Jim Harbaugh’s reputation for developing quarterbacks has been well-documented.
But perhaps his most impressive project is also his least publicized.
Ever hear of Todd Mortensen?
Before Josh Johnson and before Andrew Luck, there was Mortensen, Harbaugh’s first quarterback during his first season as a head coach.
In 2004, Mortensen, a senior, transferred to the University of San Diego, a non-scholarship, Division I-AA program, because he wanted to fulfill a modest goal: Play.
It was a goal he didn’t realize at BYU, where he spent his first three seasons as a backup and posted an unsightly stat line: 27 of 77 for 217 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions.
His numbers in his one season with Harbaugh: 234 of 389 for 2,874 yards with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Granted, it was against lesser competition, but Mortensen, the Pioneer League’s co-Offensive Player of the Year, leapt from obscurity onto the NFL radar.
He signed with the Lions as a free agent after the 2005 NFL Draft. He was released by the Lions in training camp and signed by Patriots in January 2006. New England then assigned him to NFL Europe where he went 3-0 as a starter with the Hamburg Sea Devils. He finished his professional career with brief stints in the Canadian Football League and the Arena Football League.
Mortensen, 31, who graduated summa cum laude from BYU with a 4.0 GPA, is a graduate student pursuing his J.D./M.B.A. degree at the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
His future is bright. But he allows himself to wonder what could have happened if he’d teamed with Harbaugh for a second season.
“Maybe if I’d been with Jim for a second year,” Mortensen said with a laugh, “I’d have more of a story like Andrew Luck.”
So what, exactly, did Harbaugh do to unlock Mortensen’s potential?
Mortensen (6-4, 225) had the size when he arrived at USD. And he had an excellent pedigree and solid mechanics – his dad, Fred, was a star quarterback at Arizona State who played in the NFL with the Broncos and Redskins and spent three seasons in the USFL. Fred Mortensen was also Todd’s coach at Tempe High School.
But what Mortensen never had before was an offense like Harbaugh’s pro-style system.
“The thing I enjoyed most about it was that everything was very clear in terms of my decision-making process,” Mortensen said. “… When your decisions are clear as a quarterback you’re able to go through them a lot quicker and it makes it a lot easier to execute the offense. That’s something that I really appreciated about Jim’s system and one of the things that really helped me blossom. Because those are the things I could do well: Think quickly, make good decisions and distribute the football to all of our play-makers.”
In a short time, Mortensen gained a comprehensive understanding of Harbaugh’s offense. In fact, Harbaugh wanted Mortensen to join his staff at Stanford as a graduate assistant working with quarterbacks in 2007.
Mortensen, who watched Stanford play this past season, says Harbaugh’s offense has evolved since 2004, but the “core concepts” remain the same.
That is, Harbaugh still excels in creating mismatches by employing a wide array of personnel groups and formations. Due to his depth at Stanford, Harbaugh, Mortensen said, has been able to become even more creative by employing unique formations. He used three tight-end sets effectively in Stanford’s 40-14 romp over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Stanford tight end Coby Fleener had six catches for 173 yards and three touchdowns.
“I really enjoyed watching the Orange Bowl for that reason,” Mortensen said. “Once they got in the second half and they knew the way Virginia Tech’s defense was responding to their formations and their personnel groups, they could create mismatches where they could create very big plays. I think that’s one of the things about the offensive scheme that made it easier for me to execute as quarterback.”
Mortensen didn’t become a national star like Andrew Luck. But he knows exactly how the Stanford quarterback has felt the past two seasons while playing in Harbaugh’s offense.
Mortensen fondly recalls the second-to-last game of his USD career when he completed 37 of 54 passes for 464 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 38-35 win against Dayton, which entered ranked second in the nation in passing defense.
“We just executed exactly what we wanted to do and a lot of times the defender was right there covering the receiver, but because of the route or because of the scheme that we had, he was open just enough so that I could hit him and we had a 20-yard gain,” Mortensen said. “And then we’d throw a screen route to the back. We were executing at such a high level at the end of the season, very similar to what Stanford was doing.
“I would have loved to continue to play in that system.”