The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, now available on Amazon.com, is Bruce Feldman's latest book, and it's a ride. From the carefree Southern California scene of the '80s to the muggy practice fields of the Southeast to the sterile board rooms of ESPN, it chronicles the rise of the private QB coaching industry and, by extension, the evolution of the college quarterback. Feldman has access like almost no one else to all aspects of this world, or as they call it, "the Quarterback Space."
One of the biggest figures to come out of this space is Johnny Manziel. Through the unique lens of family accounts, conversations with his private coach George Whitfield (known as "The Quarterback Whisperer") and the level of detail only Bruce Feldman can provide, we are given a glimpse of Johnny that we haven't seen before: not Johnny Football, not Johnny getting crazy media attention, but a kid who really, really, really only ever wanted to be one thing: a quarterback.
Bruce Feldman was gracious enough to answer a few questions:
Good Bull Hunting: Do you think QB prospects who don't participate in the development circuit are at an inherent disadvantage?
Bruce Feldman: I do think if a young QB isn't getting any additional reps and training beyond just what they're getting in-season, they are at a disadvantage to those quarterbacks who are honing their skills and developing all the nuances that go into being a good QB, both mentally and mechanically.
GBH: Do you think that as the evaluation process of the organizations (like TDFB) might begin to overshadow the importance of online recruiting rankings as their influence grows in the coaching community?
BF: That will be interesting to see. I do think Dilfer has some big advantages over how the online star-system works now with QBs. For starters, his perspective as a guy who not only played QB at the highest level and was around by some of the best football minds in the world gives him a perspective almost none of the people who do the high school rankings have. Beyond that though, he gets to work hands-on with many of these QBs and see how they respond not only on the field but in the QB room, which allows him insight few have. Of course, that doesn't mean his evaluations are always going to be spot on, but I think his insight into many of the top high school QBs will be more informed.
GBH: Is it possible we might see similar private coaching industries pop up for other football positions? Pass rushers have become almost as high-profile as quarterbacks; does that seem like a logical progression?
BF: Yes, I do think will will see this although not to the same degree. Because I was around George Whitfield all last winter while he was prepping Johnny Manziel for the draft I also saw former All-Pro James Lofton training Mike Evans in the same camp and that has to help a young receiver hone his talents to get that kind of additional tutelage. One thing to keep in mind here: QB is the most nuanced position and really is a craft and is more geared towards the extra work. Also, is there as much money it it. The financial side of how many rich dads of QBs that are out there seems to be a significantly deeper pool in the places where these prospects from than where recruiters are going to find D-linemen, wideouts or DBs.
GBH: Having spent time with Kevin Sumlin, does he strike you as a something of an "unconventional" thinker (like June Jones as described in the book)? Could this be one of the reasons he went to bat for Manziel and named him the starter in 2012 despite being unproven?
BF: One of the things that impresses me most about Sumlin is he has a terrific sense for people and that's why I think he's able to relate to so many different folks so adeptly. The more time I've been around him, the more I've realized he's very keenly plucked some of the best attributes of every coach he's been around to incorporate it into what he's about. I think all that time around gifted QBs like a Drew Brees has provided him with the sense of what makes a quarterback special when he's around them to know because it's such a dynamic role for a team.
GBH: In particular, I thought the information on personality types was really interesting, and I wasn't surprised to learn that Manziel had the same one as Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, RGIII, etc. How much credence have you seen other coaches besides Jones place on these factors? Are NFL teams open to this line of thinking more than in the past?
BF: This was the most controversial aspect I covered in The QB, but the more I heard about it, the more a lot of it made some sense. I actually heard from a few folks in the business after they'd read The QB how they too are believers in what Niednagel does. Former college hoops coach Fran Fraschilla, now of ESPN, is like Celtics exec Danny Ainge, a huge proponent. It was interesting to also hear from Chip Kelly on this stuff.
GBH: Is there any communication between the private QB coaches and the team coaches? Specifically, did you ever get a sense of any kind of dynamic between Whitfield and Spavital/Sumlin?
BF: I know several college coaches who are very skeptical of how George Whitfield coaches and they're uncomfortable with it, as I detailed some in The QB. Whitfield, I know, tries to be very respectful of the college coaches and defers to them, but it still can get pretty awkward. I think Jake Spavital felt that Whitfield helped Johnny's comfort level as a sounding board and advocate because by the time Jake was hired Manziel's world was already pretty chaotic with so many people pulling at him. So if he had a guy who Manziel trusted who had been with him from before he was this rock star, it was probably a good thing. Then again, I think both sides probably didn't know exactly the other's world, meaning I'm not sure Jake was aware of how much stuff Whitfield dealt with regarding the star pupil (like I wrote about in one of the sections of the book) and I'm pretty sure George didn't know all the details and challenges that Jake and Johnny were balancing.
GBH: You talked a bit about how his teammates rallied around Manziel in the midst of the media frenzy surrounding Manning Camp, SEC Media Days, and the autograph situation last summer. Why do you think that popularity and influence among his teammates got so glossed over by much of the press? Was it only apparent when you were around the program a good bit like you were?
BF: I think because people tend to want to believe the worst when it comes to celebrities or even star athletes unless that guy plays for their team. People would see his twitter feed and knew he wasn't some poor kid and there was some jealousy I think of Manziel going to do the things they'd probably love the chances to do. And then some made the leap that because they'd see him in photos with his crew that he was snubbing his A&M teammates. I don't think they got how close he was to Mike Evans or even to some of those other guys.
Yes, it was apparent to me because I had been behind the scenes with the Aggies so much. I don't think anyone else can get a real sense of it without being around the place and seeing it first hand.
GBH: Having seen the way he handles the spotlight, are you surprised at the latest media buzz around Manziel? Do you get the sense that he needs to be playing football in order to avoid certain distractions?
BF: Pretty much nothing surprises me with Manziel at this point. I do buy the part that football focuses him and keeps him occupied. He's ultimately so competitive, I suspect he needs it to some degree to keep him locked in. I do think people forget that there have been other pretty wild athletes but most of those guys came before the age of social media, camera phones and twitter where every rumor gets out and is portrayed as fact before we even really know what actually happened.
GBH: Kyle Allen appears in the book from some of the Elite 11 camps. Do you have any stories you can share about him?
BF: I have one that comes to mind. Dennis Gile, who is a Trent Dilfer protege and has been Allen's private coach since the kid was like 14, had once been in training camp with the Patriots. He was wowed by being around Tom Brady. He said in terms of demeanor that Kyle Allen's the closest thing he's ever been around like Brady, just in terms of demeanor and having this killer instinct and this calm focus. Nothing phases him. Gile's coached Brett Hundley and a hand full of other standout young QBs, but he said Allen's just different. Anyhow I was talking to Gile the other day and he told me a story about the day A&M, as a 23-point underdog, went to Auburn and upset them.
Gile said Allen called him about 90 minutes before kickoff and goes 'You know we're gonna win this game.' Gile said he told him I know you will. And sure enough the kid, who's still only 18 years old, throws four TDs early in the game and A&M does win.
Gile goes, "There's no QB coach in the world that can teach that. He's just special."
GBH: I liked how you called Manziel a "Good Will Hunting in shoulder pads" when referring to his innate ability to read angles quickly. Great analogy, wonderful movie. Coincidence?
BF: Thanks. He is, to some degree, a savant. At least on the football field.
Like Tom Rossley said about Favre, Manziel can do some wondrous things in a heartbeat--and they're things someone can try and prepare themselves to be able to do and yet never pull off. Johnny does them, and often can't explain the how. Same way with Favre. He sees--or maybe better yet, senses things others don't have the time or vision to see. It just happens. That's a big reason why he's so special.