The Fundamental Things Apply

This is the first in a summer-long series on some of the fundamental items that each football position coach at West Virginia emphasizes and works on with their players. Leading off the series is quarterbacks coach Rod Smith.

Smith, who returned to West Virginia after a six-year stint at South Florida, has plenty of experience with the position. He coached USF's quarterbacks, coordinated the passing game and was the offensive coordinator for the Bulls, but that's only half the story. He was also an All-American QB for head coach Rich Rodriguez at Glenville, so he can teach from the perspective of a former player as well as that of a coach.

From one standpoint, however all that experience could lead to too much analysis – something that Smith is careful to avoid. When asked to list some of the top items he looks for in evaluating players, he leads the list with the obvious choice.

"Talent," the jocular Smith said with a laugh. "But after that, you get into things such as footwork, their throwing mechanics, ball placement – a lot of fundamental techniques that you are going to teach and look for, or try to tweak and make better. All of those things go together to get them into a better throwing position.

"On tape you look and see if he is smart, if he makes sound decisions, is he athletic, all those things. From a fundamental standpoint, that's what we look for."

Once the player is signed and on camps, every practice is filled with instructions in fundamentals. Smith, and head coach Rich Rodriguez, watch, critique and correct every throw made by the QBs. In those evaluations, a pair of fundamentals loom large. The first is ball position.

"We try to give the quarterbacks some leeway in where they hold the ball, because we want them to be comfortable," Smith said. "But there is a range where we want it. We want the ball to be held high, but it doesn't have to be uncomfortably high. We tell our guys we want it somewhere between the ear and the shoulder. Never lower than the shoulder, never higher than the head. Just like pitchers have different release points, quarterbacks are going to throw and release it differently, so they don't have to all hold it in exactly the same place. The important thing is to be comfortable. I think those are the things that make them the most effective and can create the greatest accuracy and quickest release time."

Accuracy and a quick release are often supposed to be natural traits of quarterbacks, and to a certain extend that is true. Some passers simply seem to be able to deliver passes right on the dime, while others get rid of the ball as if it's a hot potato. However, Smith believes that proper mechanics, starting with the hold and the release point, can help improve quarterbacks in that area.

Another fundamental that isn't often considered comes not from the upper half, but the lower half, of the body.

"Footwork is often the most overlooked thing," Smith continued. "We always say you have to have your feet ready to throw as well as your arm. Your feet have to be in place and under your shoulders. That's one of the most important things we teach, and there are a lot of things that go into footwork."

In addition to getting the feet set to throw, there's also the matter of drops and getting to the proper spot to not only throw, but also hand the ball off. With each quarterback having a different running style, there are obviously some differences in teaching the proper steps and paths as well. A runner in the style of Pat White, who is a long strider, does things a bit differently than someone like Adam Bednarik, who has a more classic dropback style. However, just as in ball positioning and release, there's enough flexibility in the Mountaineer system to accommodate different styles.

Quarterbacks coming into the Mountaineer program enter at varying levels of fundamental proficiency, and Smith admits that changing someone who has done something one way for a long time can be a big challenge. Much of that lies in their football background.

[Changing a quarterback's mechanics] can depend on how much coaching they have had and what type of program they come from," Smith said. "Obviously the ones that come from better programs are more advanced. They'll be the ones keeping the ball high and keeping their feet ready. One last thing we look for is the transfer of weight. How they transfer through the throw affects accuracy as well. A lot of times guys leave their weight behind."

Thus, just like you heard in Little League, follow through is important. So too are constant reviews, which comes not only on the field, but also in the classroom.

"There's no question film is very important, particularly with our guys," the West Virginia native said. "We are constantly working the fundamentals and looking to tweak them if need be. Some guys already do some things very naturally, but there are things that you need to work with them on."

While striving for improvement is a never-ending process, there's also the notion that some mechanics, or certain quirks, should be left alone. That usually depends on several different factors.

"You don't mess with a racehorse when he's coming in first place," said Smith, who seemingly has an appropriate homily for every situation. "You have to be smart and selective in how you do it. It can depend on the age the person is, and how talented they are. Do you have time to work with him and develop it? It all varies from person to person."

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