Cody Fajardo grew up a year ago on the football field, going from Southern California cool to Nevada battle born right before our eyes.
“I learned a lot last year, stuff you can’t really learn until you are out there,” the Nevada Wolf Pack sophomore quarterback said.
Above all else, Fajardo learned that he wasn’t playing for dear old Servite High anymore.
“In high school I’d run with the ball, take the hits and get right back up and go run again on the next play and do it all over again,“ Fajardo said. “It was no big deal. But these guys at this level are a lot bigger and stronger.”
Fajardo took off and ran with the ball 128 times last season in just 10 games. That was 23 times more than Colin Kaepernick ran with it his freshman year in 11 games. And every time Fajardo took off, the Wolf Pack sideline seemed to hold its collective breath until he got up and went back to the huddle.
It didn’t always happen. And a few times he did get up he was fortunate to wander back to the right huddle.
“Last year I got banged around a little,” said Fajardo who missed the crucial fourth quarter in a loss at Utah State and the entire Idaho game because of injuries.
Fajardo fumbled a team-high six times a year ago and lost a team-high three of those fumbles. He also lost a tooth. Kaepernick, by comparison, lost just one of two fumbles his freshman year and kept all his teeth in place.
Expect a smarter Fajardo this season.
“If it’s a choice of getting hit hard by a guy bigger than me or just going out of bounds, I’m going to make the smart decision and go out of bounds,” the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Fajardo said. “Last year I’d always just take the hit. But that’s just the competitive thing in me. I never want to go out of bounds. I never did in high school. But I also know I need to stop taking on 260-pound linemen.”
By the end of the year he was more black and blue than silver and blue.
“I have to be smart about it and not make myself so vulnerable to the hits,” he said. “But last year I didn‘t know any better.”
Does this mean than Fajardo, who ran for 694 yards and 11 touchdowns last year (Kaepernick ran for 593 yards and six scores his first year) isn’t going to be as aggressive running with the football in 2012? Don’t even suggest that to head coach Chris Ault.
“He’s going to run like we always do,” Ault promised. “In this offense the quarterback has to run and be a threat to run.”
Ault, who was known to take off and scramble a time or two in his days as a Pack quarterback nearly five decades ago, also doesn’t want Fajardo to run with one eye focused on the sideline.
“He’s not going to just always run out of bounds,” Ault said. “We don’t teach that. But there will be times when it is the right thing to do. No question. Last year he took on some hits when he shouldn’t have and he paid the price. But you can’t coach kids to always think about running out of bounds. Once you coach that way, that‘s when they are sure to get hurt.”
Toughness, Ault said, is a huge part of being a Wolf Pack quarterback.
“You can’t coach kids to always think about running out of bounds,” Ault said. “Once you coach that way, that‘s when they are sure to get hurt.”
Ault requires his quarterbacks to be the toughest players — mentally and physically — on the roster.
“As a quarterback, you lead by example,” Ault said. “All the great quarterbacks have that mental toughness. All of our great quarterbacks were mentally tough and the rest of the team fed off that.”
Ault, though, also knows that toughness only takes you so far if you are always on the sideline nursing injuries. Above all else, the Wolf Pack needs Fajardo to be on the field in 2012. He is, after all, the only quarterback on the roster with Division I experience.
“As a quarterback you learn to play through things,” Ault said. “That a big part of playing the position. Now, we never expect them to play hurt. If they are hurt, they need to get out of there. But you have to play with pain.”
Ault has all the confidence in the world in Fajardo’s physical gifts. He’s already called him a better pure passer than Kaepernick and he’s said that Fajardo can be every bit as good of a runner as the best player to ever put on a Pack uniform.
Fajardo can play quarterback. Ault has known that ever since he first saw him in a Servite High uniform. But can he be a true leader at the position? That’s what Ault wants to see this season.
“He knows what it’s all about now,” Ault said. “He knows where he has to go. He knows he has to be a leader. He had a good solid year last year. But he still has to get better. He knows the offense. But he still has to take that next step and he knows it.
“Cody knows that this is the year he has to show everybody that type of leadership we need. He’s the quarterback. He has to take that next step.”
Nobody has to remind Fajardo about what his head coach is looking for.
“Last year I wasn’t really respected yet as a leader by the older players because I was just a freshman,” Fajardo said. “I just kind of went in there, called the play and did my job. I didn’t say a whole lot because I was young. But now I feel like I’m respected now by the older guys because I’ve been out there. That’s going to make a big difference.
“I know I have to be the leader out there.”
He got to witness one of the greatest leaders in Wolf Pack history in 2010.
“I watched him (Kaepernick) during his great senior season (in 2010) and he had one of the greatest seasons in the history of this football program,” said Fajardo, who red-shirted in 2010. “I can’t put pressure on myself to do what he did. I tried that a few times last year when I tried to make a play. It doesn’t work for me.”
But there is one thing Fajardo wants to take from Kaepernick.
“The biggest thing I learned from him was his leadership,” Fajardo said. “He always found a way to get the team juiced up.
“For me last year it was tough for me to lead vocally. I was just a freshman and those big linemen kind of looked at me and were like, ‘Who is this freshman kid?’ I just went out there, shut my mouth and did my part. But now I have more confidence and I have to step up and be a real leader.
“The quarterback has to be the leader out there. The quarterback has to have that confidence. I have that confidence now.”
Fajardo knows that as long as he wears the silver ad blue, he’s going to be compared to Kaepernick. He is, after all, The Kid Who Came After Kap. And, so far, The Kid has nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to comparing the two quarterbacks’ freshman seasons.
Fajardo completed nearly three-fourths of his passes last year (150-of-218) while Kaepernick completed a little more than half his passes (133-of-247) his first year. Fajardo ran for more yards (694-593) and scored more touchdowns on the run (11-6) while Kaepernick threw for more yards (2,175-1,647) and threw fewer interceptions (three to Fajardo’s six). Their passing efficiency ratings were also very similar (Kaepernick was at 150.8 while Fajardo turned in 145.8) .
“Last year everything happened so fast,” Fajardo said. “All of a sudden I was thrown in there. I didn’t really have a lot of time to get nervous or think about it. I was just out here working hard trying to get a starting spot. And then I was in there. But once I got it, I wish I could have taken a step back just to realize what was happening. But it all kind of happened so quickly. I just had to keep going forward.”
He’s had plenty of time to think about 2011 this offseason as the Pack prepares to open practice on Aug. 6.
“All eyes are on the quarterback,” he said. “I know that and accept it. You get praise when you win and the blame when you lose. I know that’s part of the job.”