“There were other players who were more talented, but there was no one who could out-prepare me. And because of that I have no regrets.” — Peyton Manning
Decades in coaching have molded how John Tomlinson approaches preparation.
Tomlinson has mentored quarterbacks for 20 years. Son of a serviceman, his regimented nature manifests itself in that work. So does one particularly transformational stop along the way: A 2010 internship with the Indianapolis Colts.
Peyton Manning was heading into his 13th season. Tomlinson spent a couple months in the Colts quarterback room, helping out and also observing one of the all-time greats. Manning has long been known for dogged preparation that helped him master the position.
“I’m usually a low radar guy,” Tomlinson said. “I believe in working real hard. But I was fortunate because I was mentored by some NFL guys. I’ve taken a lot of their influence in how I prepare quarterbacks.”
After the Colts internship, Tomlinson spent some time on staff at Morgan State University before being hired in July 2013 at Cedar Hill High School, one of the top programs in Texas.
Cedar Hill turned into a perfect setting for Tomlinson to apply his preparation principles with its up-and-coming quarterback: Four-star prospect Avery Davis. Garret McGuire, son of the head coach, joined Davis and Tomlinson in the quarterback room over the past couple seasons.
“When you’re in there it’s like you’re in a college room,” McGuire said. “Avery is a lot smarter than most quarterbacks our age. Me being a coach’s son, I’ve just been a fly on the wall for years. Coach Tomlinson is the best there is. It was crazy. We were in the film room twice as much as any position on our team.”
Their work started Sunday nights.
Head coach Joey McGuire assembled his staff for meetings that day with an eye toward Friday’s opponent. Afterward Tomlinson broke out on his own, working up a four or five page scouting packet to give Davis and McGuire on Monday morning.
Meanwhile, the quarterbacks would spend Sunday watching film on their own. By the time they received Tomlinson’s packet on Monday they had already watched two games. They’d review the scouting report then head to the practice field.
After Monday’s practice, they’d watch a little more film at the Cedar Hill facility then another game at home.
No major film session Tuesday, but the quarterbacks prepared a quick playlist for their receivers. Tomlinson turned the Wednesday meeting over to Davis and McGuire. They walked their receivers through everything.
“Coach Tomlinson had that idea,” McGuire said, “because that’s what we’ll be doing in college, leading the meeting room, just to get a feel for it. So, Wednesday we’d lead the meeting. By Wednesday we should’ve watched every game.”
If they hadn’t done the work, Tomlinson would find out. Every Thursday he administered an online quiz with about 13 questions. It covered everything from formations, numbers of opposing defensive backs, plus various keys and concepts that would be important come game day.
“That was always the determination of me knowing if they were ready or not,” Tomlinson said. “These are just mental things that we would cover. But they would always do well. I’d look at Avery’s tests — a typical grade for Avery was 100 (percent) every week. If not it’s like a 98. If he missed something and he didn’t understand, we’d sit and talk and go over it.
“By the time we finished on Wednesday night and Thursday going into that test, there’s nothing else to talk about. They’re prepared. I’m not coaching stuff they’re supposed to do on Friday. At that point in time, all the preparation is done.”
As Tomlinson says, proof is in the product.
Davis, who signed with Notre Dame today after a longtime verbal commitment, was one of the most prolific quarterbacks in Texas again as a senior. He threw for 2,876 yards and 37 touchdowns against just five interceptions while completing 69 percent (189-272) of his attempts. He led Cedar Hill to an 11-3 record, even while missing a few games.
McGuire went 3-0 as a starter — he played two games with Davis out with an ankle injury and another late in the year ahead of the playoffs — and completed 65 percent of his passes (54-82). McGuire tossed nine touchdowns and piled up 913 yards.
During those games early in the year, Davis served as a willing pseudo-coach. McGuire often went straight to Davis after a drive then spoke to Tomlinson via communication to the press box.
“Me and Garret have a great relationship,” Davis said. “It’s all love between us two. When I went down and he was coming in, I knew he was gonna do good. I had confidence in him. We work together and we compete against each other every day in practice. I knew what he could do and I knew he’d come in and do well.”
Most important to Tomlinson, the preparation didn’t change. Davis went about his business the same knowing he wasn’t likely to play until the ankle fully healed. Same for McGuire as a starter.
“It always felt like game night for me, this is gonna sound crazy, but it was a time for me to be relaxed,” Tomlinson said. “I work like a hound from Sunday to Wednesday. That was my time to work.”
How Davis and McGuire thrived in the environment Tomlinson fostered is a testament to their friendship. Both admit to being fierce competitors. McGuire had aspirations of winning the starting quarterback job at Cedar Hill for himself. But even after Davis did, a bond formed on and off the field.
“We’re always helping each other at the same time,” Davis said. “But we’re pushing each other a lot. If he makes a throw that I don’t make, I’m gonna feel some type of way about that. I’m gonna make that throw the next time. Then if I make a throw he doesn’t make, I’m gonna talk and make sure he makes it. We’re always competing to make each other better.”
Those moments helped both find success on the field when needed and built a positive vibe in the quarterback room. Tomlinson believes it’ll serve both well in the future.
Davis enrolls this summer at Notre Dame, where Brandon Wimbush is the presumptive starter heading into next season. Veteran quarterbacks DeShone Kizer (NFL Draft) and Malik Zaire (transfer) are no longer part of the program.
McGuire plans to walk on at Baylor, where his father is now an assistant coach. He hopes to pursue a career in coaching.
“When they get on campus their coach automatically will have their ear,” Tomlinson said. “They’re gonna listen and I think that’ll make it easier to recall information and stay on top of concepts, whatever the coach is asking them to do. They’re both very good listeners. I think that’ll be a really big advantage for them.”
Reality has started to set in for Davis and McGuire that moving on is coming up quicker than expected. But they figure to still push each other from afar.
They don’t know any different.
“I’m gonna be texting him after every game,” McGuire said. “It’s funny. Last week we were throwing and he got sad and I got sad. I was like, ‘Man, we’re not gonna be warming up every day anymore. Who are you gonna warm up with?’ We’ve thrown the ball to each other every day for four straight years basically. But I’m still gonna be his biggest fan. I can’t wait to see him thrive at Notre Dame. I know he will.”