Bill Cunerty is a quarterback whisperer. Working with Athletes’ Performance, which is based in Phoenix but has workout centers around the country, Cunerty and others train top-flight college prospects for what they hope will be their next jobs in the NFL.
As the former head football coach at Saddleback Junior College in Mission Viejo, California, Cunerty, 65, led the Gauchos to three national titles. His summer quarterback camps have included Carson Palmer and Mark Sanchez, among others.
Of late he’s given a lot of time to Pat Devlin, a former high school star in Pennsylvania, who left Penn State after three years and transferred to Delaware, where he became an All-American.
This past winter Devlin, who wants to be the next Joe Flacco, has been working with Cunerty to improve his chances of making it in the NFL. With that perspective, Cunerty gives us some insight into the difference between college and pros.
Q: Can you explain to us the difference between playing at the elite level in college to playing in the NFL?
BC: I put it this way: Can you understand the film Inception in fast-forward? That’s what it’s like. The first time you see Inception at regular speed it makes no sense. So imagine the first time you see it it’s in fast forward. But over time, the game slows down because you understand the cognitive things. You understand the concept of the defense, you know where the play is going, and you know the options.
Q: We see so many college teams running the spread offense. Is that hurting the talent pool for NFL quarterbacks?
BC: I don’t think so. You can always teach a kid to do the pro-style stuff. It’s a great emphasis on drops, and also the play action. Just standing out there and throwing routes will show you very little. In fact, you never find your high school quarterbacks in 7-on-7 drills, or in college. It’s when they get in camp and go 11-on-11, that’s where you find your guy.
Q: During pro camps you hear the coaches right after the snap, ‘Get it up, get it up.’ The point is to get the ball out, accurately, in such a short time?
BC: I travel around Southern California during the summer to see the passing leagues, and most leagues have a 3.5 second-limit for a play and then a horn goes off. It’s a sack for the defense. Some leagues allow four seconds. You can read the first chapter of Ulysses in four seconds. And when I’m working with quarterbacks I’ll ask them on a play that goes like this, “snap step step step throw,” how long is that? They’ll say 2.1 or 2.2 seconds. I say that’s a pick. I’m thinking more like 1.8.
Q: So for the spread quarterbacks in college, like the Cam Newtons and Colin Kaepernicks, what is it about playing in the pros might surprise them the most?
BC: That there’s more than one three-step drop, or a five-step drop or a seven-step drop. You have to fit your drop to the speed of the receiver. Let’s say you’re throwing a “3-on-time” drop with a double slant with two-jet protection. On the right side you have a receiver who runs 4.3, and on the left you have a receiver who runs 4.5. You cannot take the same drop for the 4.5 guy as you do for the 4.3 guy. If you take a “hang step” for the 4.3 guy like you would for the 4.5 guy—that extra tenth of a second to let him clear the linebackers—then you’re going to be late and it’s an interception.
Q: The spread quarterbacks throw for so many yards, but that doesn’t translate into the NFL. Why?
BC: In the spread, it’s catch, bounce and throw. Most of the quarterbacks we get now run at least some spread. And the NFL personnel guys are wondering if they are getting a good look at how these players read the defense. For a guy like Dennis Dixon when he was at Oregon, his second option in the spread might have been ‘take off.’ In the NFL, take off is the last option you have.
Q: Cam Newton during the SEC games and even more so in the BCS game against Oregon often would catch the snap, take one look and then lower his shoulder.
BC: In the NFL, if you do that you get a separated shoulder.
Q: Is pro quarterback the most demanding position in sports?
BC: Well, on a typical play with a five-step drop, a pro quarterback will have to make between eight to 10 decisions in fewer than two seconds. And first they have a pre-snap read, which in the NFL about 80 percent of the time doesn’t tell you anything. Defenses in the NFL hardly ever show you what they’re doing in pre-snap alignment. So the quarterback has to read on the move. Zone or man. Doubled? Where’s the blitz? Who’s my hot guy? That’s why it takes four to five years to learn the position.
Q: How do you rate the top three quarterbacks in the NFL Draft, Blaine Gabbert, Newton and Kaepernick?
BC: Gabbert goes first, without question. His footwork is solid, and his knowledge is terrific. Newton is going to be taken in the first round, probably by Buffalo. He’s a tremendous athlete. But personally I think he’s going to struggle at first. It’s a matter of how fast he can learn the NFL style of play, reading defenses, and the footwork. And Kaepernick might be the best athlete among all three.
Q: Is Kaepernick accurate enough?
BC: That’s the question. And that’s the same issue I have with Jake Locker. If you’re not that accurate in college, how do you think they’ll do in the pros? Like Steve Young once said, in high school your receivers were open most of the time. In college, they were open some of the time. In the NFL, no one’s open. That’s why when you hear about how small the ‘windows’ get the higher you go. In the NFL, there are no windows.