Editor’s note: Stewart Mandel’s college football mailbag returns Wednesday. Send questions to email@example.com.
WACO, Texas — It was one of those moments that set the Internet ablaze. On New Year’s Day, football fans couldn’t stop watching clips of massive Baylor offensive lineman LaQuan McGowan catching a 21-yard touchdown against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl.
Nearly four months later, McGowan himself may be the play’s most frequent viewer.
"I watched that this morning," he said during an interview last week at Baylor’s football facility. "Almost every day I get up and watch it. … Every big man wants to be that guy who scores a touchdown. For me that became a reality."
The TV announcers, thrown off by McGowan’s surprise play (and his different uniform number), initially misidentified him as another player. Even once they corrected themselves, they described McGowan as a 6-foot-7, 390-pound guard, which, it turned out, grossly undersold him.
"I was about 425 [pounds] when I caught the touchdown," he said. "I was 425 butt naked. With all the pads and stuff, probably about 440."
Now comes big news for anyone who enjoyed watching such a big person catch a pass in a big game. Turns out, it wasn’t a one-time thing.
Coming out of spring practice, Baylor lists McGowan — who’s now at 6-7, 405 — as one of its starting tight ends. The fifth-year senior practiced exclusively at that position this spring, making another long catch in the school’s Friday Night Lights scrimmage. And coach Art Briles makes no attempt to conceal his plan for this season to unleash the player he’s nicknamed "The Annihilator."
"I don’t have to worry about what I say about him, because no one else has got anybody like him," said Briles. "He’s the most unique football player in the United States with his combination of size and athletic skill.
"He’s going to be a dominant player. Not just a guy who jogs out on the field and does his job. He’s going to be dominant in what we ask him to do."
Say a prayer now for season-opening foe SMU’s linebackers and safeties. Baylor put no-contact restrictions on McGowan this spring as an injury precaution — for its defensive players. "Me and a linebacker [Grant Campbell] went head-to-head and it didn’t end well," he said.
Come the first game, though, "They’re going to take the chains off. I’m going to come out with a full head of steam."
McGowan defies the typical "fat-guy" stereotype. A basketball player and discus thrower in high school, he did not get to 400-plus pounds by wolfing down pizzas. Baylor strength and conditioning coach Kaz Kazadi describes him as "extremely lean," which sounds at first like an oxymoron, but McGowan describes his typical meal as two to three chicken breasts, green beans, rice and salad.
"There’s always green on the plate," he said.
The problem, he says, is weight training. Every time the staff has put him on a more rigorous lifting program he’s gained weight, ballooning to as high as 440 pounds. When he stops, it came off. Though he’s benched as much as 480 pounds, he says he hasn’t lifted in more than a year.
McGowan’s position change was a long time in the making. Baylor, not surprisingly, recruited the then-365-pounder to play offensive line, but for three-plus years as a guard he struggled to garner playing time.
"The way we play offense, it’s so fast-tempo, it was a little bit hard on him from a physicality standpoint to go that many plays in a row in tempo," said offensive coordinator Kendal Briles.
But the coaches began noticing before practices when McGowan casually played catch with the quarterbacks.
"[The quarterbacks] are standing 10 yards away throwing it as hard as they can," said Art Briles, "and he’s catching it with one hand — right hand, left hand, right hand, left hand — without anything even resembling a lack of confidence. To him it’s like catching a tennis ball."
Still, McGowan was "freaking out" when the coaches called his number for the first time against Michigan State. "When they were like, be ready to go in, I was like, OK, it’s going to happen. Then that play got called and I was like, all right, got to suck it up."
He did. It worked. And presumably brought a smile to the faces of big fellas everywhere.
"If you’re like me and you can hold 400 pounds and still run up and down the field and contribute to your team, more power to you," said McGowan. "As of right now, I only know one 400-pound man in college right now who can run around and play football."
Baylor’s offense again led the nation in yards per game last season at 581.5 as the Bears achieved a second straight Big 12 championship and 11-2 season. Despite breaking in a new starting quarterback, Seth Russell, the 2015 offense figures to be loaded. They return all five offensive line starters, including All-American tackle Spencer Drango; two 1,000-yard receivers, Corey Coleman and K.D. Cannon; and top three rushers Shock Linwood, Devin Chafin and Johnny Jefferson.
If all goes to plan, McGowan could become another tool in the Bears’ arsenal.
Kendal Briles said tight ends in their offense typically catch 24 to 30 passes a year while playing anywhere from 45 to 60 snaps a game, most commonly as run-blockers. McGowan came out of spring listed as co-No. 1 with 2014 starter Tre’von Armstead.
"I think we’ve found his niche," said Art Briles. "It’s taken four years but we’ve found the way he can help our football team win games and help himself, and that to me is inspirational. We stereotype these guys in their roles because of their body types, and that’s something we have to be careful with."
Briles uses the word inspirational in part because of McGowan’s background. Raised in Dallas’ crime-riddled South Oak Cliff neighborhood, McGowan’s mother, N’Teesha Smith, moved him in the sixth grade to Cal Farley’s Boy Ranch, a non-profit boarding school for at-risk youth just outside Amarillo. There he became one of the most prominent athletes in the school’s 75-year history.
McGowan is on track to graduate from Baylor in December, by which point he’ll likely become more than a one-time sensation.
The Cotton Bowl touchdown was "a very proud moment. But it’s not over yet," he said. "We’re going to have many more proud moments."
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.