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John Wolford's upcoming first NFL start a milestone accomplishment in pro football journey

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – John Wolford had his doubts.

Entering his junior year at Wake Forest, he had completed 58 percent of his pass attempts as a freshman for 2,037 yards, with 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, followed by 61 percent for 1,791 with nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a sophomore. Then, as a junior, 56 percent for 1,774 yards with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

A job lined up with a Wall Street employer during his junior year and heading into his senior year seemed far more promising than a future in pro football.

"Up until my junior, I had not played well enough where the NFL seemed like a viable option," Wolford said during a video conference Wednesday. "So I was set on doing that."

But after a school-record-setting and Second Team All-ACC senior season in which he completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,192 yards, with 29 touchdowns and six interceptions (all career-bests), and consulted with family and scouts, suddenly it did.

"It makes sense, right? You can only go and play football once," Wolford said. "I can go back and work at a desk job later in life."

Wolford – now a Rams quarterback – is preparing to make his first NFL start on Sunday against the Cardinals, quite the significant milestone in his pro football journey, one filled with uncertainties after committing to it.

Wolford went undrafted out of Wake Forest in 2018. Participating in the Jets' rookie minicamp that spring eventually helped him get his first NFL shot, as the Jets signed him as a free agent on Aug. 26 that year.

However, his experience was short-lived – 10 days, to be exact. He played in one preseason game – the Jets' Week 4 finale against the Eagles, was released on Sept. 2, signed to their practice squad on Sept. 3, then released from their practice squad on Sept. 4.

According to an August 2018 story by ESPN, Wolford had signed with the Jets three days before he was scheduled to start a desk job. After getting released, his LinkedIn profile says he ended up working at Teall Capital as a private equity analyst in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The Arizona Hotshots used their Alliance of American Football (AAF) QB Draft second round pick on him in November 2018, so he left his job at Teall Capital in January 2019, then he beat out Trevor Knight – whom the team used their first round pick on in that same draft – in the preseason to win their starting job.

In the AAF's lone season of existence, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Wolford completed 130 of 206 pass attempts for 1,617 yards with 14 touchdowns (most in the league) and seven interceptions, also rushing 36 times for 160 yards and one touchdown. He made seven starts, playing in all eight games.

"The guy just sees the game in slow motion," former Hotshots head coach Rick Neuheisel said in an interview Tuesday on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM's Bickley & Marotta. "And because of it — he doesn't look anywhere NFL-ish in physical stature — but his arm strength and his accuracy, coupled with his mental (IQ) for the game, make him very dangerous. I think that underestimating him would be a very big mistake."

Although the AAF disbanded, one NFL team appeared to feel the same way as Neuheisel. Nine days after the league suspended operations, Wolford was signed by the Rams after working out for them.

"We had brought him in with a couple other guys that had NFL experience, or guys that were high priority college free agents," Rams head coach Sean McVay said during a video conference Wednesday. "You could just see the way the ball jumps out of his hand. Just the upper and lower half movement. He's a twitchy athlete, I thought he did a really nice job in his workout and you're out there and you're thinking, 'Man, I don't care what the size says, this looks like it's supposed to in terms of the base, the balance, the body position and being able to speed it up at the top.' I was at that workout and he definitely earned his spot based on how he performed."

Wolford spent his first season in Los Angeles on its practice squad and as its scout team quarterback, tasked with giving L.A.'s first-team defense looks of the opposing signal-caller they would be facing that week like Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. His work ethic made a lasting first impression on teammates.

"John is always one of the last guys leaving the practice field ever since he got here, getting the reps, getting the training in," said wide receiver Robert Woods, who also noted that Wolford will step up and throw to the team's receivers if they want to run extra routes after Goff has hit his throw count for the day.

Wolford was rewarded with the Rams signing him to a reserve/future contract in January 2020, then promoting him to the backup job this fall. Although Wolford reprised that scout-team role even as the No. 2 quarterback this season, McVay cited that preparation as a reason why teammates believe so strongly in him heading into Sunday's game.

"I think he's just done a great job all year of providing a great look to our defense," McVay said. "That's the thing that I would say is what has been encouraging, is that he's run a bunch of different types of plays, he's tried to mimic and emulate a bunch of different types of great players that play the position at a high level in some different ways. That's where those guys have said they have confidence in John based on seeing those things because you can't fake it and those guys really know."

Rams center Austin Blythe said Wolford has prepared all year like a starter in case something happened to Goff and echoed similar sentiments.

"We've got the most utmost confidence in John to go in and do a good job," Blythe said.

When he committed to pursuing a pro football career and put his other career on hold, Wolford said he told himself, "'I'm going to give it a year, (and) I'm going to give it everything I've got.'"

"And it's all worked out," Wolford said. "I've had some good breaks – I realize there's some luck that goes into it. But I'm just grateful that I'm here and trying to take advantage of this next opportunity."

Luck, and a maybe a little confidence, too.

"I know I can spin it, I know I can make the throws, and then mentally, it's about making the right decisions giving us the best chance to win," Wolford said. "I'm confident going into this week, I'm glad the team's rallying around me, and it'll be fun."

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