COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- If there’s any Terp that will leave no stone unturned in improving, it’s yeoman senior quarterback Perry Hills.
So instead of doing anything fancy over spring break last week (or winter break just the same), Hills traipsed home to his native Pittsburgh, Pa., and his alma mater, famed Central Catholic High School, to work with a local legend.
Gus Frerotte, the Pittsburgh native who later starred for the Washington Redskins in a lengthy pro career that spanned eight teams and 15 years, coached quarterbacks at Central Catholic – including his son Gunnar – for the last few years. Now he has begun to coach local high school and college quarterbacks, including Hills and FSU’s J.J Cosentino, another Central Catholic alum.
Going back to Christmas break, Hills and Frerotte got together at Central Catholic and other local fields and gyms a few days each week. And you may be surprised by Frerotte’s initial observations.
The former Redskins Pro Bowl signal-caller said this week that it’s not Hills arm strength, mostly his mechanics, as “I never worried about his arm strength,” Frerotte said.
They filmed the daily sessions, and Frerotte said Hills was among his best and fastest learners in taking the lessons each day to the field.
Frerotte quickly broke down the issues he discovered in the Terps senior passer, who for years has seemingly short-armed balls and not had the zip to get them vertical in the deep game.
“Before Perry had a big, long motion and the ball would a lot of times come down to his hip. It took a lot longer to come out,” Frerotte explained of Hills' throwing motion. “And I tried to correct that, and we were able to correct that, by getting him a shorter motion from his ear. And teaching him that he can still make the same throws without taking that big, long windup.”
Frerotte said that because of the long windup, Hills’ stride was in turn too long “and so what that does is you are inaccurate, and the ball is high and low a lot of the times.”
Frerotte said Hills can make all the throws, and get it out a lot quicker, “without the big, long baseball throws.” And that in turn helps the entire offense, as with the ball is out faster the linemen don’t give up as many sacks, it gets out quicker which gives the receivers more ability to make plays, etc.
Frerotte said he didn’t want to change what the new Maryland coaches had taught Hills, simply strengthen what they have already taught and work the mechanics. So honing in on his accuracy, especially with the new spread system which depends on pinpoint accuracy, was all about his hips and shoulder being more in-line.
Frerotte also recognized and enhanced Hills’ strengths, especially his running ability, which Terps fans have seen for years. Hills was second on the team in rushing yards last season with 535 yards and 3 scores. In the run game, Frerotte stressed Hills keeping both hands on the ball, but in moving the pocket not over or under-running. And with his eyes up ready to throw as well. He noticed Hills mostly ran with his eyes down last year.
“He is a great runner, he can move, and he is tough,” Frerotte said. “When you run with the football there can always be guys open. You can run but still be able to throw the football until you get to the line of scrimmage.”
They even fine-tuned Hills' leadership abilities. Last season Hills saw his confidence come and go to the extreme, with several multi-pick games and benchings. Not to mention the physical beatings he took in the run game, which were often.
“I told him you cannot worry about hurting somebody’s feelings if they run the wrong route, block the wrong person, or do the wrong thing. You are the leader and that’s what leaders have to do,” Frerotte said of conversations he had with both Hills and family.
Said Hills this week after a Terps practice of the former pro signal-caller and Oakmont, Pa., resident Frerotte, whose son Gunnar is moving on to football at William & Mary in the fall:
“I have been working with him since January and he has taught me a lot of footwork and just some mental aspects of the game. He knows a lot from having so many coaches and being in the NFL for 15 years.”
Hills opened the 2015 season as the Terps starter, but after starring with his feet at No. 1 Ohio State to keep the Terps in the game for three quarters, the wheels fell off to the tune of 13 interceptions on the season, and meltdowns (see PSU game/four turnovers) and benching for Caleb Rowe.
Hills played in 9 games, starting eight, and completed 50 percent of his passes. He threw just eight touchdowns against those 13 picks, and the backup Rowe finally got the Terps offense rolling in the season-finale win over Rutgers. But it was all too late in the 3-9 season when the Terps offense could never really get on track and over the hump.
But the staff soon changed, and in came Durkin, along with offensive coordinator Walt Bell and his new scheme, one on paper which may favor the more option-oriented Hills.
That is, if he can cut down on the miscues, and make quicker, accurate throws. Hills, the oft-battered and beleaguered senior, appears a lot looser and more comfortable this spring, be it on the field or in front of a microphone these days.
Maybe the fresh start with a new staff and not as much pressure. Last year a lot of Hills' answers to media were rote, generic comments, while this spring he has more of a glean in his eye.
And Hills has been through such a ringer, both with his on-field performance and the fans, he could easily be jaded, if not gone, by now. But not this spring, as he has become one of the best offensive and team leaders under the new staff when several may have left him for done after last season.
“It’s honestly awesome. All of the coaches have a lot of energy, they bring a lot of energy and they are getting everyone here with the right mindset,” Hills said. “The new offense is so high-tempo, and right now we are learning the playbook but we are adapting to what they want.”
The senior Rowe had an equally star-crossed junior season, completing just 46.1 percent of his passes and tossing a galling 15 picks against just 6 touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Terps quarterback who was running third before spring break, sophomore Shane Cockerille, was moved to linebacker this week, while 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman Gage Shaffer is still developing and more of a pocket, drop-back guy. That leaves Hills and Rowe as the top two candidates battling for the job, while trying to impress the new staff this month in camp.
D.J. Durkin based the spring depth chart on winter workouts and effort, and it’s no surprise Hills was leading that charge, thus is No. 1 on the depth chart this month.
“Winter workouts were tough, they were honestly really tough. But they are aimed to make everyone mentally tough and you just have to fight through everything,” Hills said.
Hills added he didn’t approach them "just trying to survive” under new (and equally-up-tempo S&C Coach Rick Court) “but you are just going to get better by any means,” he said.
Hills said the new offense is “straight high-tempo,” and “we are going to do some things and we are going to get really good at those things,” indicating it will not be a massive playbook.
Hills said Walt Bell’s energy moves through everyone, and Hills has been energized including in the option game, where he shined at times last year. He said most of the concepts are the same, but there are a few footwork changes for the zone read, etc It's all about quicker delivery now in the throwing game, and that better accuracy.
Durkin said this week that all of the quarterbacks are having their moments in camp, with Hills setting the tone early thus the top spot. He said the players have been "very coachable, willing, and learning how to practice at a whole new rate."
“I think they are doing well,” Durkin said. “They got obviously a ways to go, but they are doing well with it. I thought Perry has had a couple good days, Caleb had a good day today…..we did a little third down and he made some nice throws. All those guys, [Gage] Shaffer is doing well. They are all in their own ways having better days than others as we keep going but that is indicative of learning a new scheme. We’ll just keep working with them and getting them reps.”
Hills said sophomore center Brendan Moore, among others on the offensive side of the ball, has also helped set the tone for the unit as everyone gets acclimated this month.
Hills said he wasted no time getting to know the new staff, and wanted to “show them this is what I am about. I am just going to work hard, you know.”
Rowe is also seemingly more at ease, and likes the free flow of the new offense. He is another Terp that has the physical tools, but has yet to lock-in mentally, at least consistently enough to run the offense full-time. Rowe has the bigger arm, Hills the better feet/option ability. But again it will come down to who can manage the offense best, and this time around without all the gaudy mistakes.
“First off, this offense is a lot more fast-paced and its fun and it’s a little easier. So it’s not as complex, which allows you to play a lot faster,” Rowe said this week. “Coach Bell is fun, energetic, real intense, which I like. He and I get along.”
Rowe said Bell demands perfection “100 percent of the time,” and at such a fast pace. Rowe joked that Hills did cone drills faster than him in winter workouts, and is not worried about his current No. 2 spot on the depth. He said it is an open competition for the fall.
“It was really mentally, all of last year, it was a pretty hard year personally and for the team,” Rowe said of his struggles. “But I just keep working hard, and that is all you can do when things aren’t going your way.”
Rowe said a lot of stress was put on the quarterbacks last year, “but that is all behind me. And the offense is a lot easier, and it’s all just terminology, the concept is fairly the same, and now just playing faster.”
Rowe added that the work with Rick Court has made all the players more physically prepared for the new, higher tempo.
“The winter workouts, they were pretty tough,” Rowe said. “But I think guys are ready for this high-tempo offense and ready to score some points. I am able to throw the ball around, find receivers, and honestly I think that any quarterback that plays in here in this offense is going to do a very good job.”
Rowe said moving his feet in the pocket and playing faster are his focal points this off-season, indicating a lot of his negative plays last year came when “I just didn’t move the way I should have and guys were in my lap and forced me to throw the ball in different areas.”
He said he and Hills have come in twice a day, every day, to meet with Bell in going over the offense.
“It’s real good. The offense is being taught to us really well,” Rowe added.
Rowe said among the ball-catchers, sophomore D.J. Moore has set the tone in spring camp, as well as Levern Jacobs and kid brother Taivon Jacobs, who is now inside. “Having his speed on the inside….he can beat a lot of linebackers and safeties,” Rowe said of the younger Jacobs
And as for his spring break, Rowe had some quiet time with family, too, back home in South Carolina. Well kinda. His two brothers have newborns, at two and three months.
But said Frerotte of what may be to come for Hills, who for now is the presumptive starter in the new scheme:
“It was a lot of fun because Perry made it that way because he is such a hard worker,” Frerotte said. “And he is prepared to go down there and have a good year. And you know a lot of the throws in the spread system are geared towards how accurate you can be. So that’s some of the things what we really focused on.
"He has some really big goals, which you’d like to see, so I am really excited to watch him play this year.”