GEORGE WHITFIELD TEACHES QUARTERBACKS TO STRAIGHTEN THEIR TIES AND CUT THE GRASS. GET DRAFTED, THEY DO
The aspirants sit on couches in his first-floor apartment beneath a swanky house just off Mission Beach near San Diego. The QB Whisperer points a remote control at his DVR and fast-forwards until he sees Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed training on the beach in advance of Balboa’s second fight against Clubber Lang. George Whitfield Jr. hits play—he wants Landry Jones and Johnny McEntee to see this part.
Jones, the four-year starter who owns Oklahoma’s records for career passing yards and passing touchdowns, and McEntee, the Connecticut walk-on whose Trick Shot Quarterback video has more than seven million views on YouTube, giggle at the shortness of the shorts Rocky and Apollo wear as they race down a beach. As Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers embrace on the screen moments later, Whitfield smiles. “That’s how you guys are going to be after this,” Whitfield says. “Just hugging.”
Later that day Whitfield will chase the quarterbacks with brooms. He will adjust their drop-back technique in the sand. He will persuade Jones to wade into the 55° Pacific Ocean and use the currents to hone his pocket mobility. The following day Whitfield will whip beanbags at the quarterbacks as they look for receivers. He will recruit local high school students to act as a failing offensive line that collapses on the quarterbacks as they try to throw. During a process Whitfield calls engineering, he’ll tell his “Jedis” (master QBs) to “keep your tie on” (maintain upright posture with hands in front of chest) and “draw the sword” (follow through on the release as if reaching for a scabbard). He’ll chide them if he catches them “bird watching” (admiring the flight of the ball).
Whitfield developed his vernacular while teaching “lions” (high schoolers) and “lion cubs” (elementary and middle schoolers) years before Jedis such as Ben Roethlisberger, Donovan McNabb, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck came to him. Even though his only formal coaching training consisted of grunt work on Iowa’s staff in 2001 and ‘02 and an unpaid off-season internship with then Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in ’06, the former Division II player and Arena league short-timer has emerged as one of the nation’s preeminent quarterback gurus. Whitfield Athletix has only three employees and two interns, which means it’s dwarfed by wealthy, sophisticated training empires such as IMG Academy, but Whitfield has survived by mixing tried-and-true techniques with innovative drills designed to help quarterbacks adapt to an ever-evolving NFL.
Between now and April, Whitfield will “engineer” likely draftees Jones and Matt Scott (Arizona) while trying to mold McEntee and Nate Montana (son of Joe Montana, who bounced around from Notre Dame to Montana to West Virginia Wesleyan) into free-agent signees. After the draft Whitfield expects a visit from Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who says his sessions with Whitfield in May 2012 helped him gain the confidence he needed to win the starting job at Texas A&M. Whitfield has requests for training from potential 2013 Heisman candidate Braxton Miller of Ohio State, Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Georgia’s Aaron Murray, each of whom should finish his college career high on the 2014 draft board. Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, who held the same position at Stanford when Whitfield trained Luck for the draft, holds Whitfield apart from the raft of other QB gurus. “What distinguishes George,” says Hamiltion, “is he’s able to really help quarterbacks master their skill set.”
Of course a guy who calls his charges Jedis is a nerd, but Whitfield isn’t a Tatooine-has-two-suns nerd. He’s a quarterbacking nerd. He watches cut-ups of Peyton Manning’s 2004 MVP season the way other nerds watch The Empire Strikes Back. Whitfield loves the quarterback position because he considers it the most egalitarian on the field. A 5’ 11" player has no shot at becoming an offensive tackle and a 6’ 6" guy has little chance of becoming a cornerback in the NFL. But if either works hard enough, he could play quarterback. “It’s the only position in football where God gave you X, but the rest has to be learned,” he says.
God gave Whitfield the body of a large safety or a small linebacker—he’s broad-shouldered with a thick trunk and beefy legs. But the quarterback nerd wanted to play only one position. So he worked at it, taking lessons from a moonlighting engineer named Tom Kiser, which eventually helped Whitfield win the starting job at football-crazy Massillon (Ohio) High. Jim Tressel recruited him to FCS power Youngstown State in 1996, but he sat on the bench for a year and then transferred when he sensed that he was facing a position switch. He landed at Tiffin, a Division II school about 60 miles southeast of Toledo, where he finished his career third alltime in the school’s records for completions (368), yards (4,391) and TD passes (31). After school Whitfield decided he wanted to coach and landed a job at Iowa as a weight-room graduate assistant, hoping to work his way up the ranks. Though he loved the job, he couldn’t let go of quarterbacking. He tried out for teams in the Arena Football and AF2 leagues.
While training for Arena ball, Whitfield moved to San Diego and looked for a day job to pay the bills. In 2004 he applied for a marketing position at Green Flash Brewing Company, faxing his résumé to founder Lisa Hinkley. Almost immediately Hinkley called but with a different job in mind. Her husband, Mike, had become the head coach of their son Michael’s Pop Warner football team. As the most athletic player on the team, Michael, a fourth-grader, had been named quarterback. Mike had no football experience, so the Hinkleys needed someone to give their son a crash course in quarterbacking. Whitfield wasn’t qualified for the marketing job, but he was overqualified for this task.
Lisa Hinkley paid Whitfield $40 for that first lesson. The Hinkleys figured they would videotape the session for further study and the training would end there. But the first lion cub responded so well to Whitfield that the Hinkleys asked for another appointment. As Michael improved, other parents asked the Hinkleys for their secret. Lisa suggested Whitfield train more players. “There are all these people who have lots of disposable income, and all of them think their child is going to be the next Peyton Manning,” Lisa told Whitfield. “There’s probably a market for that.”
There was. By then Whitfield had done brief stints with four Arena teams, and it was obvious he wasn’t going to make a living as a football player. So he began training school-age quarterbacks in the San Diego area. He had contacts at a variety of colleges from his time in the game, and he began touting his players to coaches. In 2009, Whitfield designed his first QB Rock Tour—a fancy name for the coach and a group of sleep-deprived dads driving lions to colleges across the country, checking out campuses and showing off for college coaches. The group included Shane Dillon, now at Colorado, and Brett Nelson, who signed with Louisville. That same year, a mutual friend recommended Whitfield to agents Bruce and Ryan Tollner, who sent Louisville quarterback Hunter Cantwell to Whitfield to train for the draft. Cantwell didn’t get picked, but Carolina Panthers coaches were so impressed with Cantwell’s revamped throwing motion that they signed him as a free agent.
In 2010 the Tollners hired Whitfield to work with their biggest—and, at the time, most infamous—client. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had been accused of sexual assault by a woman in Milledgeville, Ga., and although prosecutors said they lacked the evidence to pursue a criminal charge, the NFL suspended Roethlisberger for four games. Big Ben needed to stay sharp during his time away, so the Tollners brought Whitfield to the Iron City. Soon Whitfield found himself at a Pittsburgh-area hardware store, buying a rake that would simulate a charging defensive end as Roethlisberger tried to target a receiver. Roethlisberger loved the drill, which Whitfield says he borrowed from current Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. Two years later reporters lit up Twitter with dispatches from Luck’s pro day as Whitfield brandished a broom while the future No. 1 pick tried to throw.
Whenever Whitfield sees a change in the game, he responds by designing new drills. He beefed up his rotation of under-pressure drills after a scout told him that film study of one AFC team had found that quarterbacks had to make at least one evasive maneuver on 53% of called passes. For Jones, who had asked specifically for drills that would improve his mobility in the pocket, Whitfield designed the drill in which the offensive linemen fail to varying degrees, forcing the quarterback to move on every rep. “There’s a notion with regard to training or practice that it’s always pristine. The conditions are always perfect,” Whitfield says. “O-lines aren’t some Great Wall of China at any level. Set [QBs] up for what they’re really going to walk into. You can’t set them up for the streets of New York City when they’re really going to Guatemala.”
Cameron, who served as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator until December, says coaches can expect three things from Whitfield-trained quarterbacks.
1) Footwork: “He gives a quarterback a tremendous base that sets the table for the arm mechanics.”
2) Throwing motion: “Everyone may be a little bit different because of hand size and arm length, but the guy is going to develop a compact motion, which allows him to get the ball out as quickly as possible. That’s critical at the NFL and college levels.”
3) Throwing on the move: “He’s got a sequence of drills where [his students] can take their fundamentals and use them athletically. Quarterbacks are on the move now more than ever. Traditional pocket passing is not nearly as valuable today as it once was.”
Whitfield’s creativity isn’t limited to the practice field. Each time Whitfield meets a new Jedi, he presents the client with a pair of tennis-ball-sized metal spheres. Spinning the balls in the throwing hand strengthens the muscles in the palm and fingers, which is critical for quarterbacks.
For a guru who has trained the No. 1 pick in each of the past two drafts, Whitfield runs a decidedly mom-and-pop operation. Quarterbacks often meet him at some random field in the San Diego area, where Whitfield arrives in his dented black Nissan XTerra. He says he has had the chance to go to work for larger firms for more money, but such arrangements usually tie a trainer to a select group of agents. Whitfield, who charges $3,000 to $3,500 a week for predraft training, remains independent and therefore doesn’t get locked out by certain agencies. Still, independence has its challenges. He must scare up quality receivers to run routes for his quarterbacks—he usually uses San Diego–based NFL players or receivers from San Diego State or the University of San Diego—and he must work with local colleges and high schools to find fields. “We’re like the little guys always fighting against the Goliaths,” says Ryan Flaherty, the founder of Prolific Athletes, another small, independent outfit that provides strength training for players, including Whitfield’s.
On a sunny January day, Whitfield and the Jedis drive north to Irvine to work with a set of non-Whitfield trainees prepping for the draft. It feels like an away game. On the field at Concordia University, Jones and McEntee join North Carolina State quarterback Mike Glennon, a 6’ 6" slinger who may have the strongest arm in this year’s draft. Glennon throws to Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and USC wideout Robert Woods, and the ball sizzles as the laces whiz through the air. Jones doesn’t have the same caliber cannon, but he rarely misses—even on high-degree-of-difficulty routes such as the 12-yard out. After another perfect out from Jones, Whitfield nods. “You’ll throw those all day,” he says. “Order another round.”
As they walk through the parking lot after the session, Jones and Whitfield pass a Bentley. Asked when he’ll trade in the XTerra for a Bentley of his own, Whitfield laughs. “Landry’s going to have to win three Super Bowls before I get one of those,” he says.
Later that night at Jones’s hotel in La Jolla, Whitfield drills his pupil on plays for the upcoming Senior Bowl. Coaches from the Detroit Lions are in charge of Jones’s team, and they have sent a package of about 60 plays. Jones, Whitfield and McEntee have spent the previous two nights studying and drawing routes on a dry-erase board. Jones aces the test, missing only one variation on three different plays and reciting the rest flawlessly. As the sun sinks into the Pacific outside the meeting room, Whitfield asks Jones if he needs more help. Not tonight, Jones says. His wife, Whitney, has just arrived. “It’s date night, playa,” Jones says.
Four days later in Mobile, Jones and Glennon take part in their first Senior Bowl practices. While Glennon forces passes into coverage, Jones wows scouts: “Oklahoma product Landry Jones had the best day of all the quarterbacks,” former scout Daniel Jeremiah writes at NFL.com. “He has outstanding arm talent and moved around better in the pocket than he did on tape from the fall.”
This is precisely what Jones had asked Whitfield to help him improve. In a year when West Virginia’s Geno Smith is the presumptive No. 1 quarterback but no one truly jumps out as a draft-day lock, such a public show of improvement can be worth significant money. “Pocket presence, moving in the pocket,” Jones says. “George is always talking about being explosive and keeping everything as quick and as tight as possible.”
Actually, Whitfield would tell Jones to “cut grass” (brush his cleats along the turf to maintain proper footing), then get in a “home run stance” (bend the knees, allowing the thighs to generate power) while “buckling the ball” (holding it by the collarbone nearest the throwing arm). Then he’d tell him to “flash” (turn his nonthrowing shoulder toward the target), use his “GPS” (his left foot, which should point to where the ball will travel) and “cast the fishing line” (throw).
Whitfield can take a quarterback whose first instinct is to run—Newton or Manziel, for example—and teach him to stay comfortable in the pocket. Or he can take a player such as Jones, who prefers to set and throw, and teach him to throw on the move. Whatever a quarterback needs to survive in today’s game, the Colts’ Hamilton says, Whitfield can find a way to teach it.
“He’s a Jedi,” Hamilton says.