FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Jimmy Garoppolo has spent most of his 24 years in the shadows. He was the third of four sons. He didn’t become a quarterback until his junior year in high school. He had few scholarship offers.

He ended up going to Eastern Illinois University, an Ohio Valley Conference school that had little success before he arrived.

Yet here he is playing the role of starting quarterback for the New England Patriots while Tom Brady serves his four-game suspension. Garoppolo will make his first start at Gillette Stadium on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.

“It’s going to be exciting, real exciting,” said Garoppolo. “It’s another good opportunity; (I) just have to go out there and perform.”

In his first NFL start, Garoppolo led the under-manned Patriots – missing not only Brady but tight end Rob Gronkowski, two starters on the offensive line and defensive end Rob Ninkovich – to a stunning 23-21 win over the Arizona Cardinals.

Garoppolo completed 24 of 33 passes for 264 yards and a touchdown. And he was absolutely Bradyesque in leading the Patriots to the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, completing five of seven passes for 62 yards, including two pivotal third-down conversions that helped set up Stephen Gostkowski’s 32-yard field goal with 3:44 left.

“I thought he made some critical plays for us, there’s no question about it,” said Josh McDaniels, the Patriots’ offensive coordinator. “Those are things you need to do to win in this league.”

No one is saying he’s creating a quarterback controversy in New England – Bill Belichick has made it clear that Brady will be the starter when his suspension is over – but Garoppolo is vindicating the Patriots puzzling decision to take him with a second-round pick (64th overall) in the 2014 draft. They had greater needs at the time but wanted to address the backup quarterback situation.

Belichick isn’t surprised at anything that has happened since.

“He was a good player when he got here,” said Belichick. “He’s worked hard and he’s improved every day since he’s been here. It’s gone all the way back to his initial rookie camp.”

Belichick, in fact, praised the 6-foot-2, 226-pound Garoppolo after Sunday’s win, a rare instance of him singling out a player.

“It’s nice,” said Garoppolo. “In that moment after the game, everybody’s emotions are running very high at that time, so it’s always good to hear that from the head coach, and you take those when you get them.”

Miami defensive coordinator Vance Joseph had a lot of praise for Garoppolo, as well: “I saw a guy who played with great poise – he wasn’t rattled by the pressure – a guy that was an accurate passer, who had some mobility to escape the rush. I saw a guy playing way beyond his years. I was impressed by him.”

Those who have followed his career knew what the Patriots were getting. Syracuse Coach Dino Babers, who was the head coach at Eastern Illinois during Garoppolo’s last two years there, often said Garoppolo could have started at many big-time colleges. He threw for 13,151 yards and 118 touchdowns with 51 interceptions at Eastern Illinois, which also produced the Cowboys’ Tony Romo.

Babers noted Garoppolo’s quick release – a staple of the Patriots offense – as one of his greatest attributes. Garoppolo averaged 2.19 seconds from the time he took the snap to when he passed against Arizona, according to the Providence Journal, No pass rush can get to him that quickly. And defensive backs have a hard time reacting when the ball is coming out that quickly.

Like Brady, Garoppolo also showed the ability to move in the pocket, either stepping up to avoid the rush or simply running.

“I think Jimmy does a good job in the pocket,” said Belichick. “He has good vision. He saw a couple of opportunities to run and then he saw a couple of other opportunities to slide in the pocket, extend the play.”

Asked if he was different from Brady in that aspect, Belichick replied, “I think all of the good quarterbacks are good at that. They know when they’re under pressure. They just have that sense.”

Garoppolo will need that sense Sunday against Miami, which has an exceptional front seven led by ends Cameron Wake and Mario Williams and tackle Ndamukong Suh.

“It’s a talented defense, from top to bottom,” said Garoppolo. “We have our hands full and just have to do our job.”

Garoppolo’s life has changed since the Patriots drafted him. From the time he arrived in New England as Brady’s back-up, fans recognized him when he went out.

But for all the attention he has received – especially now – he remains grounded because of the support of his family, especially his brothers – Tony and Mike, who are older, and Billy.

“Growing up with two older brothers, especially, they’ll let you know real quick what you did wrong and what you can improve on,” he said. “Just kind of the upbringing, I guess. That really helps out.”

Garoppolo was asked what’s going to happen in five weeks, when he reverts back to being a backup after Brady returns from his suspension.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll cross that when we get there, I guess. For now, it is what it is.”