Let's be honest, however, about one thing. As long as Charlie Weis is the head coach at the University of Notre Dame, this football team will go as far as its quarterback can take it. The remainder of this spring and summer off-season period could be the most important for the Notre Dame program. How this crop of quarterbacks develops and prepare for this season goes a very long way towards how this football team will perform during the 2007 season. The difference between a 7-5 or 8-4 season and a 9-3 and 10-2 season rests squarely on the broad shoulders of whoever emerges as the starting quarterback for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
The phase between the end of the season and spring practice varies quite a bit from the period between the end of spring practice and the beginning of the 2007 season. I will briefly go over what I believe the Notre Dame quarterbacks will be doing from now until the fall.
STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING: During any off-season phase players continue to gain strength and add some mass to their bodies. But the spring/summer phase shifts course a bit. The emphasis during the winter phase usually emphasizes size and strength first and agility second. The spring/summer phase traditionally emphasizes more football and position specific strength and conditioning phases. Neither aspect takes a back seat at any part of the off-season. Rather, what changes is which one is regarded as the primary aspect of the workout. This is true for quarterbacks as well. You are looking to get yourself ready to play 13 sixty minute football games. You are looking to develop the skill sets that you most need at your position. From a conditioning standpoint you will see a shift as well. More often than not what players do for conditioning will shift. It varies from program to program but you'll often see more sprinting this time of year than you will see long distance running.
POSITION SPECIFIC: This period of the off-season is loaded with agilities and position specific drills looking to accomplish essentially two things. The first is to improve overall foot quickness. The second is to improve each player's specific footwork during their drops, at the top of their drop, movement in the pocket, and their scrambling ability. This is accomplished using a combination of bag/cone/line drills as well as various drills that will simulate game situations. The sprinting and conditioning routine will also incorporate position specific routines.
MECHANICAL WORK: Every single college football player needs to continue to improve and refine his mechanics. This is especially true with quarterbacks. Every single quarterback at Notre Dame has quite a bit of mechanical work needed this off-season.
• Pocket Footwork – I discussed previously, the need to continue to improve foot quickness. Each player will also need to continue to refine his drop speed, drop technique, and how he sets up in the pocket. That's step one. The second aspect of a quarterback's footwork is what he does when you aren't able to drop, set, and throw the football on rhythm. The Notre Dame quarterbacks are going to be doing a ton of in-the-pocket mobility drills. This will help them be lighter on their feet as they sit in the pocket and go through their progressions. They will be working on stepping up in the pocket, stepping out of the pocket, spinning out of the pocket, and stepping up and then out of the pocket. While doing this quarterbacks must learn to feel the rush and not see the rush, which will allow them to keep their eyes focused on finding an open receiver.
• Throwing Mechanics – This is another aspect that will always require improvement and refinement. There are basic things that each quarterback will need to work on. Those aspects are ball carriage, ball fakes, getting quicker, getting through the throwing zone, and getting consistent with their release point. Most of the accuracy issues I have seen with good quarterbacks come from bad footwork and inconsistency with their release point. Often times a ball that sails comes from releasing the ball too soon. This can be corrected through emphasis and repetition. It's about training your body to repeat the same motion over and over again. I'm sure most of you have heard the phrase "muscle memory." That's essentially what this is.
• Throwing Footwork – This is huge. Footwork is the key to a great quarterback. You could have a great arm and a great mind, but your footwork will be what allows you to become a great quarterback. I honestly believe that. When Brady Quinn struggled with his accuracy I could almost always trace it back to a footwork problem. That's the case with most quarterbacks. If you open up too much you lose power. If you don't open up enough you lose power. If you don't use good footwork you can't use the core of your body and you lose power. If you don't have consistent footwork, chances are pretty good you won't be a consistent passer. Quarterbacks will rep over and over again the proper footwork when making a throw. I always taught my quarterbacks that your feet will take you to where you want to throw the football. Your feet should guide your eyes as you go through your progressions and they'll guide the ball to the open area. This was a big issue during spring practices from what I saw. Each quarterback needs to get much better with this throwing footwork.
MENTAL WORK: Each of the Notre Dame quarterbacks will continue to develop mentally to the offense. None of these players are where they need to be, I can guarantee you. The spring/summer workouts are a great period to develop your knowledge of the offense. During the periods where you are just with the receivers and backs, during the one-on-one periods against defensive backs, and during 7-on-7 games you continue to develop your knowledge. We also must consider that Notre Dame is going to emphasizing differing parts of their offense from past years so each quarterback is adjusting to some "new" stuff as well. Each player must also get more comfortable going through progressions. None of the quarterbacks looked really sharp in this area during the spring.
TIMING/COHESION: Now that the quarterbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs have had a chance to face some live bullets together, they are ready for the next step. The quarterbacks are still learning each player's skill set. How you throw the football to each player will vary depending on their skill set. If a guy is a fast guy you just let it loose and allow him to run to it. A guy without great speed you might throw it behind or outside and let him to make a play on it. A big guy you just throw it up and let him go get it. This goes for many of the routes. Also how much you lead a guy depends on his speed. This can't be something you are thinking about as a quarterback. That's why this period is so important. You just learn to get adept and get used to each player to the point where it's natural for you to throw it where they can catch it. This is the aspect of timing people often overlook. It's more than just throwing the ball on time. It's about knowing how a guy gets out of his breaks, how fast a guy is, if a guy gets off the line slow or fast, etc. The backs and receivers must also get used to each quarterback. One guy might throw hard, one guy might really throw the ball early right out of the break. One guy might throw high, another might throw low.
LEADERSHIP: The players in the locker room know who can do what. Now they are looking for someone to step up and say "Follow me." Someone is likely to separate himself during this period from a physical standpoint. That player must also establish himself as a leader as well. When ND kicks off against Georgia Tech you want the other twenty starters and all the backups to know that you are the man.
We'll talk more specifically about the quarterbacks in my next article.