By Tim Graham
During a break at the final night practice of training camp last Tuesday, Buffalo Bills quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and Jeff Tuel chatted on the sidelines.
From behind them walked Jim Kelly to say hello. Tuel's eyes lit up.
"Hi, I'm Jeff," Tuel said with an extended hand.
Less than a week later, Tuel has gone from introducing himself to the Bills' iconic quarterback to the verge of starting for them on opening day.
When the Bills unloaded all of last year's quarterbacks, it was assured the opening-day quarterback would be their 11th starter since Kelly retired. We all figured it would be either rookie EJ Manuel or Kolb.
But both are injured, and Bills coach Doug Marrone today announced they are planning for Tuel to start Sept. 8 against the New England Patriots in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
If that happens, then Tuel would become the first undrafted rookie to start on opening day since the NFL and AFL combined their drafts in 1967. The closest was Jim Zorn for the expansion 1976 Seattle Seahawks, but he technically was not a rookie, having gone undrafted out of Cal Poly-Pamona in 1975 and spending time withthe Dallas Cowboys that year.
"That's pretty cool," Tuel said today. "It'd definitely be an honor if that's the case. I'm surprised I'm the first."
But that's not official yet. Marrone did add the caveat he still hopes Manuel will be ready to return from the knee procedure one week ago.
Even if Manuel is cleared to play in time for the opener, he will have missed the last two preseason games and weeks of practice reps. That's no way for a rookie to prepare to square off against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Tuel has completed 31 of 43 attempts for 299 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions for a 106.6 passer rating in the preseason.
Tuel, however, hasn't faced many first-string defenders and confessed he has not been getting prime reps in practice. Most of his passes have been to backup receivers against the Bills' shoddy secondary reserves.
"I haven't thrown many balls to Stevie Johnson or T.J. Graham or guys like that," Tuel said. "Even in [drills], it's kind of scripted so Kevin and EJ were throwing with those guys and I was throwing to the twos and threes.
"So just getting used to how they run routes and certain timing routes is going to be the biggest challenge, to be able to put the ball where I need to be able to put it. Like today a couple times, I found myself a little late to Stevie because he does things a little differently and quicker.
"That's going to be the biggest challenge for me, getting to know my guys and getting on the same page with them."
Tuel spent parts of practice helping seventh-year pro Matt Leinart and third-year pro Thaddeus Lewis with their footwork and progressions in the Bills' offense.
"It's funny how things circle around and you meet people because the last time I saw Matt," Tuel said, "I was watching him in the Rose Bowl in the National Championship play Texas, and I was in the stands. I was, like, in eighth grade. Now here we are on the same squad. It's really neat. I'm just enjoying every step of it."
Opening-day NFL starter is a heady designation for a player who started only seven games as a senior and two as a junior at Washington State and then got passed over by all 32 teams in the draft.
"It just explains you can never expect," Tuel said. "You never know what's going to happen in this league. It's why you always got to be ready. That's something I've always said from the day I walked in this building is that I'm going to prepare myself because you never know what can happen.
"Going back to college, I had my redshirt burned my freshman year, first time I played was against USC in the Coliseum in 2009. It's happened to me before. I came here and prepared like I was the starter since Day One. It can happen."
taggedDoug Marrone | EJ Manuel | Jeff Tuel | Kevin Kolb | Matt Leinart | Stevie Johnson | T.J. Graham | Thad Lewis