Thursday, August 21, 2008
GRIDIRON Air Force 1
By Jon Mahoney
Seven of the nation's best high school
quarterbacks descended upon Southern
California in May for the invite-only
Steve Clarkson Super Seven QB Retreat.
As the two top recruits in the ESPNU 150,
seniors Matt Barkley of Mater Dei (Santa Ana,
Calif.) and Russell Shepard of Cypress Ridge
(Houston, Texas) headlined the event. Even
though Barkley and Shepard had never met,
they became fast friends who talked about
everything from football recruiting to school.
Basically, the two signal callers discovered they
had a lot more in common than being the
nation's most sought-after football players.
Off the field, that is.
On the gridiron, Barkley and Shepard
represent two opposite schools of quarterback.
Barkley reps the classic, drop-back signal caller,
while Shepard symbolizes the new-school
dual-threat weapon who can make plays with
his arm and feet.
"You look at me and Matt and it's night and
day," says Shepard, who's bound for LSU. "Matt
is like the old type of pro-style QB and I'm the
new one trying to walk in the door."
While Shepard is doing his best to change
the game, the reality is drop-back quarterbacks
have historically ruled the football landscape.
Of the last 15 Super Bowl winners, only John
Elway, Steve Young and Ben Roethlisberger
were considered legitimate dual threats. And
even Elway and Young - not to mention other
dual threats like Donovan McNabb and Randall
Cunningham - became known more as
passers later in their careers.
Dual threats have, however, thrived in
college, where the defenses aren't consistently
as fast. Vince Young's feet, for instance, led
Texas to the 2006 NCAA championship when
he rushed for 200 yards - including 8 on a
fantastic game-winning touchdown - in the
Longhorns' instant-classic Rose Bowl win over
USC. But Young has failed to repeat that magic
in the NFL, where he's had two unremarkable
seasons with the Tennessee Titans.
"I think that what will always stand the test
of time is that the drop-back quarterback is
like the cockroach," says Steve Clarkson, who
was a prototypical quarterback at San Jose
State before becoming a QB instructor. "No
matter what you do to try and extinguish it, it
keeps coming back. There are opportunities to
be cute with the position, but to really play it
well you have to have attributes of pro-style."
Barkley is a prototypical pro-style QB.
Bound for USC, he has started since his
freshman year at Mater Dei, a quarterback
factory that produced Heisman Trophy winners
Matt Leinart and John Huarte as well as NCAA
record-setter Colt Brennan. As a junior last
year, Barkley completed 214 of 340 passes for
3,576 yards, 35 touchdowns and just nine
interceptions to become the first non-senior to
earn Gatorade National Football Player of the
"He's a hell of a quarterback," Shepard
admits. "He's going to be so successful. I wouldn't
be surprised if he started as a freshman."
At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Barkley is
strong enough to take a pounding even if he's
not fast enough to blow past many defensive
backs. He's also proficient in his mechanics, elusive in the pocket and quick with his
release, which, as basic as they sound,
are three keys to being a successful
quarterback in the NFL with or without
While Tom Brady wouldn't be able to
beat Young in a 40-yard dash with a
20-yard head start, he's the best in the
NFL at avoiding the rush in the pocket,
giving him time to make all the correct
reads without forcing an interception.
Young, meanwhile, has yet to
become the NFL star many predicted in
large part because he tends to run
before making all his reads. That may
have worked in college with his speed
(just ask USC), but in the NFL some of
the defensive ends are just as fast as
Young, meaning he no longer enjoys the
running room he did in college.
Boston College offensive coordinator
Steve Logan has worked with both kinds
of quarterbacks. In 2007, he taught
pro-style quarterback Matt Ryan how
to move more in the pocket like Tom
Brady. That lesson helped Ryan become
the No. 1 quarterback selected in the
2008 NFL Draft.
And as the head coach at East
Carolina, Logan helped future NFL signal
callers Jeff Blake and David Garrard
become passers first and runners second
by teaching them to throw on the run
rather than run to throw. The lessons
taught them to keep their eyes up and
look down field to make plays with their
arms. Only if all the passing checks were
unavailable could they burn the
defenses with their feet.
"If they've created for themselves a
comfort zone of pulling down the football
and running, you've got some issues you
want to resolve if you want to go to the
NFL," says Logan. "Vince Young will never
be able to do what he did in the Rose
Bowl. Running is not going to be the
ticket. You've got to show people in the
NFL that you can operate in the pocket -
then show them that bonus."
That's exactly what Garrard did last
year. He threw for 2,509 yards, 18
touchdowns and just three picks for
Jacksonville while always keeping that
secret weapon in his back pocket. Garrard
ran only five times in last year's NFL
playoff game against Pittsburgh, but one
just happened to be a crucial 32-yard
scramble on 4th-and-2 that kept
Jacksonville's game-winning drive alive.
"The run has to be the last option,"
says ESPN Scouts Inc. national recruiting
director Tom Luginbill, who played
quarterback at Georgia Tech and Eastern
Kentucky. "If it's not, defenses are going
to key on that. It's like chum in the water
If anything, Shepard doesn't need to
improve his running - the kid could
outmaneuver an opponent in a phone
booth. When he takes off, Shepard shows
the vision and cutback skills of a tailback.
In the open field, defenders are at the
mercy of his wicked jukes and stop-on-adime
"I think he's the most athletic quarterback
in his class," says Blake, who threw
134 touchdown passes during his NFL
career and now works on passing with
Shepard. "I can guarantee the kid from
California can't do a third of the things
Russell can do in terms of athleticism."
Shepard, who checks in at 6-1 and
195 pounds, passed for only 794 yards
and seven scores as a junior but was
dominant with his legs, running for 1,525
yards and 18 touchdowns.
"The game is moving toward speed,"
he says. "I'm going to be part of changing
the way the position is played."
In college, Shepard might be able to
excel with his running because of the
evolution of the spread offense. But if he
wants to achieve his dream of playing QB
in the NFL, Shepard must improve his
To his credit, Shepard doesn't want to
be considered a running back who just
happens to play quarterback. That's why
he spends six days a week just throwing
the football - keeping running at the back of his mind.
"Sometimes when you're an athlete
playing the quarterback position, it can
work against you," says Shepard. "I need
to get better as a pocket passer. I want
to be known as a quarterback who's
athletic (rather) than an athlete playing
Right now that's not necessarily the
case. Shepard enters the season rated
the No. 1 athlete but No. 2 overall
recruit in the ESPNU 150. Barkley,
meanwhile, is rated the nation's top
recruit and quarterback.
If playing quarterback doesn't work
out for Shepard, he has options.
Shepard was slated to start at wide
receiver as a sophomore but switched to
quarterback after the projected starter
But before even thinking about
making a position change, Shepard
wants the chance prove he can play QB
at the next level and show he and
Barkley can be as similar on the field as
they are off of it.