It’s within the grave realm of possibility that the Michigan football team may start a true freshman at quarterback this fall for only the third time in over 40 years. The last two episodes of such daring ended well statistically for the Wolverines. First there was quarterback Rick Leach between 1975-78 and then Chad Henne between 2004-07 respectively. Both of these freshmen quarterbacks became two of the most decorated quarterbacks to ever wear a winged helmet.
Following a 3-9 season in 2008, the hand wringing over the new Michigan quarterback situation might have many Wolverine fans double-checking their blood pressure, taking yoga classes, confirming the on time delivery of that pre-ordered pallet of Pepto Bismol, and signing up for hypnosis sessions to prevent the sure-to-come thunderstorm of household swearing on Saturday afternoons this autumn.
Well actually, it might not be that bad.
Starting true freshmen at quarterback is certainly not Rich Rodriguez’s idea of fun for his second year at Michigan. The 2009 Michigan quarterback situation will require a great deal of coaching resolve, patience and expertise. Thankfully, Rodriguez doesn’t have to develop the new Wolverine signal callers all by himself.
After Rich Rodriguez accepted the job as Michigan head football coach in December 2007, he summarily fired the entire staff of former head coach Lloyd Carr, including Wolverine quarterback coach and recruiter extraordinaire Scot Loeffler. Only UM running backs coach Fred Jackson was rehired. Rodriguez decided to bring in many of his own assistant colleagues from West Virginia with him to Michigan, including offensive coordinator Calvin Magee and quarterbacks coach Rod Smith.
Prior to joining Rodriguez’s staff at West Virginia, Magee and Smith both coached at South Florida University in Tampa under Bulls head coach Jim Leavitt. Magee had been the running game coordinator for the Bulls for four years (1997-2000). Rod Smith was the quarterbacks coach from 2001-04. Smith pulled double-duty as South Florida’s offensive coordinator and QB coach from 2005-06. Jim Leavitt’s well documented disdain for Rich Rodriguez may stem from RichRod’s rather frequent raiding of his South Florida staff over the years, including Magee, Smith and even former USF offensive line coach Greg Frey (now also at UM).
Just one more. If he steals just one more of my coaches...
But before Michigan fans commence with the chugging of those bottles of pepto around kickoff September 5th, it might be interesting for them to first consider some thin slices of college football history. Let's go back to a time when Rod Smith first became the South Florida quarterbacks coach under head coach Leavitt.
When Rod Smith arrived in Tampa in 2001, South Florida’s football program was entering its 5th year of existence as an independent. Coach Jim Leavitt was on a streak of sorts, with three straight winning seasons since 1998, including a 7-4-0 record in 2000. The previous Bulls offensive coordinator, Mike Canales, had just accepted a new passing coordinator job at NC State. Canales left Rod Smith the keys to a pretty good quarterback situation at South Florida in junior signal caller Marquel Blackwell.
Blackwell, who was the Bulls starting quarterback for 4 years, recorded a spectacular career at South Florida. He was arguably one of the first key players to help put South Florida football on the map nationally.
Blackwell did not throw all that much his first two seasons – only between 23 and 26 attempts per game in 1999 and 2000. While his accuracy was over 50 percent during these formative years, the yardage totals were fairly low - between 150-180 yards per game.
While operating Canales’ spread option offense, Blackwell did showcase his elusiveness and foot speed. By his sophomore year, Blackwell had become a rather reliable ground gainer for the Bulls.
So when Rod Smith assumed the quarterback coaching role at South Florida in 2001, what he would prescribe for the South Florida quarterback situation must have seemed counter intuitive at the time. Smith apparently wanted Blackwell to do 2 things very differently:
Throw a lot more and run a lot less.
Of course, Smith didn’t exactly “discourage” Blackwell from running the ball. But he probably wanted his new student to start finding the right running lanes that the spread offense afforded him him. Overall, Smith wanted Blackwell to become more effective using his skills to execute the offense. The result?
Blackwell’s rushing attempts and total rushing yards certainly declined his junior and senior seasons under Rod Smith. But Marquel lost less yardage per carry (hitting the right escape lanes, fewer sacks?), and scored far more rushing touchdowns. Plus, Blackwell maintained his yards per carry average at a level that opposing defenses simply could not ignore.
When it came to passing the football during his junior and senior seasons, the Tampa fire department must have been pretty busy because Marquel Blackwell could only be described as having been “awwn fiyah!”.
Rod Smith ordered passing attempts essentially doubled from the prior two seasons under Canales. Blackwell's passing accuracy stayed the same at <58%, but the yardage numbers and TDs thrown exploded.
Also, South Florida’s team reached new heights in the win column in 2001 and 2002, with eight and nine wins respectively.
In 2003-05, Smith continued to coach South Florida quarterbacks Ronnie Banks (2003-04) and Pat Julmiste in 2005. Both were considered “dual-threat” quarterbacks, but the on field results were more functional than stellar.
Passing accuracy and attempts were way down, and productivity (yards and touchdowns) declined. Neither Banks or Julmiste produced remarkable rushing numbers at quarterback. SFU’s fortunes in the win column appeared to follow suit with only seven, four and six wins in 2003, 2004 and 2005.
The following year, a two-star, unranked quarterback recruit from Lakeland, FL named Matt Grothe arrived on campus. Grothe was 6-1 and 190 lbs with 4.59 speed. He had an explosive quarterback resume from Lake Gibson Senior high school with fantastic senior stats for an unranked kid: 2,700 yards passing, 33 TDs, 1,500 yards rushing and 15 more TDs.
Grothe would battle senior Bulls QB Pat Julmiste for the starting spot in 2006 and would win that battle fairly easily. As the 2006 season unfolded, it would become quite clear to Rod Smith and the entire SFU staff that Matt Grothe might become the greatest quarterback yet at South Florida University.
Grothe’s 2006 freshman season performance was revealing – and not too far removed statistically from what college football observers would come to expect from other spread option quarterbacks like Pat White at West Virginia and Troy Smith of Ohio State of this period.
As a freshman Grothe had, unfortunately, just sprinkled in a few more interceptions into the mix.
Rod Smith left South Florida at the end of the 2006 season to rejoin Rich Rodriguez, at West Virginia and coach the Mountaineer quarterback Pat White in 2006 and 2007. Over his six years at South Florida, Rod Smith coached highly talented players like Marquel Blackwell and Matt Grothe and some slightly lesser talented signal callers as well.
South Florida’s aggregate quarterback stats between 2001-06 (six years) under Rod Smith were as follows:
|Name||Completions||Attempts||Compl. %||Yards||TD||INT||Team Record||Winning Pct|
|All SFU QBs 2001-2006||1059||1941||54.6%||12555||74||55||43-26-0||0.623|
Rod Smith might not be Scott Loeffler (below showing only four-year span of career):
|Coach & Player||Completions||Attempts||Compl. %||Yards||TD||INT||Team Record||Winning Pct|
|Scott Loeffler with Chad Henne 2004-2007||828||1387||59.7%||9715||87||37||36-14||0.720|
Yet from the historical record (without taking Pat White into consideration at all) Michigan’s quarterback coach Rod Smith is proven to be quite a good instructor. More importantly, he knows how to get good production out of his players, particularly when they already possess the basic, natural talents required for the job.
In my view, Smith's past performance bodes well for Michigan’s quarterback future even in the short-term with Nick Sheridan, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, as well as next year's incoming freshmen.