From Division II to NFL Starter: The Rapid Rise of Tyson Bagent within the 1.4%

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Mike Locksley had seen enough.

The University of Maryland head coach had watched the Division II quarterback lighting up his competition 69 miles northwest in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Tyson Bagent had thrown for 5,000 yards and 53 touchdowns (each DII-best marks) en route to winning the 2021 Harlon Hill Award, Division II football’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

When Bagent entered the transfer portal in 2022, Maryland called.

“The numbers that he put up there at Shepherd, those numbers are impressive regardless of what division you’re playing in,” Locksley told Yahoo Sports by phone Thursday. “When you recruit a high school player that’s not playing 5A ball but playing 1A ball per se, it’s: ‘Do they dominate that competition?’ He dominated the competition at that level.

“So we had very few questions.”

Bagent (rhymes with “agent”) visited Maryland that offseason, watching film with coaches, breaking down his Shepherd offense for them and installing Maryland concepts. Locksley walked away as impressed by Bagent’s football intelligence and knowledge of protections as he had been by the quarterback’s accuracy and playmaking ability.

Maryland offered Bagent a football scholarship. So did in-state West Virginia. Bagent instead returned to his parents’ alma mater to complete a 53-start Shepherd career featuring 159 career touchdown passes – the most by any NCAA quarterback in any division ever.

Scouts and agents visited Shepherdstown to see the marvel. The Senior Bowl sent executive director Jim Nagy to campus to invite Bagent as the only Division II participant this year.

Nagy’s memory flashed back to another small-town quarterback who had earned four Pro Bowl berths after playing FCS, if not Division II, football.

“The guy he reminded me of was Tony Romo,” Nagy told Yahoo Sports. “His moxie, his mobility, his touch. I mean, there’s just a lot of things that reminded me of when Tony came out of Eastern Illinois.”

Fast forward to last week and in, well, an eastern city of Illinois, Bagent was completing his lightning-quick journey from Division II quarterback to NFL starter – with a win – in mere months. Bagent joined Jon Kitna, Keith Null and Todd Bouman as the only quarterbacks to matriculate from Division II play to an NFL start since 2002, when the NFL began keeping detailed snap-count data.

Put another way: Of the 287 quarterbacks who have started a game in the last 21 years, Bagent is among the 1.4% who managed to leap from DII to a pro start.

The Chicago Bears beat the Las Vegas Raiders, 30-12, in Bagent’s debut start.

Sunday night, the Bears will face the Los Angeles Chargers on national television with Bagent expected to start again behind center.

It’s early and hyperbolic to believe that the 6-3, 215-pound Bagent is already on the Romo production track even if their journeys include some similarities. Right now most popular comparisons, as NFL comparisons tend to, reflect Bagent’s ceiling more than his floor or most likely outcome.

And yet: The Bears named him backup quarterback over veteran journeymen P.J. Walker and Nathan Peterman in August for a reason. The team takes still further pride in the efficiency with which Bagent executed last week’s win – arguing not that a developmental quarterback is anywhere near peaking, but rather that he is understanding and maximizing his current skill set to win.

“It doesn’t just jump out of his hand, but there’s ability to anticipate,” one team source told Yahoo Sports, comparing Bagent’s style to that of 13-time Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees. “He’s an efficient thrower. There’s not a lot of wasted movement (to) see it, throw it and get the ball to receivers.

“The decisiveness, the quick trigger…(those) masks some of the arm strength questions, right?”

How Tyson Bagent landed in DII football, then dominated

It’s generous, if accurate, to say that Bagent received two Division I scholarship offers out of high school.

Albany and Robert Morris (in Pennsylvania) could each lay claim. But one coach, Gabe Luvara, was responsible for both. As Albany assistant offensive coordinator and tight ends coach in 2017, Luvara sold his colleagues on offering the two-time West Virginia state champion who grew up in Luvara’s home state. When Robert Morris named Luvara offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2018, Luvara convinced his new employer to extend a Hail Mary offer to Bagent spring of his senior year.

“He had a smooth motion, real fluid even then as a young kid,” Luvara told Yahoo Sports this week. “He was a state champion quarterback playing in a system where they threw the ball a ton, so he was used to having the game on his shoulders.”

Luvara won’t go so far as to agree Bagent ran a pro-style offense in high school, but he does remember that the spread system required Bagent to see, react and process coverages constantly. The mental demands didn’t keep Bagent from demonstrating he was a “sneaky good athlete” with a “slow heartbeat,” Luvara said. Luvara was sold. Other Division I coaches didn’t seem to notice.

Bagent opted to play for Shepherd near home, winning the starting job freshman year and rewriting record books as soon as that season. A seven-touchdown game against West Virginia Wesleyan? No problem. Single-game school records against a regional champion? That happened, too.

The stage had grown; Bagent’s success had kept pace.

By the time Shepherd was celebrating its first helmet in the Senior Bowl last January, Bagent had completed 69% of his career passes for a whopping 17,034 yards and 159 touchdowns to 48 interceptions.

“Ball is ball, and Tyson can play,” said Luvara, who’s now the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Waynesburg University in Pennsylvania. “So you start asking yourself: What’s better, Tyson who played at a little lower level but played all these game reps and his brain has all this library of things he’s seen? Or a guy who maybe only started one or two years at an FBS or FCS level?

“I don’t have the answer to it, but I know he’s seen a lot and he’s processed a lot and that matters when you’re going out there trying to execute at a super fast level.”

Nagy, who estimated he heard from “four or five NFL guys” when he started posting Bagent clips in 2022, believed Bagent’s experience was enough to warrant a draft selection. Add in Bagent growing up the son of a 17-time world champion arm wrestler (Travis Bagent has won at least six times with each hand), and no one was concerned the all-star spotlight would be too big. Bagent navigated the Division I competition smoothly at the Senior Bowl, completing a game-best 77.2% of a game-high 22 attempts for 138 yards while throwing one interception.

The Bears, whose offensive coordinator Luke Getsy was Bagent’s head coach in the all-star game, would soon finalize their analysis. Pro scouting director Jeff King and northeast scout Tom Bradway had already visited Shepherd during the 2022 season.

King had left an impression when he returned back “raving” about Bagent, assistant general manager Ian Cunningham told reporters in August.

The Bears gave Bagent a draftable grade, even as their grading system doesn’t pinpoint a specific round. They ultimately landed him as an undrafted free agent.

After Bagent’s moxie and efficiency carried through rookie minicamp, OTAs and training camp, preseason game comfort almost didn’t surprise them.

“It’s like he’s been here before,” Cunningham said after Bagent earned the Bears’ QB2 spot. “His accuracy, decision-making, poise. We saw what he’s able to do with his legs.

“I think the kid’s got a bright future.”

Bagent entering NFL with ‘staple of how I’ve always tried to play’

The Bears neither hoped nor planned to jumpstart that bright future less than two months later.

But after Justin Fields dislocated his thumb on Oct. 15, Bagent entered the game in the third quarter against the Minnesota Vikings to mixed results. Bagent completed 10-of-14 passes for 83 yards on the day but lost a strip sack that the Vikings returned for a scoop-and score in the third quarter. Bagent kept calm to lead a nine-play, 77-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter capped off by a quarterback-sneak touchdown. The one-score game wouldn’t last, the Vikings intercepting Bagent’s deep pass the following drive.

Against the Raiders, in his first start, Bagent was steadier.

Bagent completed an efficient 21-of-29 passes for 162 yards and one touchdown in the win, rushing three more times for 24 yards. At least as notably: He never turned the ball over. Sure, his passes were quick and mostly in short range, his longest completion traveling 15 air yards. But Bagent led the offense to convert on 61.5% (8-of-13) third downs, the Bears’ second-best mark in the last four years.

He did so with threaded passes in traffic – cue the 13-yard completion to receiver Tyler Scott as the pass rush closed in on third-and-5 during the Bears’ first scoring drive – and with smart compromises, like the third-and-6 he faced in the third quarter. The Bears dialed up the concept on which Bagent had hit Scott down field earlier that day; but he instead identified a smart checkdown to running back Darrynton Evans that kept the drive alive.

Five plays later, Bagent was credited with his first NFL touchdown pass.

“I feel like that’s a staple of how I’ve always tried to play quarterback: just getting the ball out of your hands, and then just try to combine that with making really good decisions,” Bagent said after the win. “I got away with, in college a lot of times, getting the ball out of your hands but also forcing some things because I had the freedom to do so. At this level … if it’s not there, play the next play. End every drive with a kick.”

Bagent earned a 97.2 passer rating. Getsy praised the rookie’s “no-flinch mentality.”

This week, Bagent prepares to start against the Chargers, who have struggled even more than the 3-4 Raiders. The Chargers have managed just two wins in six tries. Their defense ranks second-worst in EPA/play (0.09 points allowed) per SumerSports, three spots below the Raiders’ 0.07.

The Bears publicly say they trust Bagent and his arm strength with his game plan but more realistically will likely continue to emphasize the quick pass to capitalize on Bagent’s rapid recall. They’ll skip some of the designed reads that Fields enjoys but still let Bagent use the wheels they believe he does have, a team source said.

“We can sit here and we can say that he’s played at a lower level of competition, but if you turned on the tape and you didn’t know that he went to Shepherd University, you would think that he went to one of the bigger D-I schools based off how he played,” the source said. “That’s just a tribute to him and his ability to process quickly, his comfort in the pocket. You talked about bigger, faster athletes – but again, he ran and was efficient with the ball last week.

“There’s something to be said for just, he’s just a player. He’s just a football player regardless of level of competition. It shows you can do it if you got that ability.”

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