Developing the Quarterback in the Modern Game

I have been coaching quarterbacks since 1988. The game has changed since then in a variety of ways. One way in particular is the importance of winning quarterback play. As offensive structures have tilted more and more to a pass emphasis approach, the play of the quarterback has increasingly become critical to an offensive team’s success. Through the years, as the game has changed, how I approach developing a quarterback has mostly remained unchanged. Regardless of the age of the player, we look for ways to reduce and eliminate wasted movement while continuously emphasizing fundamentals. The other piece of the equation is the development and improvement of eye discipline.

First we will address eliminating wasted movement. It doesn’t matter if I’m working a camp with middle school and high school age quarterbacks or coaching our guys at Shenandoah University, we focus on eliminating any movement that does not promote efficient execution of the assignment. Our focus includes footwork, throwing mechanics, ball handling, pocket presence and threatening the defensive perimeter either with the pass or run. As players get older and the competition is more skilled, the windows in zone coverages get smaller and smaller and the need to be accurate with ball placement vs man coverage exponentially goes up.

The last senior quarterback I coached at Shenandoah was amazingly gifted. He started for us for four seasons and holds every major school record. As a senior in college, he led the NCAA Division III in passing and led all of college football in passing touchdowns per game. He was selected as the Commonwealth Player of the Year in Virginia and was a finalist for the Gagliardi Trophy, the Division III equivalent of the Heisman. As he developed throughout his career, he did not gain new skills or develop a bigger arm or become more accurate. What he did was continuously reduce and eliminate wasted movement in his delivery and his footwork. At the conclusion of each season, we would meet and list areas that could be improved. He would prioritize them and we would develop a routine to target those areas. Fundamentally, he was incredibly solid, but it was easy to see his development as you watched video from one season to the next. After his freshman season, it was all footwork. The depth and angle of the first step was the first emphasis. Once new habits were developed there, he moved to steps two and three with a focus on being balanced, athletic and ready to respond to whatever keys were presented. As a sophomore, his productivity sky-rocketed because he was consistently operating from a base of balance and always under control. After his sophomore season, we targeted a more compact stroke with his arm action. His release was clean, but getting the ball from under his chin to the launch point was a little busier than required. The result was another all-conference selection and leading the NCAA in passing yards per game. During his junior season, a new enemy appeared. A pat of the ball just before pulling the trigger had leaked into his delivery. That was the focus entering his senior season. The results speak for themselves and were previously mentioned. He did not gain new skills in his journey. He actually reduced wasted movement and the results improved with each passing season.

I believe the most over-looked area in the development of the quarterback is eye discipline. In our offense, we are either attempting to high-low a defender or we are trying to in-and-out a defender within his zone. A coaching point very often heard by our quarterbacks is “locate the read and play keep away.” We incorporate eye discipline in almost all of our drills. It is a primary focus of our development and seldom do I inherit an incoming freshman who already has it as a habit. In individual drills, our quarterbacks will always have a “defender” whether they are throwing in the drill or not. This “defender” may flash numbers with their fingers in front of their chest and the quarterback must call out the number before reaching the top of the drop. If making a throw in the drill, the “defender” will flash numbers with their fingers and then flash a target to indicate where the ball should be delivered. We teach the quarterback, during his pre-snap scan, to find and locate the defender to be read. This will give us a clue as to what his location will be. After catching the snap, the eyes go back to the defender who tells us where the ball should be thrown. All the other coverage clues factor into ball trajectory and placement. As we move into routes on air, “defenders” are placed in the secondary to further this skill development against no defenders. Next in the skill development sequence is a skelly drill or 7 on 7 drill. For quarterback development, this is a critical piece of equation. Once the quarterback has developed a high degree of understanding where the eyes need to be, we will add O-Line and D-Line into the 7 on 7 drill. Sometimes it is one-on-one pass rush vs pass pro, sometimes it is 2 on 2 and sometimes it is half-line which also incorporates blitzes. As you ramp up the distractions around the quarterback, it is crystal clear when they have great eye discipline and when they allow distractions to interfere with their progression.

Knowing and understanding where the eyes of the quarterback should be is critical, but that is only part of the formula. A quarterback must match his body’s points of accuracy with his eyes. For a right-handed quarterback, if we are running smash on the right side, the corner is the read. If the quarterback’s eyes are on the corner, but his body parts are aligned to throw down the middle of the field, success will be scattered and inconsistent. In theory, we want to attach a telescope to the shoulder, hip, knee and ankle opposite the throwing side. For a right-handed quarterback, these four points on the left side of the body should match where the eyes are focused. This allows for the most efficient release of the ball with the least amount of wasted movement. In our offense at Shenandoah, we run a Curl-Flat concept with a middle curl compliment. If the Curl-Flat is on the right side, the read is the alley player or the OLB. The quarterback will go through his pre-snap scan of the defense absorbing the clues of what is about to happen. He identifies the alignment and leverage of the alley player. His eyes return to the Center and catches the snap. This is a 3-step progression from the gun for us. As the quarterback pivots and separates from his starting position, his eyes will “glance” the inside linebacker on the Curl-Flat side. If the ILB is expanding for width, we replace him with the ball on the middle curl. So as the quarterback takes his 3-step drop, his points are on the area of the inside linebacker to the Curl-Flat side. With the ILB vacating with width, as the third step of the quarterback hits the ground, the ball is out to the middle curl. If the ILB on the “glance” is slow to vacate or appears to be “stuck in the mud,” the quarterback’s eyes now bounce to the alley player for the Curl-Flat read. As the quarterback’s third step hits the ground, he should “reset” his points to the throwing lane of the outside Curl route. If the OLB is widening to defend the Flat route, the ball is delivered to the outside Curl. If the OLB is hanging in the throwing lane of the outside Curl, the quarterback will “reset” again, setting his four points to the Flat route and deliver the ball. It is imperative that the quarterback have exceptional eye discipline and equally important that the four points of accuracy be synchronized with the eyes.

One everyday drill we do at Shenandoah that focuses on the synchronization of the eyes and the body is a progression drill. A quarterback aligns in the gun and three other quarterbacks position themselves in a triangular shape as receivers for the concept we are emphasizing. Referencing the Curl-Flat concept from above, the three quarterback or receivers will position themselves one over the Center at 8 yards, one 12 yards downfield three yards inside the numbers and one on the line of scrimmage at the top of the numbers. On the snap, the quarterback will get a verbal count of 1, 2, and 3 indicating where his eyes and body should be aligned. On the “1” the eyes and points should be on the middle curl. When the third step of the drop hits the ground there will be a “2” and the eyes go to the outside Curl and the “reset of the feet align the points of accuracy to the outside Curl route. As the quarterback achieves this position, a “3” is called and the quarterback snaps his eyes to the Flat route as he “resets” his feet with his points of accuracy now addressing the Flat route. As the drill progresses, the three receivers will hold their hands with fists under their chin. As their number is called, they can “flash” their hands indicating to the quarterback to deliver the football. We can do this drill with any of our drop back concepts and it is one way to get our guys locked-in on the concept emphasis for the day.

What we ask of quarterbacks in today’s game is incredible. With all of schemes and progressions and reading defenses and film study and changing plays at the line of scrimmage and virtual reality training and leadership in our locker rooms, it is so easy to get caught up in the smoke and mirrors. I try to eliminate as much of the other “stuff” as possible and constantly and consistently focus on fundamentals. The more fundamentally sound our quarterback is, the higher his level of play will be as the distractions and adversities increase.

Stan Hodgin

Offensive Coordinator

Shenandoah University

@S_Hodgin on Twitter