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AFM Magazine

Guru of the Golden Arms

by: Rex Lardner
Editor American Football Monthly
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As a high school quarterback, Steve Clarkson led Wilson High in Los Angeles to a 39-1 record and three straight city championships in the late 70’s. That was followed by three years as the starting quarterback for San Jose State where he played for John Elway’s father, Jack Elway. Clarkson broke several passing records in the process at SJSU (1979-82) and was a two-year Academic All-American. He was destined to fulfill his dream of being drafted by an NFL team.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Clarkson went undrafted and signed as a free agent with the Denver Broncos. He followed one season with the Broncos with two years with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. Four years after he graduated, Clarkson was out of football in 1986. He then became a regional manager for Black Angus restaurants.

In his spare time, he began working with high school athletes on the side, focusing on quarterbacks. His first prized student, Perry Klein, was a volleyball player who had never played football. His father asked Clarkson to tudor his son and, in one game later that season, Klein completed 46 of 57 passes for eight touchdowns. Klein went on to set California high school passing records. Phone calls then started to flood in from fathers wanting the best training for their sons. Clarkson’s ‘Air 7’quarterback academy was born. Clarkson thought that was an appropriate title, seven being his jersey number at San Jose State. While Clarkson didn’t realize it at the time, he was revolutionizing the way in which elite quarterbacks as well as other blue chip athletes are coached.

Now, 25 years later, Clarkson has earned the reputation as perhaps the ultimate authority in quarterback coaching. More than 200 of his students have gone on to play for FBS teams. His national profile soared a few years ago when former pupils Matt Leinart, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Cassel, and JP Losman began making names for themselves in the NFL. Recently, he has worked with Carolina Panthers rookie Jimmy Clausen, USC’s Matt Barkley, Washington’s Jake Locker, and Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor. And there are more coming.

Clarkson had a part in national headlines this past spring. He had hooked up with the family of David Sills, Jr. three years ago when he was ten years old. The elder Sills was coaching David in youth football and was surprised by his son’s poise and talent. He then took the next step and met with Clarkson. The Sills family was hopeful that Clarkson would take on David, Jr. as a client. While Clarkson usually takes on quarterbacks as maturing teenagers, he made an exception. He was skeptical at first but then saw remarkable raw talent. “He was making check-offs at the line during our workouts,” said Clarkson. “He was looking for third and fourth receivers. He clearly has it.”

Clarkson then showed tape of Sills to new USC head coach Lane Kiffin. In turn, Kiffin looked at the YouTube video of the 13-year old Sills and immediately wanted to offer Sills a scholarship. The offer received national attention when Sills made a verbal commitment. Now comes the fascinating part: waiting the next five years to find out if Sills develops into a college prospect. After all, he’s just heading into the eighth grade and won’t be eligible until 2015.

Clarkson conducts a six-month ‘Dreammaker Tour’ in which local quarterbacks compete in workouts, are evaluated, and have personal interviews. It’s a 15-city nationwide tour to search for undiscovered talent: American Idol for quarterbacks. The best of the best are then selected for an elite week-long camp in Maui. Along with Clarkson’s staff, he brings a current and two former NFL quarterbacks as advisors. They include Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Warren Moon and former student and current Houston Texans QB Matt Leinart. The selected quarterbacks receive instruction on drop back passing from Joe Montana, the proper follow-through by Matt Leinart, and avoiding the blitz from Warren Moon.

Clarkson believes playing quarterback successfully takes more than a good arm. “It’s really about having an understanding of the game,” he said. “What I look for in the kids is how they relate, how they communicate. I’m looking for personality and how they interact with one another. We try to teach the intangibles as well as the tangibles.”

On the field, Clarkson works on ball placement, follow through, reads, footwork, getting back in the pocket as quickly as possible and leading with the shoulder, not the elbow. In addition to arm strength, Clarkson looks at a quarterback’s footwork, his coachability, overall mechanics, accuracy, savvy and personality.

He also communicates constantly with the parents. “I’ve been through the process and I also want to involve the parents in the overall process,” said Clarkson. “Parents need to learn not too push the kids too far. We work with them and try to help them understand the process of dealing with a gifted child.” His academy conducts forums on recruiting for both the athletes and parents as well as media skills and putting together highlight tapes.

But what about the 98% of high school quarterbacks that won’t get tutoring from Steve Clarkson and won’t get recruited by FBS programs but are still critical to the success of their team? How do you as the head coach or OC get the most out of your quarterback? Clarkson told AFM there are five key ways to maximize the position.

1. Test your quarterback. “You have to determine what your QB is good at and what he’s not good at,” said Clarkson. “Is he a playmaker? Test his speed, his agility, his quickness, his arm strength with drills to find out where he excels and where he’s limited. Take your time and be thorough. This should be an ongoing process as well. With proper training, he could perfect the 20-yard out pass or improve his ball-faking. Tests and drills can be taken weekly to see his overall improvement.”

2. Determine the right scheme for him. Clarkson has worked with many coaches as well as quarterbacks. One head coach he worked with had three completely different offenses in three straight years. “This was totally based on the skills of his quarterbacks,” said Clarkson. One was an option-based offense when he had an outstanding running quarterback. The next year he ran a pro-set offense with a quarterback that had an outstanding arm. His third year he ran the shotgun with a QB that could both run and pass. “Both the coach and the quarterback have to be comfortable with the offense.

Sometimes it takes a while to find the right fit but the coach and his quarterback must be both confident and trust each other with whatever offense is selected. How often do you see an offense that doesn’t fit the skills of the quarterback. There’s no rule that says you have to run the same offense every year.”

3. There’s no such thing as too many reps. To build on your quarterbacks’ success, Clarkson suggests you have three or four plays you can go to in crunch time. “This could be a sprint out or screen pass or even a bootleg,” said Clarkson.

"Practice these plays every day so they become second nature to your QB. Spend part of every practice in perfecting the execution of these plays so they become your go-to plays. The more your quarterback is successful in practice, the more he will be in game situations. This should be a priority every day in practice.”

4. Communication builds confidence. Really get to know your quarterback and his family. Communicate every day with him and not just about football. Find out his likes and dislikes and discuss his school work with him daily. According to Clarkson, “Trust in each other can be developed over time. As a coach you influence his personality and his ability to lead. The more time you spend with him, the more his self-esteem and confidence will improve. You may want to communicate regularly with his family, as well, to continue the overall bond.”

5. Dealing with adversity. How does your quarterback react when he throws an interception? Does he get down on himself? Does your quarterback pout after an interception? How does he react when a tailback fumbles at crunch time? “You can measure his reaction by creating game-like situations in practice,” said Clarkson. “Go through a two-minute drill daily and make sure to include some third and eight situations. Don’t stop until you’re comfortable with his execution. The more he’s successful, the more self-confidence he’ll have. There’s bound to be two or three plays in each game where how he executes could mean a W or an L.

Clarkson has a favorite quarterback drill that he uses to teach read progressions. It’s a basic footwork drill to improve the quarterback’s reaction time in making the right decisions. It can be designed for any offensive scheme and formation. In this diagram, the quarterback has a counterclockwise read with a basic pro right formation. He faces a 4-3 front and cover 3 zone. He has a triangular read to one side and works from the Mike linebacker to the Will linebacker.

His primary receiver is the Y who runs a hook route. His secondary receivers are the X receiver who runs a curl and the tailback who runs a swing pattern. The QB’s feet is in counterclockwise motion and he drops back by taking 5 rhythmic steps and then works the Mike linebacker. If the Mike linebacker vacates, he fires on rhythm. If the Mike stays, he bounces and locates the Will linebacker for the curl. If the Will widens, he delivers the ball on the curl. If he has depth to the curl route, the quarterback then slides up and hits the tailback on the swing pattern (See Diagram).

While you may not have a Jimmy Clausen or Matt Leinart on your team, there are still things you can learn from arguably the foremost quarterback coach in the world. One of the priorities is determining the right offensive scheme for your quarterback and making him feel both comfortable and confident with it. “A coach needs to find that offense that suits the talents of his quarterback,” said Clarkson. “With it, you can maximize your quarterback’s potential.”


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