McCaffrey excited for ‘opportunity to grow’ at Nebraska
LINCOLN — Luke McCaffrey still has to affirm the news to people almost daily. Yes, he’s planning to play quarterback at Nebraska.
The class of 2019 signee knows the reasons for the nagging public doubt. He wasn’t the full-time starter at the position until this fall at his school in Littleton, Colorado. Like his famous brother Christian, he has the athletic ability to excel all over the field.
And yes, he’s heard of Adrian Martinez, the Huskers’ returning starting QB who appears entrenched there for at least two more years.
Yet the 17-year-old McCaffrey is so committed to his craft — and honing it under coach Scott Frost and QB coach Mario Verduzco — that he’s enrolling at Nebraska next month to get a running start. Yes, still at quarterback.
For the youngest son in one of the first families of football, name recognition was never the problem. But proving himself worthy of the most important position in sports is an inner tension the 6-foot-2, 185-pound McCaffrey continues to feel with every compliment about his “versatility.”
“Nebraska has told me they’ve been pretty sold with me at quarterback,” McCaffrey said. “That’s something I like. I think they’ve been honest through the whole recruiting process so I trust them. I trust their word in saying I’m a quarterback.”
Running his own route
McCaffrey always wanted to be his own person. But that’s easier said than done when his immediate family members were already sports celebrities.
His father, Ed, won two Super Bowls as a receiver with the Denver Broncos in the 1990s and remains revered in the area. His mother, Lisa, is an ex-soccer standout at Stanford and the daughter of former sprinter and Olympic silver medalist David Sime.
Luke’s three older brothers are also well known in football circles. Max was a receiver at Duke and is on the practice squad of the San Francisco 49ers. Christian, the most successful, was the 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up at Stanford and now stars as an NFL running back with Carolina. Dylan is a sophomore at Michigan and the school’s backup quarterback. The three made local headlines last spring when they helped a 72-year-old man who had fallen while rock climbing.
“Luke definitely had added pressure because the other guys had gone on and done pretty well themselves,” Lisa McCaffrey said. “But one day he just had to make peace with it and say, ‘I love this game and I’m going to go out and just play regardless of what they’ve done.’ ”
His brothers taught him “everything,” Luke said, from learning how to walk to how to pick a college. Still, he found ways to set himself apart. His parents agree that he was the most coachable youth player. His academics were the strongest of the bunch. It’s even possible he’s more passionate about football than any of them, his mom said.
Luke McCaffrey showcased that zeal his first two years at Valor Christian High School, playing cornerback, receiver, running back and kick returner while Dylan started at quarterback. Luke split time with eventual Colorado signee Blake Stenstrom as a junior, catching passes from him when he wasn’t taking snaps.
“He sacrificed for the team and he played wherever the coach told him,” Lisa McCaffrey said. “But in his heart, he always wanted to play quarterback. He loved to have the ball in his hands and make plays.”
Luke McCaffrey’s list of supporters includes a who’s who of football legends.
Peyton Manning has watched him compete and given pointers. Same for former NFL coach Jack Del Rio, whose son played for Valor. He’s studied film and broken down defenses with Mike Shanahan.
And that doesn’t include his senior season at Valor, when Ed McCaffrey took over. One assistant was 15-year NFL receiver Brandon Stokley, who worked with Luke on how to find chemistry with his pass catchers.
“I don’t want to name drop,” Luke said. “But those are just some guys who’ve been able to come watch and critique me.”
What he’s heard from them and seen for himself leads McCaffrey to firmly believe he’s making an informed decision about his college position. He completed 54 of 71 passes as a junior for 878 yards, throwing six touchdowns and three interceptions. This fall he was 162 of 293 (55.3 percent) for 2,202 yards, 21 TDs and four picks. He also carried 81 times for 526 yards and eight touchdowns as Valor completed a 14-0 season with a state title.
Most nights had father and son holed up studying video together on their laptops. What are the first, second and third options on a given play? How can he get better? How can he make others better?
Those last questions explain why McCaffrey worked so hard to persuade his parents to let him leave early for Nebraska. Coming in January means extra time to learn the system and get to know his teammates.
Dylan once told Luke that he wished he had left for Michigan sooner. That stuck with the younger sibling, the first McCaffrey to graduate early.
“Really,” said Luke, “it’s hard to say no to from a career standpoint.”
Lisa McCaffrey is soaking up the final days before she and Ed are empty nesters. Luke was supposed to play in the Pro Football Hall of Fame World Bowl in Mexico City on Dec. 22, but a hectic schedule and the late arrival of his passport scrapped those plans. He had been throwing to Evan Baylis — a Colorado native who played for Frost at Oregon — before the tight end was picked up by the Packers for their practice squad right after Christmas.
“Luke has been begging to go early since he committed,” Lisa said. “I don’t know — he had a bug and wanted to go early. He made it really hard on us to say no. Mom and Dad will be visiting a lot.”
Betting on Nebraska
McCaffrey’s scholarship offers included names like Michigan, Ohio State, Washington and Colorado. But not all of them saw him as a quarterback.
He couldn’t believe his luck when Nebraska extended an offer in late March. After salivating over what Frost had done at UCF in 2017, he was a target of that same coaching staff now at a school only a seven-hour drive from home.
North Carolina was another finalist, but McCaffrey saw everything necessary during an unofficial spring visit in Lincoln. He pledged to Nebraska in early June, returning later to help recruit at a Friday Night Lights camp and for his official visit for the Colorado game.
“I think my hunch in the beginning was right,” he said. “I thought it would be a place I’d love to have an opportunity to grow. I’m still saying that today and I can’t wait to be out there.”
McCaffrey’s recruiting profiles are a reflection of how differently college coaches saw him. Rivals lists him as a three-star athlete with no national ranking. ESPN calls him a four-star QB and ranks him No. 142 overall in the 2019 class. He’s No. 398 according to 247Sports.
Nebraska sees his measurables — which include verified marks of 30.7 inches in the vertical jump and 4.64 seconds in the 40-yard dash — as conducive to the fast-paced attack it wants to run (Martinez had high school marks of 32.4 and 4.79, respectively). Frost said NU’s search for a quarterback in 2019 whittled to four, then down to one as coaches got to know McCaffrey.
“Love his athletic ability, love his mentality, and he throws it really well, too,” Frost said. “I think that improved this year, and he’s going to have a chance to get in here early as an early enrollee and get involved with spring ball, so we can’t wait to have him.”
Off the field, McCaffrey has a reputation as one of the most active participants in the ongoing group chat among Nebraska recruits. He embraces pressure on it, perhaps thanks to a lifetime as a multisport athlete and attending many of his brothers’ big-stage games.
So bring on the next challenge, McCaffrey says. Nebraska believes in him. That’s enough for now.
“I’m really excited about him playing quarterback for us here,” Verduzco said when McCaffrey signed this month. “I know there’s been some chatter about him playing other positions. Luke’s going to play quarterback for us and gonna be a damn good one.”