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The Dos, Don'ts and Whys of identifying a QB and designing an offense

If the college football you follow begins and ends at the FBS level, you're quarantining yourself -- topical! -- from some of the brightest minds in the game. You would miss a guy like Joe Davis.

Heading into his third year as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Albany, Davis, has coached quarterbacks continuously since 2003 at the Division III, II and FCS levels and he's left each place significantly better than he found it.

How's this for a resume?

-- His first offensive coordinator job, at North Park University from 2006-08, saw his quarterback leave school as the all-time leading passer with records in 10 separate categories.

-- His second job, Wheaton College, saw the Thunder go 33-9 with one conference title, led by an offense that ranked in the top 10 nationally in total offense, scoring and third down conversions. His quarterback on the 2011 Thunder won conference and north region player of the year honors, and his 2012 quarterback was a First Team All-American that set school records in completion percentage and passing touchdowns.

-- From there, Davis replaced Mike Yurcich at Division II Shippensburg and broke 55 school records in two seasons. His first quarterback became the third consecutive Davis-coached signal caller to earn All-America honors, and his 2014 offense ranked in the top 10 in D2 in yards, first downs, scoring and total plays, and in the top 20 in rushing and completion percentage.

-- He then left for the Division I level at Northern Iowa, where in his one season on staff his offense set a school record for rushing yards, and his quarterback, Aaron Bailey, won Missouri Valley Newcomer of the Year and the team reached the FCS quarterfinals.

-- In 2016, Davis took the passing gamef coordinator job at Fordham, where his first offense ranked in the top 12 in FCS in total offense, scoring, rushing, passing efficiency and first downs, while his quarterback became the sixth consecutive under his watch to record at least 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. In 2017, Rams quarterback Kevin Anderson broke the school record for passing yards and finished third in completions and yards.

-- Lastly, at Albany Davis has overseen gains of 80 percent in scoring offense (17.4 points per game to 31.4), 42 percent in total offense (273.5 yards per game to 387.8), 51 percent in rushing (86.9 to 131.4), 37 percent in passing (186.5 to 256.4) and 29 percent in passing efficiency (111.9 to 144).

Naturally, I got him on the phone to talk defense and punting.

No, we talked quarterbacks -- identification, development and drills.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

FootballScoop: Let's start with the obvious. What are you working on right now?
Davis: Our staff before we broke was able to come up with some projects, some things that we're starting and trying to learn for when that time comes that we're back together we can get these things integrated.

FootballScoop: What project do you have?
Davis: I'm specifically looking all the base RPOs North Carolina ran this year. I have so much respect for Phil Longo and especially what he did with a freshman quarterback last year, not too dissimilar from what we went through offensively as we transitioned here at Albany. I'm about five games into their season, watching what Phil does and certainly they've got it cooking a little bit.

FootballScoop: We all talk about culture change in this business, but I'm especially curious about putting that change in motion. You've done it a number of times now. So, what's your message to your quarterbacks and your offense when you walk in the room for that very first meeting?
Davis: Right off the jump, at every school that I've ever been a part of, it's very important for me to communicate to the quarterbacks that right, wrong or indifferent all eyes are on them all the time. I don't think it's too revolutionary to say that any successful program has that guy at the forefront of the program. I say, "Like it or not, you guys are being watched in the weight room, you're being watched in the cafeteria, in the campus parties. Everyone wants to see how you respond, to the good and the bad." You immediately have to set the. tone that these are the lowest-maintenance and highest-production players that you have on your team. Right off the jump in the offseason they should be the first guys in the weight room, these are guys that are never on a list academically, they should be guys that are of no concern to you or the head football coach. When the football actually begins, they have earned a baseline of respect with your teammates -- earned the ability to command a huddle, earned the ability to instruct guys on the field and earned the ability to really take the reins of an offense. In my time, when you can get that guy to believe in those things, and certainly if he has the talent, you've got a shot to be pretty good on offense.

FootballScoop: What are your non-negotiables when recruiting a quarterback?
Davis: We talked a lot about this an absolutely the first thing I'm looking for is production. I think the days where quarterbacks had to be 6'4" and 6'5" and guys taking 7-step drops, those are obviously times of the past. There's really two positions on offense where I don't necessarily care about a guy's height, and that's running back and quarterback. I think that's been proven that shorter, athletic guys that are great decision makers, you've got a shot with those guys. So production is No. 1 for me, I want to see the young man executing his high school offense at a high level. I'm always looking for 3-to-1 touchdown-to-turnover ratios, he should be above 50 percent completions, and to me the competition or the style of offense, that's all telling you that they are operating their system at a high level and now we can start to dive a little bit deeper on the measurables, the scheme and the arm action, things like that. That's certainly is the first thing that jumps out to me.

FootballScoop: If you have to pick one -- arm strength or accuracy?
Davis: Oh, accuracy all day. I just think there are so many things now that are available to offenses, the ability to display big-time arm strength, it's not really a measurable if you think about it. Even from high school combines to NFL combines, there's really not ever a drill that says the quarterback must throw X amount of yards down the field. 'The spin rate on a football has to be X number.' There's really no finite numbers to compare to, it's all on the eye test. He's either got the arm or he doesn't. To me, it's more about the accuracy, about the timing. I love to use the word anticipatory, and I do believe that's a harder thing to coach. Generally, young men have an ability to anticipate throws and certainly that translates to a lot of different systems where they can do that.

FootballScoop: Can your stereotypical drop-back passer -- I'm thinking Michigan's John Navarre, if you remember him -- still play quarterback in today's college game?
Davis: Wow, what a great question. I grew up 10 minutes from Ann Arbor, in the hot bed where if you were a starting quarterback at Michigan, you probably were going to be an NFL starter. That really stretched about two decades. To answer your question, I really don't think there is a baseline mobility because you can suit your offense to the strengths of that particular quarterback. The last coach that I worked for at Fordham, Andrew Breiner and I, and Greg Gattuso here at Albany, all three of us share that we like a guy to be able to move enough. I've seen guys that are 4.9 40 guys that can move plenty enough and I've seen guys that ran 4.5 that took sacks. You'd love to have a guy that can move enough to get himself out of trouble, but I would also take it a step further and say nowadays, and I would give this advice to young quarterback coaches, you really should focus your individual drills on two things: pocket movement and ball location. Every drill we do revolves around those two things, because they increase the quarterback's ability to buy himself time.

FootballScoop: What's your favorite drill?
Davis: We use a drill here that's absolutely my favorite, we call it the step up drill. I've used it for a number of years now and it really gives you the ability to incorporate all the quarterbacks. We put a quarterback at offensive tackle, one at defensive end and then the live quarterback is in the pocket and he's got to throw a stationary target while looking at me as I'm holding up numbers. So he's got to be able to call out those numbers as another quarterback is rushing him. The quarterback that is playing the offensive tackle position is going to simulate being backed into the live quarterback, forcing the quarterback to move in real time with his eyes up and diagnose a certain number in the air, be able to finish the drill with a throw. It keeps all the guys moving. That's something that's part of our preparation every single week.

FootballScoop: What age is appropriate for young QBs to start working with private trainers?
Davis: I don't know that there's an age. To me, it's more important for the young man to get on a team first. I can speak for myself, I stared playing organized football when I was nine. I can't speak for you being in Texas, but I don't know that anybody knew who the quarterbacks were when we started playing, you know? The coaches kind of let everyone get out, start throwing and having fun, and certainly the guy that adapted to that position rose to the level. There's a great quarterback instructor by the name of Tom House. His big thing in evaluating young quarterbacks is everybody has a different way to get rid of the football, a la Philip Rivers' unique style to maybe a textbook guy like Tom Brady with his upper-body mechanics. I don't know that there's an age group for that and I would take it a step further to say that if any parent were asking me, Should my son work with a private quarterback developer or should he play winter basketball and spring baseball -- it's not even a question, I would say the latter. It's a big deal to me in evaluating quarterbacks to find out if they're playing two or three other sports. I want those guys competing. They should be the leaders, they should be amongst the best players in their league in those other sports and that's all part of the evaluation process.

FootballScoop: When you have a quarterback competition, when is the right time to name a starter? Do you ever play multiple guys regular snaps?
Davis: Every program wants one guy to take control of the battle as early in the process as possible, however you can win games playing multiple guys. There is no automatic solution when it comes to quarterback battles as every competition unfolds differently. Many times it takes game experience to see who can play the position at a high level consistently. We use a model called O.E.P. here to evaluate the quarterbacks daily. Operation, can they run the show? Do they have the offense mastered? Terminology, formations, motions, tempos, personnel, et cetera. Efficiency, Are they 60/3/1 guys? 60 percent completion, 3-to-1 touchdown-to-turnover ratio. All scrimmage situations are charted.

And then production good, bad or ugly, when they are in game (scrimmage), are we scoring points? Do they possess the moxie and competitiveness to inspire the offense to drive ending touchdowns.

FootballScoop: What's the 'Why' of your offense?
Davis: This is something I advise young coordinators with on either side of the ball: Just like any successful company, you really should have a mission statement of your offense or your defense. You should have some objectives communicated to your players that they buy into. We call our offense a multiple spread offense, and we say that we absolutely will control three things on game day. The No. 1 thing is we will establish a physical running game with all 11 players. The No. 2 thing is that we will create mismatches in the offense using every formation, motion, shift that we possibly can. And the third thing is we will control tempo. I think those three We Wills, that goes up in the first meeting in every spring and fall camp that I have as a coordinator and have for some time, and it's constantly revisited. What do those three things mean to our offense and how are we going to maximize those three things on game day?

FootballScoop: What's something you thought was important when you were a young coordinator that turned out to not be that important, and vice versa?
Davis: I would absolutely say plays, number of plays. I remember being a young coordinator and driving all over the Midwest to go to camps and clinics and always looking for new plays, ways to fit new plays into my playbook and make my playbook bigger. For some reason as a young coordinator I thought I could get all those things done, and as the years have evolved you realize less is more. Bill Walsh talks about it in his Winner's Manual. He says, "Never underestimate the success of calling your most basic play in the most crucial situation of the game." Because the kids, they're not going to think. They're going to go out there and execute. They've run that play a thousand times; they have confidence in it and you have confidence in it. The number of plays in the playbook has shrunk, and the ability to teach those plays, teach a system, have an answer for what you believe the defense is throwing at you every single Saturday and have the ability to make those adjustments with a much more limited amount of plays has been one of the biggest growth factors coming from a young coordinator to now.

FootballScoop: Who are some defensive coordinators that are nightmares to plan for?
Davis: A couple guys that I've gone against and worked with. Jeremiah Johnson at Northern Iowa, whom I worked with, consistently always has one of the top defenses in the country. You look at the numbers over the years, that guy has coached all different positions on the field. In our league, University of Maine, they've had two different coordinators but the way that they play defense, the aggressive style of their defense has stood out to me over the years. Those two programs in general definitely stand out.

FootballScoop: Finally, and this may not be a fair question, but Burrow or Tua?
Davis: I'm a big Joe Burrow guy. If you go back to what I told you in the initial question you asked me, accuracy is everything to me. That offense has become a hot study for a lot of staffs this offseason, us included. We spent a lot of time looking at situational football from LSU, third down and in the red zone. (Burrow's) ability to make every throw in the book, and you hear people talk about throwing people open, you see it series after series after series. I certainly think that young man has got a very bright future at the next level.