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INDIANAPOLIS -- Jack Coan was supposed to be a lacrosse star. That’s how it worked on the East Coast, the lacrosse capitol of America. The kid from Long Island committed to play the sport at Notre Dame, one of the top programs in the country, prior to his sophomore year.
His dad, Mike Coan, wore his Notre Dame gear with pride. There was only one problem.
Rob Hoss had been Sayville’s football coach for years. He kept his boat in the Coan’s backyard. Getting on his boat one day, he saw Jack’s dad repping the Fighting Irish.
“‘Dude, throw that crap out,’” Hoss remembers telling Coan. “He's not gonna go to school at Notre Dame. Just throw it out.’”
Hoss knew Coan’s true love and was bound and determined to turn Coan into a college football quarterback.
“It's really what he wanted to do,” Hoss said. “I don't think it was something that he thought was possible.”
Coan had football aspirations, but the odds were stacked against him. Long Island didn’t produce high-level college football players. But Coan was different. Hoss said it was like “seeing a unicorn.”
Saturday afternoon, Coan found himself in the Colts’ 56th Street practice facility, dripping with sweat after his second day of rookie mini-camp. Against the odds — after exploding on the recruiting trail, going to Wisconsin and transferring to Notre Dame, then signing as an undrafted free agent with Indianapolis — he made it here. Now, the goal is to stick around.
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“He's a diamond in the rough,” said Matt Simms, the former NFL quarterback who trained with Coan since his days at Sayville. “With that head coach and that coaching staff, he's gonna succeed really well.”
Coan has always been different. He was riding his bike without training wheels before he was three. In fifth grade, referees would tell Brian that his son was going to play in the NFL one day. Were they joking? Maybe. Jack’s dad always laughed it off.
But Hoss knew what he was seeing. When Coan was an eighth-grader, he was playing on the junior varsity team. He was the varsity starter as a freshman — he threw for 21 touchdowns and 1,695 yards. He wasn’t fazed.
“We were going to the county championship at Stony Brook University,” his dad said. “It was late November. All of a sudden, a snow squall came through for like an hour, freezing, 50 miles an hour wind. He’s slinging the football around in a snowstorm. That's when I knew Jack was going to play football.”
During his sophomore season, Coan threw for 3,431 yards and 40 touchdowns, setting the Long Island record for passing yards in a season. Hoss tried to get the attention of college coaches. Rutgers and Michigan showed some interest, but it went nowhere. Then Peter Vaas came along.
Vaas was a college football coach in various capacities for nearly 40 years, including multiple stints at Notre Dame. A coach from Rutgers asked Vaas to take a look at Coan’s film.
“I remember the kid doing all those things that you do naturally,” Vaas said. “He was not a robotic player. Lot of young kids have been to so many camps these days, they look more robotic than they do natural. I remember Jack being a skinny kid, being a little bit athletic, having a natural ability to throw the football.”
Mike Farrell, who was a scout for Rivals at the time, got Coan’s film from Hoss.
“He was a skinny kid at the time,” Farrell said. “His arm strength never really developed further, but as a young kid, he had a live arm. His accuracy downfield stood out to me as well. I wanted to see him in person. He was a little bit thicker in person than he was on film. His accuracy downfield, his touch, all that stuff lived up to the film. He became one of the better quarterbacks in the country. He was not a late bloomer, but I just don't think a lot of people had seen his film or had given up on him since he was going to play lacrosse.”
Sayville’s place on the map didn’t help Coan’s case.
"The quality of football on Long Island is not Florida or Texas," Vaas said. "When a guy sees somebody that's good, it raises a question: Is he good enough against good competition? Coaches need to be able to see the development process."
Word started getting out. One day, prior to Coan’s junior season, Hoss got a call saying that James Coley — then the offensive coordinator for the Miami Hurricanes — wanted to see Coan throw. It was lacrosse season. Coan, and all of Sayville’s receivers, were busy.
“I called his lacrosse coach and said, ‘Is there any way that I could borrow (Coan)?’ All my wide receivers are playing lacrosse and baseball,” Hoss said. “The baseball coach is my JV football coach. I was like, ‘Can I borrow some guys to run routes and catch balls?’ He’s like, ‘Who’s coming?’ I'm like, ‘The Hurricanes.’ Both coaches were nice enough to see an opportunity for something that doesn't happen out here.”
Coley offered Coan a scholarship on the spot. He’d just come from California, where’d he’d watched plenty of quarterbacks. Hoss said Coley saw something different in Coan.
“‘I saw seven quarterbacks in California,’” Hoss said Coley told him. “‘Not one of them looked like him.’”
A week later, Coan got an offer from Syracuse. Two days later, an offer from Maryland came in. Four days after that, Jim Harbaugh offered him a scholarship to play at Michigan. Two days later, he decommitted from Notre Dame lacrosse.
He went from a lacrosse star to a football sensation overnight. What happened?
“When somebody else finally says, ‘Darn it, he's the best guy we've seen. We need to offer him,’ now all of the sudden, people that have seen him and had questions say, ‘By golly, if he thinks he's good, I do too,’” Vaas said. “It gives you a little bit more security that you're not alone in the decision. You're not sticking your neck out too far. It's the first guy who sticks his neck out the most."
The NFL is "a copycat league," Farrell says.
"If a kid gets an offer from a school you're competing against, you take a second look at his film," he said. "Once a couple people that people trust like him, everybody else is going to join them."
The offer from Wisconsin came in January after his junior season. He committed in September.
He continued his ascent to stardom. He was invited to Rivals five-star camp, along with 15-20 of the best quarterback recruits in the country. He was named the top player in New York during his junior and senior seasons, an All-American by CBS Sports Network in 2015 and the Gatorade Player of the Year in 2016. But the attention did little to change his persona.
“He just wants to play football,” Hoss said. “He doesn't want to be involved in the media. He doesn't care if people talk about him. He doesn't care if they say good things or bad things. It's irrelevant. He’s so old school. If he could die playing football and nothing else, it's all he wants to do. And I think that's why he's been so successful. He's a worm. He’s got his playbook and won't get out of it.”
Intermesoli, who also played lacrosse at Sayville and went on to play collegiately at Marist, vaguely remembers some passionate halftime speeches Coan gave. He doesn’t remember much of what was said. But all that mattered is who it came from.
“When we needed someone to get up and say something to motivate us, he would be there,” Intermesoli said. “But it wasn't hoorah stuff all the time. If he was saying something, we listened and knew it was important.”
He does remember the bowling, though.
A bowling alley in the neighborhood offered three games per day if you bought the summer pass. Coan and his receivers would hit the lanes between two-a-day practices.
“I'd say (he was) the most consistent for sure,” Intermesoli said. “I got him beat with the top score. That's something I'll always have on him. I got a 297.”
All that Coan will say about his bowling abilities? “I could put a good little spin on the ball.”
It was a subtle example of Coan’s competitive fire that never stops burning. Intermesoli says Coan probably could’ve played college basketball if he wanted to. Hoss said his players would often play ping-pong.
Trips to the bowling alley were one of the few ways Coan would spent time out on the town in high school. Instead of going out with his teammates after games, he’d go out for dinner with his parents before heading home — oftentimes to watch more football on TV.
“He doesn't care about nightlife. He doesn't go out,” Hoss said. “If he would go out in Sayville, which was rare, it would be like a social media explosion. ‘Jack Coan is out!’”
But his quiet demeanor and humble attitude didn’t translate to meekness on the field. Rowdy fans packed the stands during Coan’s junior season for a game between Sayville and East Islip — a meeting between a pair of undefeated teams coming off division championship seasons. East Islip fans mocked Coan with chants and pictures.
“All of us knew they screwed up,” Intermesoli said.
Coan rushed for 309 yards and two touchdowns, and threw for 140 yards and three scores. Sayville won 49-17.
Simms and his dad, Phil, began working out with Coan during his senior season. The thing that Simms noticed most about the future Wisconsin Badger was his ability to make smart decisions with the football.
“His completion percentage and his decision making speak for themselves,” Simms said. “He was always putting his team in a position to win and be successful, and always moving the offense down the field methodically. At the quarterback position, those are things that you really can't argue. He might not be the sexiest player where he runs a 4.2 or does all that other stuff. But he can really orchestrate an offense and be a great leader and control the football game with his skill set by making those great decisions over and over.”
Coan’s early days at Wisconsin were unremarkable. He played in just six games during his freshman season and in five as a sophomore. By his junior season, he started all 14 of the team’s games and set a program record for completions, helping Wisconsin to a Rose Bowl appearance. His 2,727 passing yards were the third-highest single-season total for a Wisconsin player. But Farrell said the team’s scheme did Coan few favors. Jonathan Taylor, now a star running back for the Colts, did a lion’s share of the work.
Coan calls Taylor “a college football legend, and soon to be an NFL legend — if he isn’t already.” The quarterback says his time in a run-heavy offense provided plenty of learning opportunities.
“I learned a lot about run schemes, Mike points, protections, footwork under center and in the gun, having precise feet,” he said. “At a lot of programs, that gets overlooked. But I learned the details of that pretty early on, which helped me a lot.
But what it provided in education, it did little for his exposure on the national stage.
“They never really got to showcase him as a passer," Farrell said. "When he needed to throw when they fell behind, he was hit or miss.”
A foot injury during a preseason practice in 2019 ended his senior season before it began. He entered the transfer portal and ended up where many thought his career would start — albeit in a different sport — at Notre Dame.
In South Bend, playing a much different style of offense, Coan threw for 3,150 yards and 25 touchdowns. He threw for a Fiesta Bowl record 509 yards against Oklahoma State and found the end zone five times.
“My offensive coordinator Tommy Rees learned from Nick Sirianni, who was here (with the Colts from 2018-2020),” Coan said. “There's a lot of similar concepts and similar verbiage between that playbook and this one.”
It’s hard not to wonder: Had things gone differently, if injuries hadn’t gotten in the way or if the system were more pass-heavy, could Coan’s stock have risen?
“It’s all who syncs up — the offensive coordinator at the time, the quarterback coach at the time, the offense and their style at the time, the wide receivers,” Farrell said. “Everything is like the butterfly effect. Jack Coan could have gone from high school to become a first rounder, but everything would have had to fall in place.”
He ran a 4.9 40-yard dash in the NFL Combine. NFL.com said Coan is “a good backup with the potential to develop into a starter.” NFL.com projected that Coan would be drafted in the fourth or fifth round, but a weak quarterback class didn’t help his case. The Sayville native said he expected to get drafted, but “it is what it is, and I’ll make the best of the situation.”
Farrell said Coan “is going to be a backup, a very good one, and if somebody goes down and gets hurt, he's gonna be able to step up.”
“I think he's limited as to how great he could be,” Farrell said. “I think his ceiling is probably that of a Kirk Cousins – a very good middle-of-the-road starter. Now, Kirk Cousins is worth more money than God, so that's a great career. He's a starter in the NFL and he's gone to the playoffs. If he can get to that level, that's great. There's no Tom Brady here. There's no Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes. There's no crazy arm talent, off-platform Josh Allen stuff. He is who he is. There's limitations.”
Simms is more optimistic.
“He is going to be a professional quarterback,” he said. “His resume in college speaks for itself. He's had just as much success as any of the other quarterbacks that got drafted. That's something that will reflect in his NFL career. I believe that he's a player that will last in the NFL a long time. I think he will be someone that surprises some of the evaluators out there who maybe overlooked him.”
One thing that could help Coan is being around Colts coach Frank Reich and quarterback Matt Ryan on a daily basis. He got to know Colts offensive coordinator Marcus Brady during the East-West Shrine Bowl game, where Brady was a head coach.
“It’s Matty Ice’s team,” Farrell said. “I don't know if Jack is going to be the guy they hand it off to after Matt plays a couple more seasons, but I do know he's going to get tremendous coaching.”
Sam Ehlinger will head into training camp as Ryan’s presumptive backup. The Colts signed James Morgan, a 2020 fourth-round draft pick by the Jets, to the practice squad in December.
When asked if he’s starting his professional career with a chip on his shoulder, Coan’s answer was true to form.
“Maybe,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I just love playing football. I go out and have fun, and that's what I'm gonna do.”
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Colts QB Jack Coan went from lacrosse star to Wisconsin, Notre Dame