The lessons Patrick Mahomes learned as a high school safety that helped him become an elite QB

The lessons Patrick Mahomes learned as a high school safety that helped him become an elite QB

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sitting down at a table, Patrick Mahomes looked at the screen and smiled. In front of him was a laptop, the entire screen displaying grainy footage.

Mahomes leaned forward. In just a few seconds, before the play began, the Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback identified several details — the opponent, the highlight that was about to happen and where he was on the field under the Friday night lights. Then, Mahomes reacted with bursts of noises and phrases.

“Ooh, yeah!”

“Look at that! … Ooh!”

“You like that!”

The moment filled Mahomes with joy as he rewatched one of his first football highlights, a time in 2011 when he wasn’t a sought-after recruit, wasn’t the best player on his team and wasn’t even a quarterback.

In fact, the play began with Mahomes as one of the players farthest away from the ball. Wearing the No. 5 jersey as a sophomore at Whitehouse High, a school just south of Tyler, Texas, his hometown, Mahomes kept his eyes on the opposing quarterback while moving backward toward the middle of the field. When the quarterback released the ball, Mahomes accelerated, planted his right foot to change direction and extended his arms, catching the ball in stride.

With coaches, teammates and cheerleaders celebrating, Mahomes’ interception included him executing a nifty jump cut to evade being tackled on his 22-yard return. After he scampered out of bounds, Mahomes screamed and barked some trash talk at the opponent, the John Tyler High Lions, while teammates patted his helmet.

“When I was playing safety, I was treating it like I was the quarterback, thinking of what the quarterback was thinking,” Mahomes said. “That interception is off Greg Ward (Jr.), who played quarterback at Houston. He plays in the league now at receiver for the (Philadelphia) Eagles.”

Before he surprised everyone with his rare passing skills, before he won two Super Bowls, before he became the unquestioned face of the NFL, Mahomes played his first varsity season at free safety, a season that proved to be pivotal for the rest of his career, even though it wasn’t his idea.

Randy McFarlin has always started his explanation the same way.

“Well, we had a good quarterback in front of him,” said McFarlin, Whitehouse’s head coach for Mahomes’ first three seasons. “Hunter Taylor was lighting it up.”

McFarlin’s second point is always the same, too: The Whitehouse coaching staff faced a dilemma.

Whitehouse’s 2011 team featured more sophomores than usual, partly because the 2010 team, which finished 9-3, was led by several talented seniors. Receiver Trey Metoyer, a five-star recruit, joined Oklahoma. Joey Gautney, a defensive end, went to Louisiana-Monroe. And Quincy Aldridge, an all-district safety who grabbed 20 interceptions as a four-year starter, began his college career at TCU.

“It was kind of a down year (in 2011),” said Adam Cook, the then-offensive coordinator. “Those kids fought hard, but we lost probably the most talented team that we had at the time.”

In 2010, Mahomes split time at quarterback on the freshman team but was called up to varsity for the postseason, playing as a rotational safety. In Whitehouse’s first-round playoff game, a win over Royse City, Mahomes surprised the coaches by nabbing his first interception.

Early into training camp in 2011, McFarlin believed the Wildcats’ biggest void on defense was at free safety. While Mahomes was proving he should be the backup quarterback to Taylor, a senior and three-year starter, McFarlin and Cook approached Jason Shuck, the secondary coach.

“They came to me and said ‘Hey, Shuck, would you like to take a look at Patrick at safety?’” Shuck recalled. “I said, ‘Uh … yeah.’ I knew he was a rental, but it was a pleasure to coach him.”

Mahomes was 15 years old. Taylor, the starting QB, drove him to and from the Wildcats’ two-a-day practices. The teammates first became friends while playing on the same Little League baseball team.

“Anytime you say you’re from Whitehouse, that’s who they ask you about,” Taylor said of Mahomes. “He probably should’ve been the starter, to be honest. The coaching staff saw him and said, ‘Is he better than our starting quarterback? Yeah, probably. But is our biggest hole at safety, and can he do the job?’

“Not only was the answer obviously yes, but it was an upgrade (over) anyone we had.”

Together, the Whitehouse coaches — McFarlin, Cook and Shuck — persuaded Mahomes with an old-school approach, one they believed would help him develop into a better athlete, even if he didn’t pursue football in college. Back then, McFarlin knew Mahomes’ favorite sport was basketball, especially after he earned Whitehouse’s starting point guard role as a freshman.


“Have you ever watched him play basketball?” Taylor said. “He was unbelievable.”

The son of Pat Mahomes, a pitcher who spent 11 years in the major leagues, Mahomes was already a dominant outfielder and pitcher, his fastball reaching 93 mph.

Shuck explained to Mahomes that he would be a starter, have the responsibility of calling pre-snap checks to adjust the secondary’s coverage and spend the season learning as much as he could about the free safety position. Coleman Patterson, who later became one of Mahomes’ top receivers, would have a similar experience that season by playing cornerback.

“I know you’re going to compete for the quarterback job next year,” Shuck told Mahomes, “but there’s no better way to prepare for that than looking at it from the opposite side.”

Mahomes had another reason for agreeing to play free safety: Instead of watching from the bleachers, he wanted to be with the rest of his close friends who would be on the field every Friday night.

McFarlin also was optimistic Mahomes and his classmates — Patterson, Ryan Cheatham, Jaylon Dews and Jake Parker — would form an exceptional core for the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

“To me, the key to that group was Patrick,” McFarlin said. “If I could keep Patrick, then I think I could keep the whole group.”

Still, before the Wildcats started the 2011 season, Taylor was intrigued to see how Mahomes would perform in a less-than-ideal circumstance — tasked with playing a position he didn’t love — for the first time.

“I was a quarterback from the time I stepped on a football field in the fifth grade to the time I took my last snap at (Stephen F. Austin),” Taylor said. “Not only did (Mahomes) humble himself enough to do it, but then he did it at the highest level that we could’ve asked him to do it at.”

After a Friday practice earlier this season, Chiefs safety Justin Reid leaned against his locker. In front of Reid’s face was an iPhone, the screen showing one of the best defensive snaps for Whitehouse during its 2011 season.

Reid pointed to where Mahomes was on the field against Sulphur Springs High. Then, Reid observed a play that often works for a high school offense against zone coverage: The quarterback pump-faking toward a receiver running a short out route before targeting another receiver by releasing a deep pass near the sideline.

Mahomes, though, didn’t fall for the pump fake.

“Ooh … OK!” Reid shouted. “OK, Pat! Yoo! Talk your stuff then!”

While tracking the pass, Mahomes beat the receiver to the ball, jumping to complete the interception. He celebrated the takeaway by nodding his head on the sideline and shouting in front of Taylor, who responded by patting his teammate on the helmet.

Reid understood that what Mahomes accomplished, in just his third varsity game as a starter, was diabolical.

“Everybody has fun, hidden talents,” Reid said, smiling. “It’s fun to see him play on the other side of the field. You put your best players out there. I’m sure he had an advantage because he probably knew all the route concepts already.

“Knowing what the quarterback is thinking, he was like, ‘Eh, we’re in Cover 2, I know the quarterback should be thinking to throw it this way, so I’m just going to go pick it off.’ It was fun to see him go out and do that.”

As the backup quarterback, Mahomes started every week the same way. He watched how Taylor operated the Wildcats offense, which featured deep passes, plenty of bubble screens and concepts designed for intermediate completions to the middle of the field to give the receiver space to run after the catch.

Next came the Wildcats’ practices. The best part for Mahomes and Taylor came at the end of the practice when McFarlin let the starters compete against one another. Those repetitions allowed Mahomes to experiment.

“And s—, he knew what was coming,” Taylor said, laughing. “He’d try to throw me off, and I’d have to play games with him. Really, looking back at it, it made both of us better.

“Not a lot of high school quarterbacks have to deal with looking off a safety when the safety knows what you’re doing and he’s that athletic. You better figure it out quickly, or you’re going to look like a fool.”

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Mahomes enjoyed bending every rule as the free safety. He would roam before the snap and freestyle on occasion, similar to the playing style of Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed.

“He was bringing some excitement,” Cook said. “That’s one thing about Patrick: He loves to practice. The majority of the great ones enjoy getting better. Patrick was always excited and talking trash, that competitive greatness.”

If Taylor knew a play included a corner route, so did Mahomes. At the time, Taylor wondered whether Mahomes’ eagerness to make a splashy play would lead to him being out of position if a receiver ran a corner post route with the Wildcats in Cover 3.

Chapel Hill High, the Wildcats’ second opponent of the season, ran a play with such a route inside the red zone, hoping to use Mahomes’ aggressiveness against him. With the Wildcats’ secondary in Cover 4, Chapel Hill’s slot receiver ran the route well enough to gain leverage and separation. But Mahomes smoothly flipped his hips and footwork to recover fast enough to leap in the end zone and use his 6-foot-2 frame to force an incompletion.

“He was pretty doggone good at it,” Shuck said of Mahomes. “In all those 18 years (coaching), maybe one other guy had a little bit better hips than him — but not by much. He was so flexible and rangy. I called him Gumby.

“He was a film rat. He always had another question. He remembers everything.”

Shuck’s mantra for the Wildcats secondary was four simple words: Don’t get beat deep.

Most of Whitehouse’s opponents in 2011 ran a variation of the spread offense. Whenever the opposing offense lined up with three receivers on one side of the formation, Mahomes was the deep safety on that half of the field, the last defender in the Wildcats’ bend-but-don’t-break defense.

“What makes him the athlete that he is that he’s so smart,” Cook said of Mahomes. “He did a great job of playing center field.”

In the game against Sulphur Springs, Mahomes’ best play came when he — as the deepest defender in Cover 3 — sprinted more than 20 yards diagonally to make an impressive over-the-shoulder interception on a deep pass. Then he returned it 32 yards.

“I was always good at reading coverages and reading routes,” Mahomes said. “I could read the quarterback’s eyes and make the plays. Even then — well, especially then — I really wasn’t the fastest person, but I could read it and be in the right spots.”

Mahomes finished the season with a team-high five interceptions, earning all-district honors.

“There wasn’t a very big drop-off from Quincy (Aldridge) to Patrick,” Taylor said. “He was probably the best secondary player I’ve seen at the high school level in person.”

One clip of a play ended on the laptop and another began. The tone of Mahomes’ voice changed, too.

“I already know this one,” he said.

One of the rare snaps on which Mahomes lined up as the strong safety played on the screen. In a victory over Marshall Hill, the Mavericks lined up in a jumbo formation on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line. Their quarterback rolled to the right with the fullback and running back in front of him as blockers. The lone defender who had a legitimate chance to stop him was Mahomes.

“I threw my head in there a little bit that time,” Mahomes said, laughing. “He still scored, but at least I tried.”

A few seconds later, Mahomes revealed the biggest reason why he didn’t love being a safety.

“The only thing that really took me away from playing that position — because I didn’t mind playing it and reading and trying to make plays on the ball — was the tackling part,” he said.

As a child, Mahomes spent a short stint in Pop Warner as a linebacker. He hated tackling then, too.

When McFarlin, Shuck and Taylor reminisced about Mahomes’ tackling ability, they each responded with laughter. Shuck emphasized to Mahomes to keep his technique simple — stay low, wrap your arms around the ball carrier’s legs and wait for the cavalry.

“He wasn’t the most physical safety that I’ve ever had,” McFarlin said, laughing. “It doesn’t have to look good. Just get the guy down.”

Mahomes’ first lessons in how to play quarterback came in junior high when coach Reno Moore invited him to participate in Whitehouse’s quarterback program.

Mahomes’ subsequent lessons came as a freshman, when he and Cheatham, his best friend, stood on the sideline next to Cook during varsity games to chart details — the down and distance of each snap, the name of the play and where the play was called on the field — to track the success rate of the offense. Cook wanted his future quarterbacks to see and learn why the coaches were calling certain plays in certain situations and the overall play-calling sequence.

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During his sophomore season, Mahomes spent each Thursday night standing along the sideline next to Cook during the school’s junior varsity games to watch Cheatham play quarterback.

“I just remember what good friends they were,” Cook said. “Patrick was the one warming up Ryan and getting him ready and cheering him on. Ryan was still doing (the charting) on Friday night while Patrick was playing safety.”

Mahomes’ final game as Whitehouse’s free safety came on Nov. 11, 2011. The Wildcats fell in their first-round playoff game against Sherman High, finishing with a 5-6 record. Although the Wildcats created four takeaways — including an interception by Mahomes — Sherman created distance on the scoreboard by scoring three touchdowns in the third quarter.

Mahomes’ final snap ended with him unlatching his chin straps in frustration.

A few months later, Mahomes, who didn’t participate in many football camps, went to the University of Texas for a recruiting camp for sophomores. Even though Mahomes shared his desire to be a quarterback, Texas’ coaching staff had Mahomes go through safety drills, which upset his father.

“Texas just thought, ‘Oh, this kid is a good safety,’” Shuck said, laughing. “They didn’t have any tape of him at quarterback. People dog Texas all the time, but they really should’ve followed up a little bit more.”

Mahomes acknowledged that the odds of him playing at Texas, even before the camp, were slim. He also planned to play football and baseball in college, which Texas might not have allowed.

The next season, everything changed for Mahomes. As a junior, he earned the starting quarterback role, generated highlight after highlight — often manipulating the eyes of opposing safeties and throwing precise deep passes for touchdowns — and committed to Texas Tech and coach Kliff Kingsbury.

“It’s honestly crazy to me,” Mahomes said. “When I played football — even my junior year, and really my senior year — I never thought there was, like, a future at the quarterback position.

“Even when I got offered by Texas Tech, I always thought I’m going to play football for three years, I’m going to play baseball for three years, and then I’m going to go play (professional) baseball. Just to see how I developed, just from learning the position to now, where I’m fully engulfed in a Ph.D. with Coach (Andy) Reid’s offense, it just shows how much I’ve evolved. It’s not that long of a time.”

Just committed to Texas tech! #wreckem #gunsup #thankful

— Patrick Mahomes II (@PatrickMahomes) April 21, 2013

In January, Shuck watched the Chiefs’ divisional-round playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars with his family in his home in Jacksonville, Texas. Mahomes sustained a right high-ankle sprain late in the first quarter. As Mahomes hobbled through pain and expressed his anger — throwing his sideline coat to the ground when Reid ordered him to get X-rays — Shuck knew the quarterback would finish the game on the field. Of course, Shuck was correct. Mahomes returned in the second half and led the Chiefs to a victory on the way to becoming Super Bowl LVII champions.

Watching Mahomes play against the Jaguars led Shuck to reflect on another moment. In 2012, Whitehouse squandered a lead in a loss to John Tyler, which had the ball and a one-score lead late in the fourth quarter. Mahomes ran up to Shuck.

“He’s like, ‘Coach, put me in! Put me in! I can make a play! Coach, put me in!’” Shuck said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa … you’re not even practicing at safety anymore.’”

Still, Shuck considered it for a minute.

“It was unlikely that he was going to get the ball back with a chance. (But) that’s just how competitive he is.”

(Top illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos: Cooper Neill / Getty Images; Jim Jackson / Jim Jackson Photography)

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