Commentary

The education of a quarterback

From 7-on-7 play to QB gurus, development for the position is at an all-time high

Updated: January 18, 2012, 12:53 PM ET
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN RecruitingNation

KielTom Hauck for ESPN.comFormer Columbus (Ind.) East star Gunner Kiel, who's rated the nation's No. 2 quarterback in the Class of 2012 by ESPNU and has enrolled at Notre Dame, is one of several elite signal-callers who have honed their skills in 7-on-7 competitions.

Forty miles from the beaches of Orange County, the practice field out back at Bishop Mora Salesian High School near East L.A. might as well sit cross-country from the fertile quarterback grounds that spawned the likes of Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez -- not to mention imports like Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, who spent time in California for individual instruction.

For Jihad Vercher, who threw for 3,281 yards and accounted for 49 touchdowns last fall as a Salesian junior en route to earning offensive MVP honors in the Santa Fe League, it's a world away, in fact.

He's an inch or two shorter than the ideally proportioned quarterback.

But Vercher toils tirelessly at his craft, constantly setting a good example for his little brother and sister. Vercher's mother works for the government. His father drives a bus. They're good people who want the best for their son, according to the coaches who tutor the QB in high school.

"If he has an opportunity to go to college, it would change the whole family dynamic," said Angelo Jackson, the Salesian offensive coordinator and longtime Los Angeles-area coach.

Vercher's family can't afford the hundreds of dollars -- thousands, in many cases -- required to work under the guidance of an acclaimed California quarterback guru like Steve Clarkson or Bob Johnson. It's big business for these coaches, and their systems work, generating dozens of college stars and big-name NFL quarterbacks over the past 20 years.

But they're not for everyone.

"I'm more of an underdog," Vercher said.

Vercher attended an event in Clarkson's acclaimed Air 7 operation a few years ago. Jackson was there. He said he saw coaches push Vercher aside because they knew he didn't have the resources to join their program.

"He's just a kid who wants an opportunity," said Devah Thomas, an assistant coach at Salesian who has worked closely with Vercher.

Opportunity found Vercher last year, as Thomas and Jackson -- after local coaches tried to recruit Vercher for their offseason training programs -- tried something new. They started a 7-on-7 team, an offseason brand of football that has exploded nationally on the high school landscape in the past five years.

Vercher, in his first of season of 7-on-7 last spring and summer, played against top competition in three tournaments, winning the final event. He said he grew as a quarterback and a leader.

"His confidence jumped because of it," Jackson said.

For once, Vercher wasn't the underdog.

The rise of 7-on-7 football has evened the playing field in quarterback development nationally. Even in California, the private-instruction capital of the QB world, it's made inroads.

But nowhere compares to Texas for growth and popularity of the 7-on-7 game.

***

Ah, Texas, renowned for its magical Friday nights in the fall, the smell of barbecue nearby as entire towns converge in a true rite of passage.

A new football tradition has emerged, though, without pads or high school coaches and staged in the scorching heat of a Lone Star summer.

The spread offense has roots in Texas, and by no coincidence, so does the burgeoning popularity of 7-on-7 football, which features no linemen and only the most agile linebackers.

Primarily, it's receivers against defensive backs. And a quarterback, the most important position. Since Texas instituted a state 7-on-7 championship, staged annually in July, the quarterback success rate in the nation's second-most populous state has skyrocketed.

In the 2011 NFL regular season, 12 of 55 quarterbacks to start a game played high school football in Texas. California had 11, and only one other state -- Pennsylvania with six -- counted more than three. How much of that QB success relates directly to Texans' embrace of 7-on-7 football?

"It's huge," DeSoto (Texas) coach Claude Mathis said. "The crowds we have at these games, it's crazy. For these kids now, that's the only thing you do in the summertime. We're serious about it."

Mathis and his staff can't coach their players in 7-on-7. The University Interscholastic League in Texas dictates they must watch from the end zone, so parents -- in some cases, even the players -- coach the 7-on-7 games.

Over the past three years, DeSoto is 133-8 in 7-on-7. It won a state championship last summer at the tournament in College Station.

DeSoto quarterback Raheem Wilson received his indoctrination through 7-on-7 football. As a senior this past fall, Wilson replaced three-year starter Ryan Polite. DeSoto also lost five receivers to the college game, Mathis said, so the offseason work was extremely important.

"It helped [Wilson] tremendously," the coach said. "He learned the right reads. When we started in the fall, he knew where to go with the football. The timing with his new receivers was great.

"Without it, we'd have had no chemistry."

In November, Wilson helped lead DeSoto to the second round of the Class 5A playoffs, where it lost to nationally ranked Dallas Skyline to finish 10-2. Within a week after the season ended, Mathis said, his returning players began to do 7-on-7 preparation for the upcoming spring and summer season.

Texas also hosted the Red Bull 7-on-7 Game Breakers National Finals this past July, won at SMU's Gerald J. Ford Stadium by players from Martin High School in Arlington, Texas.

Nationally, while its impact can't match what has happened in Texas, 7-on-7 is growing fast.

Kashann Simmons, co-founder of the Texas-based New Level Athletics, said his program's regional and national 7-on-7 tournaments in 2011 attracted more than 5,000 participants -- up from about 700 five years ago.

The national finals, also at SMU in Dallas, featured Auburn QB recruit Zeke Pike of Dixie Heights (Fort Mitchell, Ky.). Gunner Kiel, a Class of 2012 QB out of Columbus East (Ind.) who's already enrolled at Notre Dame and is rated No. 2 among quarterbacks nationally in the ESPNU 150, played in a regional event. Alumni of the tournaments include Georgia's Aaron Murray and Arizona State's Brock Osweiler.

"It puts the quarterback in a position where he can shine," Simmons said. "I think 7-on-7 has revolutionized evaluation and skill level at the position."

T.J. Millweard won't argue. The No. 1-rated QB prospect in Texas and sixth nationally out of Fort Worth All Saints' Episcopal School, Millweard got into 7-on-7 football before his freshman year.

"I'd start getting the itch," he said. "I'd want to compete. I'd want to play somewhere."

Instead of basketball, 7-on-7 developed into his outlet. And it aided his progress. Millweard has also worked with a private instructor, former Texas A&M quarterback Kevin Murray, for the past three years. From Murray, he learns fundamentals and the nuances of the position. The private instruction is of equal value to his time on the field in 7-on-7, Millweard said.

For a quarterback with access to both methods of development, it's the best of both worlds.

***

Roger Goodell and Bob Johnson
David J. Phillip/APMission Viejo's Bob Johnson, accepting his 2009 NFL High School Football Coach of the Year award with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, sells the dream of the quarterback to players and parents.

Quarterback development is not a hobby for Bret Johnson. It's more than his job. It's a passion.

The son of Bob Johnson, Bret, a former QB at UCLA and Michigan State, works with his father and brother, ex-USC and NFL quarterback Rob Johnson, to groom players at their Camp Quarterback in Southern California. They also coach at Mission Viejo High School.

Bob Johnson started with Carson Palmer at age 12 two decades ago. Their program has since produced Brees, Sanchez, David Carr, A.J. Feeley, Joey Harrington, Tim Rattay and many others.

"Playing quarterback is not like going to the park and shooting baskets," Bret Johnson said. "You need an education. These kids who came to us, they didn't know what they were doing. They don't know the difference between a Cover 2 and a Cover 3. They think they do now, because of video games, but they've actually got to live it."

While the 7-on-7 style emphasizes repetition and game-like experience, the QB gurus offer intense training in the mental aspects of quarterback play.

"It's our sticking point," Bret Johnson said. "We don't miss the classroom. You need to have footwork and accuracy, but what separates these kids now in getting to college is that they've got to have an education about how to play the position."

Bob Johnson helped start the Elite 11 program in 1999. Now operated by ESPNHS, its notable alumni include Tim Tebow, Matthew Stafford, Josh Freeman, Vince Young, Matt Cassel, Kyle Orton, Troy Smith, Leinart and Sanchez.

Not far from the Johnsons' Camp Quarterback, Clarkson runs his academy, Air 7, making no attempt to hide his pitch.

The most intense, one-on-one training from Clarkson, including an evaluation to get into the program, costs more than $11,000 for a month, according to a 2008 report in ESPN The Magazine.

Other services and camps are much less expensive. But make no mistake: Gurus like Clarkson and the Johnsons are selling a dream.

"The kids appreciate it a little bit," Bret Johnson said, "but you can tell the parents who paid the money to bring them out there, they really appreciate it."

Of course, for a quarterback like Vercher, it's simply not an option.

Last month, Jackson, the Salesian offensive coordinator, visited a Wisconsin practice at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., as the Badgers prepared for the Rose Bowl. Jackson watched Russell Wilson run the UW offense with precision. The coach couldn't help but compare Wilson to Vercher.

"That kid and Jihad are so similar in size and ability," Jackson said.

It takes one break to get noticed, Jackson said, one path to find excellence.

And now, in California, Texas or elsewhere, more roads exist than ever.

Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at shermanespn@gmail.com. Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman