Big Ten QBs face constant tinkering

August, 24, 2012
8/24/12
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Taylor Martinez's passing ability and the way he throws the ball have been picked apart by fans since he became Nebraska's starting quarterback in 2010. But give Martinez credit: he tried doing something about it this offeason.

The Cornhuskers junior spent his spring break in California working with quarterback guru Steve Calhoun. Martinez went back to Calhoun for a few days this summer before further refining his game at the Manning Passing Camp.

Martinez -- who completed just 56 percent of his passes in 2011 -- discovered that he had been dropping his left arm on throws, and that an ankle injury he suffered two years ago "caused me to change everything." He sought a return to form.

"He was hurt the last two years and was really just trying to gut it out," said Calhoun, who runs Armed and Dangerous Football Camp. "Now that he's healthy, he's a lot better. He knows he wants to be a better quarterback and a better passer because that will help the team accomplish its goals."

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireTaylor Martinez spent the summer refining the mechanics of his throwing motion.
Martinez's case represented the most dramatic and high-profile attempt by a Big Ten quarterback to rework his mechanics this offseason. But he is far from alone. On several campuses throughout the league, you could find quarterbacks adjusting or refining their techniques. Such constant tinkering comes with the position.

"There are always little things you have to work on, whether you're the best quarterback in the country or a guy making his first start," said Illinois junior Nathan Scheelhaase, who's adapting to a new spread offense. "Even Peyton Manning talks about working on his mechanics. If he is, then I know I have to be working on mine all the time."

It's rare -- and time consuming -- for college coaches to completely break down and repair a quarterback's entire throwing motion. New Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said he had to do that with a player at Iowa State, and it took nearly a year and half to pay off. In Herman's view, if you have to work that hard to change mechanics, "you probably did a poor job evaluating them in high school."

Yet young players don't often get great teaching on all the details of how to throw the ball, especially when it comes to footwork.

"That's the most underdeveloped thing we get probably as college coaches," Herman said. "[Bad habits] are something that constantly recur and you have to continually rep it. You can go 80 snaps in one direction, then all of a sudden for some reason, it reverts to the way it was your junior year in high school."

Michigan's Denard Robinson provided an example of recurring bad habits last season. His tendency to throw off his back foot under pressure led him to tossing a Big Ten-worst 15 interceptions. Robinson focused this offseason on improving his footwork and stepping through his pass attempts.

Like Robinson, Ohio State's Braxton Miller flashed elite athleticism during his true freshman season. He also turned in some subpar passing performances. When Herman arrived in Columbus this winter, he says, Miller's foot placement was "all over the place." Miller was very inconsistent with where he placed his plant leg, leading him to accelerate his arm too quickly and misfiring. Through offseason practice, Herman believes the Buckeyes fixed the problem.

Other quarterbacks have worked on more subtle changes. Minnesota's MarQueis Gray has the kind of cannon-powered arm you'd expect from a 6-foot-4, 245-pounder. But he has had to learn when to throttle back at times.

"It's just a matter following through and knowing when not to have velocity and speed on the ball," Gray said. "Developing that touch to get the ball over linebackers and just drop it into the pocket of a receiver."

Indiana's Tre Roberson, who started as a true freshman a year ago, found out that he had been dropping his throwing elbow before attempting to take shots downfield. After much film work and endless repetitions, he hopes he has eliminated that glitch.

Northwestern's Kain Colter takes over the full-time quarterback job this season a year after he moved all over the offense. Colter completed 67 percent of his passes last year while filling in for Dan Persa, but has had to answer questions about his arm strength. Now two years removed from shoulder surgery, he thinks he's as strong as ever. Still, he has put in hard work on his mechanics this offseason.

"I'm big into golf, and I think it's a lot like that," Colter said. "You've got to do a lot of fine tuning."

Even more polished pocket passers like Iowa's James Vandenberg are not immune to tweaks in their techniques.

"It's always a thing in motion," Calhoun said. "You have to continue to get instruction because there are so many moving parts that you can't feel and see yourself. That's why you need somebody else to give you those little details."
That's what Martinez spent countless hours digesting this offseason, and now he's aiming at completing 70 percent of his passes this season.

"Everything feels weird once you change stuff," he said. "Right now, I feel pretty comfortable with it. Every day, I just kept working on it and acted like I'm throwing the football."

Every quarterback knows that the work never stops.

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