Tannehill, the Dolphins rookie quarterback, was entering his junior year in high school in Big Spring, Texas, an oil town some 40 miles northeast of Midland. Holt had just been brought in to coach the football team, and remembers being anything but impressed when he first met Tannehill.
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"He looked like a normal, stiff white kid," Holt said this week, a few days after Tannehill got his first victory as a NFL quarterback. "But when we got him out on the field and started doing some drills, well that's a different story. He's just an incredible athlete and incredibly smart."
Holt was just the first of many coaches that Tannehill quickly won over en route to becoming the first rookie quarterback to start a season for the Dolphins. When Miami made Tannehill the No. 8 pick overall in last April's draft, the thinking by some was that it would take a year to get him ready to start. That plan changed in training camp after David Garrard went down with a knee injury and Tannehill simply outplayed Matt Moore. Though the reviews so far have been mixed, the trend seems to be heading in the right direction.
Tannehill followed a difficult preseason by throwing three interceptions in the Dolphins' 30-10 season-opening loss at Houston. After a long heart-to-heart with coach Joe Philbin on the plane ride home Tannehill rebounded last week against the Raiders. He passed for 200 yards and one touchdown, and ran for another in Miami's 35-13 win.
The improvement Tannehill showed left a strong impression on Jets coach Rex Ryan, whose team plays the Dolphins in Miami Sunday. Ryan knows something about the ups and downs of starting a rookie quarterback. In 2009, Ryan was a first-year head coach like Philbin and started Mark Sanchez. The team went all the way to the AFC Championship Game.
"Tannehill doesn't look like a rookie back there," Ryan said this week. "A lot of rookies have that deer-in-the-headlight look, and he really doesn't have that. He seems very confident in what he's doing right now."
What impresses Jets nose tackle Sione Po'uha most after watching tapes of Tannehill is how well he runs the team's complicated no-huddle offense.
"He may be a rookie, but he's real mature," Po'uha said. "In order to run the fast-paced offense that they have, you have to have a mature quarterback to do that, to know what the reads are and to make the calls. His ability to do that at such a young age is admirable."
One reason that Tannehill doesn't always look like a rookie is that he really isn't when it comes to running offensive coordinator Mike Sherman's no huddle. Sherman was Tannehill's coach at Texas A&M and is a big reason the team drafted Tannehill. He, too, originally underestimated Tannehill's quarterback talents.
Tannehill played quarterback, safety and punter (he once booted an 84-yarder) in high school. He also lettered in basketball, baseball, golf and track. Tannehill wanted to play quarterback on the college level, but no one seemed all that interested in him, not even Texas Tech, where his father, Tim, played in the mid-1980s.
Holt finally got an assistant coach from Texas A&M on the phone and convinced him to come out and take a look at Tannehill. The assistant offered him a spot as a safety on the spot.
"I remember I told him, he can play safety, punter or receiver, but what he really is is your starting quarterback," Holt recalled. "The guy just laughed at me."
After Tannehill redshirted his first year, Sherman took over the team and put Tannehill at wide receiver, where he set the school record for receptions by a first-year player. But he kept pressing to play quarterback and finally took over the job in the middle of his junior year. His senior year, he threw for 3,744 yards and 29 touchdowns while completing 61.6 percent of his passes.
It didn't take Philbin long to see why Sherman was so impressed with Tannehill's determination to succeed.
"I like the way he's battled back," Sherman said. "He's responded pretty well to some averse situations . . . He doesn't seem to be in awe or surprised too much."
No, he doesn't. Despite the immense pressure he has been under from Miami fans after throwing incompletion after incompletion in the preseason, Tannehill has been able to shrug off the boos and hysteria.
"I think it's an avid fan base," Tannehill told reporters in Miami this week. "It's not something where people like to root for a losing team. We're here to win."
And Holt, the first of many coaches to misjudge Tannehill, believes he will. Said Holt: "If it all comes together for him, and I think it will, he will be one of the finest quarterbacks in the NFL."