BRANDON, Miss. – It’s supposedly basketball season at Brandon High, but in the dead of winter at the 6A school in Rankin County, Mississippi, there’s only one student brushing up on his jumper inside the gym.
Meanwhile, in a state where that other sport never sleeps, there’s much more activity happening on the big patch of the turf right behind the high school. Twelve students are milling around Brandon’s recently renovated, $7 million football fortress. One’s on permanent snapper duty, another’s just watching and nine more are waiting their turn to catch a spiral from Will Rogers.
The throwing sessions happen four times a week at Bulldog Stadium. They’re optional, but it’s a good idea to show up if you want to throw or catch a pass for Brandon at any point during your four-year stay at the Mississippi powerhouse.
The group, typically about two or three times bigger in size, sticks diligently to the routine. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays during the football offseason they’ll gather for nearly two hours, at approximately 3:30 p.m., after weightlifting sessions.
“Then every Sunday at 2,” said Rogers, Brandon’s current varsity quarterback. “… It happens year-round.”
And it’s Gardner Minshew’s legacy at Brandon High School.
Before he became the celebrated, record-setting, mustachioed quarterback who led Washington State to the most successful season in school history, Minshew was the one herding up his high school teammates, former Brandon stars and anyone else interested in breaking a two-hour sweat that either left your arm sore or palms tingling.
Prep rivals showed up from time to time.
“That’s the tradition he started and I’ve seen it to where you’d have 35 degrees and they’ll have 30-40 guys out there throwing,” said Wyatt Rogers, Will’s father, Brandon’s offensive coordinator and the man who was responsible for introducing a younger Minshew to the Air Raid offense while Mike Leach was still teaching it at Texas Tech. “And it used to be Gardner and Will out there and they would have two lines of receivers. Two guys snapping, a line there and a line there, and they’d just be pop, pop, pop.”
Minshew instituted the throwing sessions the offseason between his sophomore and junior seasons at Brandon, where he was a four-year starter who threw for 11,222 career passing yards, 105 touchdowns and had a win-loss record that belied his offer list.
Rest assured, colleges aren’t about to miss on another Brandon signal-caller – perhaps learning their lesson after Minshew became an overnight sensation in Pullman, capturing Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors and setting the league’s mark for single-season passing yards.
So they’ve been all over Rogers.
Not surprisingly, WSU was the first to reach out, offering a scholarship to him in early December. When Minshew realized Rogers and Cougars offensive quality control assistant Drew Hollingshead had connected on Twitter, “I just started blowing him up and just telling him what kind of kid he was, how good I thought he could be,” Minshew said.
“So yeah,” he added, “I was definitely his No. 1 fan as far as trying to push that.”
Rogers to WSU looks slimmer than it did a week ago – the Brandon QB announced his oral commitment to Mississippi State on Tuesday – but he’s still interested in seeing other schools. Prior to his commitment, he’d made tentative plans to take an official visit to Pullman in April.
That could still happen and you can bet Rogers will hear from Minshew a few more times before he signs on the dotted line.
“I tell him, if he’s making a football decision it’s a no-brainer. It’s as good as it gets,” Minshew said. “As a quarterback, if you want to go somewhere you can throw the ball and if you want to go somewhere you can win, there’s really nowhere better. There is nowhere better.”
Either way, Rogers will continue to carry the same baton Minshew did years ago – a responsibility he assures he isn’t taking lightly.
“He’s a really, really hard worker and I look at as, I have to work as hard or harder than him to get where he is,” Rogers said. “It’s been good. He’s always out here throwing three days a week and I’d come out here this offseason before he got to Washington State, he really showed me the ropes.”
Minshew can’t recall his first encounter with Rogers because “you feel like you’ve just always known him.” But both have detailed memories of some of the early throwing and 7-on-7 sessions Minshew would hold at the old Brandon field.
Rogers, who deploys his younger brother as the center, used to be the one delivering the snaps to Minshew.
“There was some pictures where I’m in sixth grade, down on the knee. I’ve even got a helmet on,” he said. “They made me wear a helmet in case someone ran into me and I’m back there. I can remember I’d snap it and then I’d turn around and see what everybody was doing.”
As long as Minshew was around, Rogers was in his shadow.
When Wyatt Rogers was in Brandon’s press box feeding plays to Minshew on the field, Will was also in the booth, carefully eavesdropping on their dialogue. When Minshew was in the film room learning the language of the Air Raid, Will was there too, taking mental notes. When Brandon’s former quarterback was giving his barking orders during the throwing sessions, the future of the varsity football team was only a few feet away, taking cues on how to lead a team effectively.
“He’s a super-smart kid football-wise and he just soaks that stuff up,” Minshew said of Rogers. “He loves it and I think that’s as important as anything, coming into an offense like this. You really have to love it, you have to dive all in and really just immerse yourself in it.”
Wyatt Rogers and the Brandon High coaches aren’t allowed to observe the unofficial offseason throwing sessions. In some ways, that’s helpful, because it forces the quarterback to take command of the group and make corrections without the input of a coach.
“And they can communicate, ‘Hey, let’s run this comeback a little different here,’ where I may be like, ‘No, we’re going to run it this way,’ ” Wyatt said. “Those two guys are the ones playing.”
Minshew’s mentorship of Rogers didn’t cease when the WSU quarterback transformed into a cult hero on the Palouse, more than 2,200 miles away from his home in Rankin County. Rogers would pick Minshew’s mind during the season, asking him about his progressions on certain plays. The Bulldogs and Cougars run four staple passing concepts of the Air Raid offense: Y-corner, Y-cross, shallow cross and four verticals.
From time to time, Minshew, who has vowed to coach football once he stops playing it, will tweak something in Will’s game even his dad didn’t see.
“Will was having an issue with the ball – holding it too high,” Wyatt said. “We had worked on it and worked on it and it was still flying funny. Gardner said, ‘He’s got the ball too high on his drop.’ Then literally the next throw we were back on track.”
Rogers often received “good luck” texts from Minshew on Friday before high school games.
“Something simple like that must means so much to not only me, but the whole community of Brandon that he still cares about us,” Rogers said.
While Rogers has become Minshew-esque in many ways throughout his prep career, the two have their differences.
“I don’t know if he’d agree with it, but I’m more athletic than him,” Rogers laughed. “I kept asking him how many rushing touchdowns he had this year a couple times and I’d always have like one or two more. So I’m like, I got him on that.”
But the work ethic and drive Rogers has shown since he became the Bulldogs’ starter a few years ago – and his desire to capture a state title for Brandon – is reminiscent of Minshew.
Which harkens back to the hours both have spent throwing a football when nobody was asking them to.
“This field in the summer will get to 130 degrees out here on the surface,” Wyatt said. “You’ll have your iPhone in the pocket and it won’t work. He and Will will be out here and they’ll be putting in a lot of work. I come out here and go, ‘OK guys, that’s enough. Let’s go get some water.’ But he’s paid the price, no question.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise, but Minshew is already working with Rogers’ successor, a Brandon eighth-grader named Doby Barton.
With both quarterbacks in his corner, Barton should be plenty prepared when he finally receives the keys to the Brandon kingdom.
“There’s two guys that I would like to have the ball the fourth quarter, and I’ve been coaching 23 years: (Will) and Gardner Minshew,” Wyatt said. “Both are extremely competitive. If it comes down to them having to make a play in the fourth quarter, I like our chances.”
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