Building a Better QB
by Gary Criswell
TSL Extra, Issue #5

In the 1903 Clemson yearbook, John Heisman wrote, "It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the scientific development of the game of football is only beginning to be realized."

Those words always cause me to recall a visit that I made to a well-known college program a couple of years ago. During my visit the school’s Offensive Coordinator gave me a tour of the new state of the art football meeting and film rooms. All of the opponents’ game tapes were prepared in digital format and retrieved via a bank of PCs in each position room.

It was here that the OC could leave scouting assignments in each quarterback’s "locker" where he could later look at the next opponent’s defensive schemes broken down by field position, hash, and down and distance. The game has indeed changed greatly.

Even a visionary like Heisman could take solace in the fact that the basic truths of football prevail. Players still have to make plays. The game is still won in the trenches. However, unlike Heisman’s era where quarterbacks as we know them didn’t really exist, today’s coaches are looking for that special athlete that can erase mistakes and shorten the field. Every successful program in the country is constantly defining and re-defining itself to match their system to the availability of the type of athlete that will lead their offense on Saturday.

Sure, luck means a lot in football. Not having a good quarterback is bad luck- Don Shula

It is often said that a quarterback gets way too much credit when things go right and too much blame when an offense goes south. I truly understand that line of thinking; after all it is a team game. However, I don’t subscribe to that theory. The quarterback touches the ball on every play. The offense should be tapered or expanded to amplify his talent. The responsibility is his; he should know it and his coaches should be preparing him daily for that responsibility. Successful offenses begin with a marriage of the athlete’s talent and his offensive system.

All successful college programs have offensive systems that adjust to their talents. If a program has a guy that is all-world, many programs won’t hesitate to push the envelope with those talents to torment defenses. As simple and logical as that sounds, there are some major programs that by nature hold back their quarterbacks to fit into a mold (or recruit only to that mold), basically not asking them to do too much.

This not only promotes consistency both in individual performances as the names change from class to class, it cuts down on preparation time and serves as an insurance policy if the number two guy has to take over. Penn State and Michigan come to mind immediately. They both have recent quarterbacks who have done well in the NFL despite college careers that were not breathtaking; all while their team was continuing to finish in the Top Ten. I believe that their NFL success was due in part to the fact that they not only got solid coaching, but more importantly they were kept on a tight leash in college. They never acquired the habit of getting away with things in college that they couldn’t do at the next level. The great "athlete" quarterbacks in Division I football have to become Quarterbacks (capital Q) "again" when they reach the NFL.

Of course recruiting a quarterback is always on the front burner in college programs. Several programs have completely rethought their strategy in evaluating future field generals. We all know the theory; bring in the mobile guy that can make plays happen on his own with his feet, while still having an arm that will keep a secondary in check and supply big plays with the pass.

I love the spread shotgun offenses that teams like Clemson have deployed in recent years. They are entertaining and bedeviling to defenses. I do not, however, favor them as the system that will consistently put together championship seasons. I just don’t believe that you should run an offense that limits you to recruiting only one type of quarterback. Florida State, for example, has managed to incorporate a system that has all the elements of the spread but that is equally at home with a Chris Weinke as it is with a Charlie Ward.

When the boundaries are widened in your quarterback search, you can seek out the best leaders (within the standards of physical abilities of course) and the versatile bigger or faster athletes that can be later moved to other positions if they find the quarterback position too crowded. Even the big programs realize that "their exact type of guy" is not always available. With only 85 scholarships available they don’t feel they have the luxury of making a mistake. Great college quarterbacks do not exist as one prototype, and the successful college offensive schemes account for that fact.

My coaching philosophy? Determine your players’ talents and then give them every weapon to get the most from those talents- Don Shula

The waiting is the hardest part- Tom Petty

Now that we have looked at how the offensive system works in the development of a quarterback, let’s look at the second component: the succession and seasoning process.

I love the process of bringing players "up through the ranks". As a college coach I got to work with three quarterbacks in various stages of their careers that were four-year starters. It is truly gratifying when a plan for each position that takes shape around the February signing day starts to pan out a couple of years later.

Projecting starting lineups two or three years in advance is standard operating procedure in scholarship football. Of course, like in most other aspects of the game the position of quarterback is central to everyone’s thinking. Alumni are always projecting which quarterbacks will emerge from the shadows.

As we see with rookie quarterbacks in the NFL, a young quarterback (unlike other positions) can actually learn a lot by watching. This is true mostly because of the slower (relatively speaking) reads that a quarterback has to make can be simulated somewhat by watching film. There is no substitute for live reps, but film and daily preparation can truly build the proper foundation that lets a player "hit the ground running" when his turn comes.

The four to five year preparation of the college quarterback differs greatly from that of other position players. In many programs freshman quarterbacks meet every day with their position coach and sometimes the Head Coach at extra times not required of other positions. The young guys see first hand what it is like to prepare from week to week, and the mental side of the game really starts to hit home. Building a college quarterback is really more than mere position development; the goal is to develop leaders that set the tone in practice, lead by example off the field, and generally see the big picture. It’s not just the fans that expect this from a quarterback; his teammates expect it also.

Which bring us to the young guns; the kids that come in and compete for a starting job immediately. I think all major programs recruit a majority of quarterbacks that arrive on campus after their senior high school year physically ready to play. They just lack the mental aspects, but Head Coaches are taking the tradeoffs. With this in mind, several key factors have materialized resulting in more first and second year players taking the reigns of major college offenses.

First of all, high school offenses and defenses are more complicated. The step up between high school and college has been shortened in recent years. I subscribe to the belief that football can only be but so complicated and the high school game has gained on the college game if for no other reason than the NCAA has limited the college preparation time while the high schools are prepping year-round with no such restraints.

The second reason is that defenses are now so athletic that the physical prowess of a quarterback can overcome the need for him to be cerebral. More offensive coordinators are shortening the game plan and just letting his athlete beat their athlete. The days of quarterback that sits back in the pocket, reads the blitz and throws to the hot receiver for a little five-yard gain as he is hit by the linebacker are becoming fewer and fewer. Defenses today will often gladly trade a hit on the quarterback for that five-yard gain.

Thirdly, starting a freshman is the only way to have a four-year starter. The early playing time is an investment; there are very few poor teams with four-year starters at quarterback. The last pressure to play quarterbacks early is a very good problem to have; you might lose him early to the NFL.

Spectacular achievements are always preceded by unspectacular preparation-Roger Staubach

We all know the price that has to be paid to really get it done on Saturdays. Even the great natural athletes undergo physical and mental preparations that few of us will ever endure. All this is necessary because of the game they play and the intense level at which they play it. It is a beautiful thing when an athlete becomes a great college quarterback. There is no exact science as to how to achieve this, but I want to offer a short list of elements that I have found to be evident in programs that consistently turn out winning quarterbacks.

  1. Competition is seen as a natural course of events, not as a zero-sum game.
  2. The older quarterbacks actually teach almost as much to the younger quarterbacks as the coaches do.
  3. Offensive Coordinators understand their players’ limitations and game plan accordingly each week.
  4. Head Coaches find a way to get their most confident players in a position to make a play.
  5. They have a great deal of fun!

When you have confidence, you can have a lot of fun. And when you are having fun, you can do amazing things- Joe Namath

I wish each of you success as your alma mater reloads at quarterback. I will take a few months off from this column to be an assistant coach with the Richmond Speed in Arena2 football. (We have both of our quarterbacks returning and a Division II 8,000 yard producer entering the developing stage.) I want to thank Will for the chance to write for the TSL Extra and for all the kind comments that I have received from subscribers. I also want to thank a little known sage of Southern Football; Criswell Freeman (a coincidence) for the collection of quotations used in this article.

Legendary Tennessee State Coach Big John Merritt spoke of the joy of preparation that let you know that the "hay was in the barn" on game day. I wish each one of you that peace of mind on and off the field.

Enjoy the game!

Gary Criswell has had a varied and interesting career, including stints as a high school JV football coach and head wrestling coach at Henrico High School, a baseball umpire, and an assistant football coach at Hampton University. Gary now works as a Sales Manager for Network Business Furniture, serves as an analyst for WRNL's High School and College sports broadcasting, and continues to work as an advisor to college coaches on recruiting. Gary runs Rivals' web site.

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