Pass perfect

ON A FOGGY California morning in March, at a near-empty practice field tucked away on Stanford's campus, Andrew Luck is running from a broom.

Flanked by college teammates and watched by friends and family, the most hyped quarterback prospect of the century drops back and evades a broom-swinging man before delivering passes downfield. Every swipe is dodged, every throw is on point. In less than 48 hours, NFL scouts and reporters will arrive from around the country for Stanford's pro day. They will laugh as the broom makes its debut and smile as Luck continually outruns it, completing 46 of 50 passes (three are drops) and cementing his status as this year's consensus overall No. 1 prospect.

The broom wielder is George Whitfield Jr., a thick-armed, granite-chested 34-year-old who plays the part of both coach and choreographer, calling out routes to receivers in between sweeps. For more than a month, he's been re-creating this scene with Luck in preparation for the draft on April 26. The broom is Whitfield's idea, born from one of the countless coaching camps he's attended. So are the beanbags he tosses to various spots on the field to make Luck move and readjust while keeping his eyes on his target. Whitfield also likes to take quarterbacks to the beach, where he instructs them to drop back into the water, set their feet in the sand and launch spirals as waves crash into their backs.

No matter how unorthodox his methods might seem, Whitfield is a man whose life has been dedicated to producing perfect throws -- the front foot stepping forward just so, the shoulders swiveling on time and the arm moving with machinelike efficiency. He refers to himself as a "quarterback builder." And depending on the experience level of his 70-plus pupils, who range from unproven middle schoolers to several of the game's best passers, that moniker rings true. But with Luck, he's more of a QB tweaker, simply fine-tuning an already impeccable set of fundamentals.

According to Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who likely will be sending in play calls to Luck next season, that relentless focus on fundamentals is what separates Whitfield from other private tutors. He has no problem deferring to coaches who can teach his clients more about schemes and coverages -- Whitfield just wants to teach them how to throw. "A lot of young guys only think about schemes and never teach fundamentals," Arians says. "If you're seen as a schematic genius, that's how you move up in this profession. George is different."

That's not to say Whitfield is revolutionizing the way quarterbacks are taught. But he is content to spend hours on practice fields, overseeing five-step drops until the sun goes down. Those long days led to results for last year's overall No. 1 draft pick, Cam Newton. And now Luck is the beneficiary.

"He sees every motion, every movement," Luck says. "He makes sure that everything is perfectly organized, exactly in the right place."

THE OBSESSION started early.

As a boy in Massillon, Ohio, Whitfield would sit and stare at the television, smitten with his idols: Elway, Moon, Montana. He studied their movements and noticed, even then, that great quarterbacks exude calm amid chaos. "Football is a gladiator's game," he says. "There are 22 men out there playing this violent sport, but one man dictates it all. There is no position like quarterback in any other sport."

George, however, is a Whitfield. And Whitfields don't play quarterback. "We play defense, or we play lineman," says his father, George Sr., who starred as an offensive lineman and linebacker at Massillon High School. "We're big, tough players, not quarterbacks." But George Jr. was insistent. So twice a week during the summer, father and son drove more than two hours from Massillon to Fremont, where the 17-year-old could learn under Tom Kiser, a private coach who shared the same devotion to the position. "He's one committed disciple," Kiser says.

An engineer by trade, Kiser was fixated on economy of motion. He believed in a perfect throw, one in which every muscle is put to its most efficient use. For Whitfield, the pursuit of that perfect throw has fueled him ever since.

Despite Whitfield's successful senior season as Massillon's starting quarterback, college coaches wanted him to play other positions. Instead, he chose Youngstown State, an FCS school then coached by Jim Tressel. After a year, coaches approached him with a familiar refrain: Why don't you switch to defensive back? Whitfield declined and transferred to D2 Tiffin University. There, says then-coach Bob Wolfe, "I barely even had to coach him. If he made a mistake, he saw it and fixed it."

Whitfield chased his dream around the arena leagues for two years but eventually retired in 2005. In search of a new career, he applied for a marketing job in San Diego (weather and friends lured him there in 2004) to earn money for law school. The company owner responded to his application with mixed news. She couldn't hire him, but her son had seen his résumé -- and her son wanted to be a quarterback. With little hesitation, Whitfield began making the 45-minute commute at $40 per session. The way he tells it, the boy eventually played so well in his Pop Warner games that it created buzz among opposing coaches and parents. Soon Whitfield had built a client base, then a website, determined to make training quarterbacks his profession. He toured the country, watching practices and sitting in on meetings at major programs, always keeping an eye out for drills he could copy and tweak.

By 2009, Whitfield had landed his first NFL prospect, Louisville QB Hunter Cantwell. "I'd seen the film on Cantwell, and I'd completely written him off," says Rip Scherer, who was then the Carolina Panthers' QB coach and now coaches the position at Colorado. "But our scouts came back from his pro day and said, 'He's completely changed.' I asked Hunter how he'd done it; he said it was George."

The Panthers signed Cantwell as an undrafted free agent, and Whitfield's reputation within the industry took hold. When Ben Roethlisberger was suspended amid rape allegations in 2010, Whitfield flew to Pittsburgh. "In just those four weeks, there was a measurable difference," says Arians, the Steelers offensive coordinator at the time. "His footwork was cleaner, and his delivery was quicker."

Then the ultimate opportunity arrived. Following a successful albeit turbulent junior season at Auburn, Cam Newton declared early for the 2011 NFL draft. The Newtons turned to Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon to be Cam's private tutor, but Moon couldn't commit full time. He did, however, offer to find the right man for the job. "I knew about the work George had done with Roethlisberger," Moon says, "and I'd seen tapes of him working with younger kids. I liked the way he communicated with them, and you could tell he enjoys being with them." So Moon called Whitfield to discuss coaching philosophies. Afterward, Moon was sold. The Newtons had their man.

Cam flew to San Diego in January and set up camp, but first he had to work his way onto the field. Whitfield's plan was to strip the dual-threat quarterback of his athletic gifts, and the two spent hours watching film of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Matt Hasselbeck, all successful passers whose physical limitations force them to stay in the pocket. "Coming from a shotgun spread offense," explains Whitfield, "he had to actually learn the footwork involved in dropping back from under center." And when Newton finally was allowed to use his legs, Whitfield took him to the ocean, where the waves neutralized his agility. Moon would watch tape of their workouts and offer advice; Whitfield followed it up with positive reinforcement. "I would tell Cam, 'That's it, you've got that left elbow in tight,' when he really didn't," Whitfield says. "Then he registers it in his mind and envisions himself doing it. On the next throw, he does it perfectly."

Newton re-emerged nearly two months later at his pro day as a brand-new quarterback and went on to set eight rookie records for the Panthers, including most passing yards in a season (4,051).

SITTING AT A picnic table on Stanford's campus, Whitfield offers a confession: "I thought we'd be sitting in Waco, Texas, right now," he says. Robert Griffin III, the Heisman winner and presumed No. 2 pick, had finished his pro day at Baylor moments earlier, generating discussion around the Cardinal facility of his near-perfect performance. In December, Whitfield spoke with Griffin's family about working together, but Griffin agreed to train with private coach Terry Shea, with whom the QB's agents had an established relationship. It's a common agreement in the industry yet one that Whitfield finds strange considering the implications. "Agents have nothing to do with developing quarterbacks," he says. "It's ridiculous for them to have that kind of influence."

Of course, Griffin's choice did clear Whitfield's schedule for another career-altering opportunity -- one yet again facilitated by Moon. "I spent some time with Andrew and his father, Oliver, just talking quarterbacks," says Moon, who was backed up by Oliver when the two played for the Houston Oilers in the 1980s. "The more they heard about what George and I had done with Cam, the more they liked it."

What the Lucks liked about Whitfield, in an age when combine results rule draft conversations, is that he puts speed and strength in proper perspective, behind mechanics. "Quarterbacks are out there being trained next to left tackles and cornerbacks," Whitfield says. "Why are we treating it like it's any other position? Franchises change, and programs rise and fall, all based on quarterback play. If you're a surgeon, don't train with general practitioners -- train with other surgeons."

That hard-line position on quarterbacking landed Newton and Luck, and now Whitfield is hoping it will work on Landry Jones, a projected first-round pick who will decide on a trainer after his senior season at Oklahoma. In fact, the broom wielder is already busy laying the groundwork.

Both Jones and Clemson's Tajh Boyd are at Stanford, training in the shadow of Luck during their spring breaks. "These guys could be at a beach doing keg stands," says Whitfield. "Instead, they're doing drop drills." (They're also paying for the right to do so; Whitfield's rates range from $150 to $300 per session for NFL prospects.) Whitfield could be doing other things too. It's not that he hasn't considered traditional coaching jobs -- "If I were a head coach, I'd hire him right away," says Arians -- but for now he would much rather focus on improvement, not wins and losses. He's content to stay with Boyd and Jones, tossing beanbags and waving brooms.

As the session nears its end, the quarterbacks line up side by side to execute five-step drops and deliver passes simultaneously. On the best throws, Whitfield yells, "Good shot!" On others, he says, "Step into it!" or "Elbow in!" A few reps into the drill, Boyd and Jones settle into a rhythm. Whitfield smiles. "They're in sync!" he shouts. "Do you see it? Every movement is aligned! Now they're connected to each other; they're tapped into this whole wavelength, this perfect motion, aligned with all the other quarterbacks who do it just the same way!"

He's right. Each delivery is smooth, each ball spiraling directly into the hands of a receiver. Each pass looking damn near perfect.

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