By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
In politics, it’s the ayes that have it, but in quarterbacking it’s the eyes that have it.
Mostly, when you talk of quarterbacks, you talk of his arm, if he happens to be Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck, or more increasingly each year, you talk of his legs, as in Pat White, RGIII or Johnny Football.
But here at West Virginia University, where quarterback is king, the man who teaches the art of playing the position in Dana Holgorsen’s system — offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson — says the eyes have it.
During this camp Dawson is trying to mold another quarterback in transfer Clint Trickett, who is in a triangular battle for the starting job with last year’s backup Paul Millard and redshirt freshman Ford Childress.
Millard and Childress have a year or more working within Holgorsen’s offensive system, but Trickett, a junior transfer already in possession of his degree, is in the process of being molded into a Holgorsen quarterback.
Holgorsen has always maintained that arm strength doesn’t really matter and that the legs don’t need to provide much more than a sturdy base from which to throw.
But the eyes.
“Every play you program differently,” Dawson began, giving his “Quarterbacking 101” lecture. “I talk about pre-snap, post-snap thoughts. Every time the ball is snapped the QB’s eyes need to be in a certain place.”
How, though, does a coach know where his quarterback is looking?
Some coaches use a helmet camera, which will show exactly where he is looking at every moment, but Dawson doesn’t go that route.
“I don’t use a helmet camera,” he said. “Then there are some guys who put a stripe down the middle of the helmet so they can see where they’re looking, but I can tell by looking at film. We watch three different angles on every play — from the side, from the back and from behind the defense — so it’s clear where the eyes are looking.”
The best view, of course, is from behind the defense.
Dawson is particularly interested in where he is looking when things go wrong.
“If things do break down, I’m trying to figure what his thought process is and watch his eyes. Is his thought process accurate? Is he panicking? I want to know what he’s thinking and what he’s seeing because his thought process does figure into it,” Dawson said.
“There’s so many intangibles,” Dawson continued. “It’s not always just what’s going on with the play, although that’s a big part of it. There are intangibles about body language, leadership. It doesn’t matter who is on the field for that; you have to be the leader.”
In looking at the quarterback, Dawson is seeking clues as to why a certain play may have broken down or a throw gone astray. With Trickett, things are different than he learned before, so he almost has to relearn all that was taught him in the Florida State system.
“It’s different. Every system programs quarterbacks a different way. We’re different from the system he came from,” Dawson said. “To be 100 percent honest, I don’t get involved in what he was programmed in there. My job is to get him into what I want him to see and do.
“Clint is a very coachable kid. If you sit there and stress, ‘This is what I want you to do,’ he does it. He’s already made leaps and bounds from Day 1,” Dawson said. “Our progression is different. Our feet and eyes are different, but he’s probably ahead of where a normal kid would be coming into the system.”
And the amount that must be learned is far more than at any other position.
“The learning curve is different from other positions,” Dawson said. “A receiver who comes in new is worried about what he is doing. A lot of times routes are carried over. There really aren’t a lot of spread route concepts that aren’t done all over. Everyone just puts a different emphasis on different parts of the route.
“The communication is probably the hardest part for a receiver. Once the communication is there, their job is to take care of their deal. They don’t have to know what 10 other people are doing. With the quarterback, it’s a little bit more significant based on they have to know where everyone is.”
So how does Dawson approach his assignment of creating quarterbacks within the Holgorsen system?
“You can tell by watching him whether he has a clear understanding of what’s going on and a clear plan. The problem with some quarterbacks is, if you take a snap and start hitting the panic button, then there was no clear understanding the play or understanding the layout. In the end the job of the quarterback is to put the ball in play.
“You want to put the ball in the hands of a skill guy where you have a chance to create momentum and create yards. So if there is not a natural thought process — and you can see it when you are watching tape — if those eyes aren’t where they are supposed to be throughout the progression of that play, then you are pushing the panic button. You don’t have a clear thought process,” Dawson concluded.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.