Greg Paulus was the starting point guard for Duke University's basketball team as a true freshman, which means he knows a little something about handling pressure both figuratively and literally.
Whether it was playing against the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Dean Dome or dealing with the criticism that comes with being a ballyhooed prospect, Paulus has faced extreme forms of adversity foreign to many college football players.
All of which made him uniquely qualified to make the transition from major-college basketball to major-college football after being away from the sport for nearly five years. Paulus, one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country in 2004, has gone from throwing bounce passes in the NCAA tournament to spirals in a Bowl Championship Series conference.
He is the starting quarterback at Syracuse after only four months on campus and will lead the Orange into University Park, Pa., on Saturday for a date with Penn State, one week after making his college football debut in a home loss against Minnesota.
In the game against the Gophers, Paulus had the kind of up-and-down performance one would expect from a player who had not thrown a pass since the Class AA New York state championship game in November 2004. In the end against Minnesota, he threw an interception in overtime that cost his team the game.
But, for the first 60 minutes, he played with presence and effectiveness while Syracuse led until the last 60 seconds.
"Greg was just out there being a leader," said Syracuse fifth-year senior tight end Mike Owen. "He stayed poised, handled the pressure perfect. He kept everyone encouraged. With him playing basketball at Duke, everyone knew he could handle pressure, but he showed that he could do it in football, too."
Paulus was 19 for 31 passing for 167 yards and threw a 29-yard touchdown pass. Most of his damage came in the first half when the Orange scored all their 20 points.
"I tell you, if he'd have been playing football all this time, obviously, he's one of the top quarterbacks in the country," Minnesota coach Tim Brewster told the New York Times after the game.
It's not an absurd comment. Coming out of Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse in 2004, Paulus won the Gatorade national high school player of the year for his exploits on the basketball court and football field. Among the teams that offered Paulus football scholarships were Miami and Notre Dame.
Paulus chose to play basketball at Duke, where he started for his first three seasons before playing as a reserve in his final season. It was near the end of the college basketball season in March when someone first brought up the obscure rule that would allow him to play one season of college football because he completed his basketball career in four seasons. But Paulus did not seriously entertain the thought until about a week after Duke lost to Villanova in the NCAA tournament.
Shortly thereafter, he had a workout with the Green Bay Packers, followed by visits to Michigan, Nebraska and Syracuse. He decided to play for the university that is 15 minutes from his childhood home and attempting to turn its program around after four consecutive losing seasons.
Paulus was an avid watcher of college football and the NFL while at Duke and always maintained a special place in his heart for football.
"There is nothing like playing football," Paulus said. "I did miss it. I love the game of football and have a passion for it. At the same time, I wouldn't change my experience at all with Duke, playing for Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski]. To have a second opportunity to do both sports at the highest level is something I feel blessed to have."
Paulus, 6 feet 1 and 195 pounds, earned the respect of his Syracuse teammates even before he took his first college snap.
After one summer of workouts and a few weeks of training camp with his new teammates, they named him a team captain a week before the season started.
"He just came in with open arms, interacted with everyone he came into contact with," Owen said.
"He built relationships with people. I think that's what people like about him."
Paulus also has earned the respect of his opponents, including a former high school point guard who earned a WPIAL Class AAAA championship while at Upper St. Clair.
"He had a ton of success at Duke and then to play as well as he did on Saturday after being away from football for so long. ... It looked like he had been playing all the while," said Penn State linebacker Sean Lee.
"It's pretty incredible. I just think it's a testament to his athletic ability and his hard work."
"Greg was just ... being a leader."
Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230.