after each left for a promotion from 2014 to 2017, including all three years he started. He played under center in offenses where he needed to make complex reads and spread systems that focused on airing the ball out. Where having four coordinators across a four-year stretch might stunt some quarterbacks, it gave Lauletta a wealth of experience in various systems. In an era when simplified college offenses have led to concerns about whether incoming quarterbacks can process complex NFL defenses, Lauletta’s experience in multiple schemes is a particularly rare and valuable trait.
“[Transitioning to the NFL is] not one of those things where you get to sit behind the guy and get to develop—it’s not like that,” Lauletta says. “It’s a professional sports organization. Coach doesn’t have time to walk you through every play and teach you the reads and all that. So a lot of it is on you and you have to teach yourself and learn by yourself.”
Lauletta did a lot of learning at Richmond. After a brief stint at quarterback as a true freshman in 2013 and a redshirt year in 2014, Lauletta’s first real season as a starter came in 2015, when he won the starting job and threw for 3,598 yards, completing 61.6 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The Spiders went 10-4 and made it to the FCS semifinals, where they lost to eventual champion North Dakota State. (An injured Wentz watched from the opposing sideline.)
Richmond’s offense that year was designed by then-coordinator Charlie Fisher, who brought his scheme from Penn State, where he coached under Bill O’Brien, who brought the system from the Patriots. That New England connection is one of the undercurrents in the many comparisons between Lauletta and Garoppolo. Lauletta played under center in that pro-style system and had the responsibility of calling out the mike linebacker—a crucial pre-snap decision that sets blocking schemes and almost always falls to the center at the college level (and sometimes the NFL level too). Lauletta was doing it as a redshirt sophomore.
“In my opinion, your quarterback has to be intelligent,” O’Brien, the third-hand architect of Lauletta’s sophomore year offense and now the head coach of the Houston Texans, said at a coaching clinic in 2013. “He has to have a great football IQ. And if he doesn’t, if he can’t learn it, then he should play another position, I’m telling you. Because nowadays that guy, once he’s out on the field, he’s gotta be like a coach on the field.”
Fisher left that offseason to coach Western Illinois, and in 2016 Lauletta played under offensive coordinator John Garrett, brother of Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, who implemented one of the more pro-style schemes in the NCAA that season. Lauletta’s gameday wristband that season had 200 plays on it. (To put that into perspective, Bruce Arians sent Carson Palmer into games with about 170 plays when they were with the Cardinals.) Under Garrett, Lauletta focused on syncing his footwork with the breaks in route schemes, a crucial skill in the NFL, where throwing windows are smaller and close quicker than they do in college.
“There’s so many different ways that a quarterback can drop,” Lauletta says. “One of the things you learn at quarterback is it doesn’t matter what your drop is—you can have whatever foot forward you want as long as your drop times up with certain routes. Football is a timing game where you want that ball to be thrown as the guy is coming out of his break.”
Under Garrett, Lauletta threw for 3,022 yards on 63 percent completion with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions before an ACL tear ended his season after 11 games. Though he improved considerably that season, the NFL was barely on Lauletta’s or his family’s radar.
“I remember me and my dad talking about it,” Trey says. “And being like, ‘Yeah, you know [Kyle] might get a chance at a [rookie] camp. That would be really cool.’”
Garrett left to take the head-coaching job at Lafayette College, and Richmond switched to a spread-style scheme under new offensive coordinator Jeff Durden for Lauletta’s final year as a redshirt senior in 2017. Again he was productive. Lauletta threw for 3,737 yards with a 64.9 completion percentage and 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He finished as Richmond’s all-time leading passer—and he began to gain some NFL attention. Lauletta admits the spread concepts he learned for his senior year were less relevant to the NFL, where the spread is less prevalent, but that it still gave him experience with run-pass options, throwing on the run, and moving outside of the pocket. Raising his profile as a draft prospect in his fourth different scheme in the past four years is a good encapsulation of what Lauletta brings. Like many prospects, Lauletta has what some scouts call a strong “football IQ.” Unlike many prospects, Lauletta has a diverse football IQ, with a varied set of experiences that could make him the perfect player to mold for any system.
“[Playing under four coordinators] helped me a ton because I’ve learned from all those different coaches and taken a little bit from each of them,” Lauletta says. “I feel like if football didn’t work out, I could go out and be a coach and have a whole offense in my head from all the different ones I have been a part of.”
But there are reasons scouts view Lauletta as a developmental player. “Shit, dude, I’ve thrown hella picks in my career,” Lauletta says. “I mean, everybody does. Basically, my weakness would be: You drop back and you’re trying to throw a deep over route and the will [linebacker] is kind of covering him and now the safety is. I’m forcing that ball into double coverage when, wait a minute, you have a guy wide open in the flat. There’s nobody within 10 yards of him—just dump it there! I think I just get greedy at times.”
Lauletta’s arm strength is merely passable for the NFL, the best team he beat at Richmond was a 2-10 Virginia squad, and, as he says, he can force some throws, either because he’s overaggressive, overconfident, or both. Lauletta describes the ideal throwing motion as a “kinetic chain of energy. It starts with your back foot into the ground and you push off, now it goes up into your leg and rotates through your torso. The people who can throw it the farthest have all of that perfectly timed out to where it’s like elasticity, like a whip, and you want everything to come off like ‘bang!’”
The throw might not be a “bang” yet, but his footwork is already a strength, and his anticipation is advanced for a college quarterback. Lauletta would rather have a strong understanding of the game and need to refine his motion than the other way around.
“That’s the beauty of football,” Lauletta says. “It’s not about what the play is but why are you running that play, why is it supposed to work, and what are you trying to accomplish on a particular play. I’ve learned that throughout my career.”
There’s one last trait Lauletta could bring to an NFL team: leadership. Kyle’s father, Joe, played quarterback at Navy before graduating from the flight academy, and he spent three decades in active and reserve service with the Navy before retiring as a captain after 30 years. While in the reserves, Joe taught a leadership course for future Navy Reserve commanding officers, and he worked in those lessons to his kids while they were playing football.
“It was just dinner table discussion where I worked in these leadership concepts because leadership is universal no matter what you’re doing,” Joe said.
Kyle took the leadership lessons literally. He double-majored in business administration and leadership studies at the University of Richmond. (It’s a legit major. I swear.)
“I don’t really have a leadership style,” Kyle says, before he contrasts a lineman who might need a public rebuke with a receiver who may require a private conversation. “You can’t have a leadership style as an effective leader. You have to tailor your style to every person you’re dealing with in every situation. Every leadership situation, every conflict calls for a different solution.”
That background is a big reason Lauletta is considered to have great “intangibles.” But does leadership ability matter for a quarterback projected to begin his career as a backup? Trey has some perspective on that.
In the 10th grade, Lauletta made the varsity football team backing up the established senior starter—Trey. Trey says that Kyle was always pushing him, even though Trey had a firm grip on the starting job. Only when Trey left to play football at Bucknell did Kyle’s quarterbacking career take off. Asked what advice he’d give to the quarterbacks ahead of Kyle on the depth chart, Trey said that, like the flag football league two decades earlier, Kyle is going to be competing with whoever is in front of him.
“He’s not going to be this guy who is willing to take a seat in the back,” Trey said. “He’s definitely going to want to be in the forefront pushing himself and others to the limits.”