WAXHAW, N.C. – Perhaps no college quarterback will enter the 2019 season surrounded by more intrigue than Austin Kendall, for he is the nation’s ultimate mystery man.
It’s plausible that Kendall might have been one of the nation’s best quarterbacks the past two seasons. There just wasn’t any way of proving it. Kendall had the strange fortune of being behind back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners at Oklahoma.
“That situation he just went through is unique as they come,” said Kendall’s high school coach, David Johnson. “I thought he handled it with professionalism, with respect.”
When Kendall takes the field this fall, he will finally be able to answer the question of whether he’s the next Heisman-caliber talent to roll off Lincoln Riley’s assembly line, albeit with a different coach at a different school.
Based on Johnson’s experience, it won’t take long to find out. The coach says he knew Kendall was a Division I quarterback the first time he saw him throw.
“We were doing a drill. It was a slant route and he just ripped it,” Johnson said. “It was obvious the way the ball left his hand that this was a different level than your average high school quarterback.”
Passing big brother
Kendall’s road to West Virginia began on a lacrosse field – albeit not one on which he was playing.
Heading into his freshman year of high school, Kendall was supposed to be the backup quarterback behind older brother Ryan. But when a broken hand sidelined Ryan during a spring lacrosse tournament, Austin picked up all of the summer passing reps.
Though Ryan was healthy enough to play by the start of football season, Austin replaced him as Cuthbertson High’s starter by the fourth game.
“Initially I was pretty mad,” Ryan said. “I was the varsity starter for two years and won a bunch of games for the program. But everyone knew he was a pretty good quarterback. We just hadn’t thrown him in the fire. He got his chance and killed it, and I found my niche at receiver.”
Following his breakout freshman season, Austin Kendall underwent his first football change of scenery. Cuthbertson went through a coaching change, and hiring procedures left the spot vacant from the end of the season until July.
With Division I programs already showing interest, Brian Kendall didn’t want to risk seeing his son’s recruitment torpedoed if the school brought in a run-oriented coach.
Austin spent his sophomore year at Charlotte Christian – a move that Brian wishes he hadn’t made in retrospect since Ryan was still at Cuthbertson.
“In hindsight I probably should have left him where he was,” Brian Kendall said. “He got his first offer when he was at Christian, but it would have been better for us. Ryan probably would have caught hundreds of passes and gotten a scholarship.”
Even though he didn’t end up getting a football scholarship, Ryan played another key role in the path that eventually brought Austin to Morgantown.
Deciding to forego a lacrosse scholarship to Mercer, Ryan took his chance as a walk-on receiver at Kentucky after being sufficiently impressed by then-Wildcats offensive coordinator Neal Brown.
The Neal Brown factor
The Kendalls weren’t naïve. They knew Kentucky was attempting to offer Austin something no other school could – a chance to play with his big brother in two years. But Brown’s character and charisma also won them over.
They just didn’t realize Brown was anyone important the first time they met the youthful coach on Austin’s unofficial visit to Kentucky.
“We called about two hours out and they had someone waiting on us,” Brian said. “Neal came out and I thought he was a graduate assistant. Lo and behold, he was the OC.”
Upon enrolling at Kentucky, Ryan never felt he was being treated as a walk-on or a pawn to land his younger brother. Brown always gave it to him straight.
“He isn’t going to tell you what you want to hear,” Ryan said. “He tells you exactly how it is, whether it’s where you’ll be on the depth chart or ‘you have to put on this amount of pounds to play here.’ He’s very straight-forward and honest with everything. That was very big for me and for Austin.”
Had Brown stayed at Kentucky, it’s likely that Austin’s college path begins and ends in Lexington.
“Had Neal stayed, he would have went to Kentucky,” Brian Kendall said. “No doubt in my mind.”
From Rocky Top to rocky road
Instead, Brown became Troy’s head coach while Austin Kendall kept his options open after transferring back to Cuthbertson High.
Before the start of his junior season, Kendall committed to Tennessee with the intent of focusing on Cuthbertson’s schedule rather than his recruitment. The approach was effective. Kendall completed 310-of-513 passes for 4,461 yards and 49 touchdowns and his team reached the state semifinals after an 0-3 start.
“The No. 1 attribute is his football IQ,” Johnson said. “On top of that is his accuracy. He’s really good at leverage. He can make all the throws. Opposite hash sideline, opposite hash fade. On the run to the right, on the run to the left.
“And he’s thick. He’s got a durable stature and body that lends to him being able to absorb a hit. And the competitive nature? Most competitive kid I’ve ever coached, hands-down. That internal fire is on another level.”
Johnson gave Kendall the autonomy to change plays on his own – flexibility he has never afforded another quarterback.
“You don’t even have to ask that,” Johnson said with a chuckle.
The most memorable game came in a win against archrival and eventual state runner-up Weddington, which Cuthbertson had never beaten. Though Weddington scored to take a late lead, its coaching staff was alarmed that Kendall had more than a minute left to drive 75 yards.
“We scored and gave him too much time,” said Weddington coach Andy Capone, who was the team’s offensive coordinator at the time. “He was just masterful. There’s no bad situations for that type of talent. We didn’t want to see him get the ball back.
“We broke a big play [to score], but as a staff we were like ‘Oh no.’ That’s what he does to you.”
Kendall showed what made him college caliber on that drive.
“A lot of people get caught up in that we beat them for the first time,” Johnson said. “But there were like two or three throws on that drive that no other kid is making.”
It wasn’t just the throws. Kendall had to make all his decisions at the line because the clock was ticking. And the final two plays were with his feet on designed runs – a long one to get the ball to the 1, followed by the game-winning touchdown with 18 seconds left.
As swimmingly as things were going on the field, his recruitment was about to hit a rocky patch on his road to Rocky Top.
That January, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Volunteers offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, who had been Austin’s primary recruiter.
Brian Kendall said the family heard nothing from the Vols coaching staff for a week after Bajakian’s departure, raising a red flag. From there, it became apparent that Tennessee coach Butch Jones was more enamored with New Jersey prospect Jarett Guarantano, leading Kendall to re-open his recruitment.
Though Kentucky remained in the mix, Oklahoma’s tradition and explosive offensive scheme eventually rose to the top.
Opening the Charlotte pipeline
The details of Kendall’s departure from Oklahoma are well-known.
While he never planned to leave the program, he made sure to earn his degree in enough time to transfer in case the situation presented itself. He bided his time backing up Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray with an eye on starting in 2019, though he did give Murray a run for his money last August.
“He put his head down and did work,” Johnson said. “Graduated in three years, and ‘if by then I’m not the guy, then look into going somewhere else.’”
The January arrival of Alabama graduate transfer Jalen Hurts forced Kendall’s hand.
“When I heard Austin was transferring and I saw that Neal had gotten that job, I knew where Austin was going to end up,” Johnson said. “It made sense. It was almost like a perfect match.”
Now that he’s at West Virginia, Kendall is poised to be the Mountaineers second straight starting quarterback from the Charlotte area. Just as he would have done at Oklahoma, Kendall is stepping into big shoes. Will Grier had a historic season for the Mountaineers, finishing fourth in the Heisman race.
Though Kendall and Grier they never faced one another head-to-head, coaches who have seen both quarterbacks play think Kendall can raise his game to a similar level.
“There’s a lot of similarities between the two,” Johnson said. “Will was the best player on the field. And when you watched our film, Austin was the best player on the field.”
Capone agrees that both are among the best to come out of the Charlotte area.
“The arm talent is very similar,” he said. “And I think with Austin being a student of the game, that will help him tremendously. The people who know him realize West Virginia got a steal.”