Todd Dodge knows a thing or two about quarterbacks. As head coach at Southlake Carroll, where he led them to four state championships, coaching quarterbacks Chase Daniel (Missouri) and Greg McElroy (Alabama). Daniel is a backup for the New Orleans Saints, and McElroy is a backup with the New York Jets. McElroy even led Alabama to a national championship.
Getting a chance to call the plays on his own this Saturday is familiar territory for him. He shows no hesitation in the pride or the excitement of getting to do this in perhaps his one and only chance at Pitt. He shared ideas with Calvin Magee, who left after the regular season to join Rich Rodriguez' staff at Arizona.
"I called plays the whole time at Southlake," Dodge said. "I called plays the first three years of my four years at North Texas. For the last 17 of the 18 years, I've been the playcaller on the sideline. I feel very comfortable in that way."
Better yet, Dodge the endorsement of interim head coach Keith Patterson and the players. Patterson is in a new situation as well. He is used to just calling the defensive plays. He'll still do that Saturday, but has full confidence in delegating all the offensive responsibilities to Dodge.
"I really do," Patterson said.
"We've thrown more balls vertically in practice, and with success against our defense," Patterson said. "I hope that's a good sign for our offense and not a negative for us defensively. I've been very impressed. It has a little bit of a different feel defensively. I think that's to our advantage. How do you prepare for an offensive playcaller you haven't seen all year long? I think that's an advantage in the bowl game."
Dodge doesn't expect to throw the ball downfield every time. He feels if he can get the offense into a particular situation—specifically second-and-short—that's where he feels things will open up.<"I just think you can pick and choose the time you can take them," Dodge said. "You're in no-huddle, you can take some shots down field. You don't have to be exotic, you just have to base stuff off of being able to attack things when you're in one-on-one coverages. (SMU) is outstanding in the secondary. They have a lot of confidence (in their secondary), and they will give you a lot of one-on-one opportunities.
"As we've gone through, I've tried to make all of our skill players aware of what my personality is as a playcaller. I think that's been real important that they understand it. Everybody in football will tell you, you want to stay in second-and-three. Our goal is to be in second-and-three the entire game. If you're in a bunch of second-and-threes, you have the opportunity to take a bunch of shots (downfield). If we are, we'll throw the ball downfield."
Patterson not only feels that Dodge's coaching pedigree is a benefit, but Dodge's roots as a player will be a factor.
"Todd will do a great job," Patterson added. "You don't play quarterback at the University of Texas unless you got something about you; great high school head football coach. I'm excited to see what unfolds."
Even more, the players have confidence in him. Though they've had to endure the aftermath of Todd Graham leaving the program just three weeks ago, there's a lot of trust in Dodge even if it means learning a new system just for this one game. Receiver Mike Shanahan feels everything has been clicking so far.
"It's a little bit different," Shanahan said. "(Dodge) is adding his own wrinkles in. For the most part, we're still running our base things we've been running all year. I think his wrinkles, you'll be able to tell a little bit throughout the game. We might slow the pace down, then we're going to switch it up a little bit and just try to tempo them a little bit. Basically, we're still running the same things. We added a couple adjustments just to attack SMU. I think nothing we will do is any different for any opponent during the regular season, just wrinkles and trying to attack.
"I think it's a little bit more exciting. I think he's going to spread the ball around and a lot of guys are going to be able to get some touches."
Lying inside the walls of this gameplan is Dodge restoring and maintaining quarterback Tino Sunseri's confidence level. As Patterson alluded to, Dodge only needs to refer to his own experiences as a college quarterback. Part of establishing that confidence is picking up the pieces in the way Graham threw Sunseri under the bus at times this year with some of his comments, most notably his postgame comments towards Sunseri after the loss at West Virginia.
It's within his own experience, that Dodge feels he can help Sunseri one last time—that combined with that fact that the coaching staff and players have just one shot to make this all work.
"I think overall, (Sunseri) dealt with it well," Dodge said. "People have no idea in the age of these young men they play football in, and with all the opinions about them, I tell quarterbacks all the time I do not envy the era you play quarterback. I played at the University of Texas, and I know what it's like to be booed by 80,000 and have a standing ovation by the same 80,000 in the same day. That's just the way fans can be. That's never going to change."
Whether it's Patterson, or the players, there's a confidence and an excitement about Saturday's game. Dodge may also be auditioning for another job elsewhere, but from the sounds of things he's got a few possible options after the game ends on Saturday.
"At about 4 o'clock on the seventh of January, my time at Pitt will probably be up," Dodge said. "I would expect to get an opportunity to visit with Coach Chryst. I don't have any grandiose ideas about anything. I wish him luck, and I'll tell him that I think this is a great place. I'm not worried about it. I'm in very good shape. I have some things I'm looking at. I have some high school opportunities in the state of Texas. I have two or three things in college football that I've talked with people right now. When it's over with, I loved my time in Pittsburgh. I absolutely love the city and wish that it didn't have to end here. That's the way this business goes sometimes."
That kind of approach has clearly rubbed off on the players. The coaching change, combined with a sense of urgency to just get it done in one game hopes to benefit Pitt in a big way, specifically the offense.
"It's about your attitudes, how you come to work every day and your work ethic, and how you prepare for a bowl game," Sunseri said. "We know how to handle ourselves. We're just going to play as hard as we can. When our bowl game comes, we're going to take it one practice at a time; being Pitt men and just being honorable and controlling what we can."
"The whole situation, it is what it is," Dodge added. "We kind of joke with the team about the fact that (the coaching changes) are unheard of. You couldn't dream up something that's happened to this football team, and have five or six head coaches in a 12-month period, going into a bowl game with the exact same situation and going into a bowl game where you have five full-time coaches working. "I told them (Wednesday) morning, to me as a competitor, it's one of those deals where people on the outside looking in probably expect Pitt to fall on their face in this situation. Well, that's our choice whether we're going to or not. I'm very excited. I've always been a guy, spread the wealth; get the ball in a lot of different guys hands. We'll play a lot of different receivers in the game."