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“First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a liberty for others.”– John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
Quarterbacks are a hell of a problem. An ethics problem. Every talking head that has ever talked will tell you that quarterbacks are the most important players in football. All the evidence supports it. Coaches believe it, too, though in the interest of fairness they can’t really say it. What would the third-team safety think?
But Mario Verduzco will say it.
“You’ve heard the cliché there’s no I in team? C’mon. How can you say that without sounding like a hypocrite? They get the most money, they get the most awards, they get the most attention. But there’s no I in team? C’mon. Seriously.”
Nebraska’s new quarterbacks coach can say it because he spent a lot of time thinking about it. Maybe the most time of anyone. Why are we –– Verduzco prefers the pronoun “we” when talking quarterbacks –– the most important position?
Football coaches tackle ethical problems all the time. How long do I suspend the player that has broken team rules? What if that player is the best player? What if our toughest game is this Saturday? What will I do on the recruiting trail? What won’t I do? Will I gently tell the fifth-year senior who has barely found the field on special teams that maybe it’s time to consider a new school?
These are moral questions a coach is incentivized to confront. The justification for a quarterback’s elevated importance? That’s a thought experiment. A coach doesn’t tackle that one unless he wants to.
Verduzco spent most of the first chapter of his 1992 master’s thesis on that question. He found the justification he sought five or six years earlier in A Theory of Justice, a dense work of political philosophy by Harvard philosopher John Rawls and published in 1971.
“In terms of function a quarterback is no different than anyone else on the team. Absolutely no different,” Verduzco says. “It’s their added duties and responsibilities and their willingness to accept those added duties and responsibilities. That’s the only justification.”
It’s a football application of Rawls’ two principles of justice. This is something you can learn by simply asking Verduzco what’s on his bookshelf. It’s a way into a mind-bending journey.
Sit down to talk quarterback play with Verduzco and be prepared for an up-tempo attack of references to philosophical and scientific texts. He’ll get out of his chair to demonstrate the biomechanically precise way to throw a football. He’ll jot down a physics equation on the whiteboard. If you want, he can show you the pages that ground the philosophy.
In the middle of just such a demonstration in Verduzco’s office on the Tuesday after Nebraska’s April spring game, Greg Austin, the Huskers’ offensive line coach, walked by the open door and paused.
“What’s up, Bubba?” Verduzco says.
“What are you talking about?”
Austin, acknowledging that Verduzco isn’t alone, says, “You’ll be here until 2020.”
He leaves and Verduzco picks up precisely where he left off. Talking about the alignment of the torso and the index finger of the throwing hand is just chillin’ to him. As Verduzco might put it, he has reached the autonomous stage, the third stage of skill acquisition, with this stuff. He doesn’t struggle to recall the specific fact he wants. It just flows out of him, a point he has a plan to reach with each quarterback he coaches.
And that’s simply part of what makes him a coach unlike any other. There are also the John Lennon-like glasses. There’s his love of Mott the Hoople, a 1970s English glam rock band that David Bowie, and too few others, loved. (“I was always an underground guy,” Verduzco says.) He sometimes calls his quarterbacks “cubes,” an apparent vocalization of “QBs” and term of endearment. The unlit cigar Verduzco occasionally chews on might be the only archetypal thing about him given that cigar-chomping falls right in line with the preferred American vision of football coaches as the generals of simulated warfare.
Verduzco isn’t that. Nor a mad scientist. Definitely not a guru. Verduzco holds a generally dim view of so-called QB gurus. He doesn’t believe in quarterbacks that lead by example or those that lead vocally either, but those that led through their performance.
“But what do I know? I’m a nobody.”
Verduzco adds that he doesn’t say that out of any forced sense of modesty. It’s easy to believe him when he says it even if it’s almost impossible, based on closely examining his 40-year career in the game, to understand how it could possibly be true.
“Figuring out what to do and generating a beginning attempt at it are critical.”– Richard A. Schmidt, Motor Learning & Performance
Frankenstein isn’t on Verduzco’s bookshelf and maybe that’s because he lived it during his first foray into coaching football. (He also says he doesn’t have much time for fiction.) His first job was as the defensive coordinator at Soquel High School near Santa Cruz, California, about 100 miles south of Verduzco’s hometown of Pittsburgh, California. There, in the summer of 1982 he created a 5-foot-9, 140-pound monster of passing power.
He created it for a conference rival.
The “monster” was Verduzco’s nephew, Bob, then a freshman at nearby Aptos High School playing his first season of organized football.
“It was quite a story that first year,” Bob, now a high school football coach and math teacher in Michigan, said. “Mario trained me all summer and taught me how to read defenses and maximize the depth on my drop back. He taught me the throwing motion, which was more like Joe Namath or Joe Montana, more over the top.”
The training –– which started at 7 each morning with nutrition, a couple of eggs blended with some orange juice –– worked. Though just a freshman, Bob spent all summer running 7-on-7 drills with the varsity while the Aptos starter, Matt Walters, was playing baseball. By the start of the season, Bob had a choice: be the starter on jayvee or the backup on varsity.
He chose the varsity thinking it would get him ready to step in as a sophomore. Fate didn’t wait until then. Walters went down with an ankle injury and Bob was up. The first game didn’t go well. Verduzco watched from the stands and, before Bob could get off the field, had an evaluation written up.
“It was a handwritten note,” Bob said, “a full page about how to respond, how to keep my head and have faith and just stick with the process. I’ll never forget it.”
Things got better. Bob went on a tear over the next two weeks setting up the “biggest game of the year” according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The paper ran a big photo of Verduzco twisting his nephew’s arm the week of the game. With two games left, Soquel had a one-game lead for the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League title and a spot in the playoffs. Beat Aptos, and Soquel was in.
“The first play of the game Mario sends a blitz and knocks me right in the mouth,” Bob said. “I popped back up in the sense of, ‘I’m going to be here all night.’ Of course, he taught me to react that way.”
Bob did bounce back. He threw for four touchdowns and 204 yards in a 26-13 win, which created a three-way tie for two playoff spots. Bob recalls that Verduzco didn’t talk to him for a week.
When the tie wasn’t broken a week later representatives from Soquel, Aptos and North Monterey County drew manila envelopes containing a blue, red or white ribbon. Soquel drew the white ribbon. Soquel stayed home.
That would be the last Verduzco v. Verduzco battle in the SCCAL. Bob transferred to Soquel before his sophomore year, and Verduzco, still the defensive coordinator, asked to have passing game coordinator duties as well. He got them and, using what he learned at local clinics with the San Francisco 49ers and Bill Walsh, installed a West Coast passing system with Bob as the triggerman. Three years later, Bob turned down scholarship offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Boston College and Washington to play quarterback at Yale.
The family tree may as well be a route tree. Mario, one of eight brothers, played quarterback at Cabrillo College. Chuck, a brother, was a high school All-American and played quarterback at Pacific. Smiley, another brother and Bob’s father, picked defending passes and played defensive back for the Tigers. Jason, another nephew who spent hours training with Mario, followed Jeff George as quarterback at Illinois and earned All-Big Ten and honorable mention All-America honors.
Shortly after Bob headed for New Haven, Verduzco set out for the college game as well. The first coaching opportunity was at Gavilan College, a junior college east of Santa Cruz, in 1987. After three seasons there Verduzco asked San Jose State head coach Terry Shea if he could join the program as a graduate assistant. It was there that Verduzco would earn his Master of Arts degree in biomechanics and complete his thesis, The Biomechanics of the Quarterback Position: A Kinematic Analysis and Integrative Approach.
Bob recalled Verduzco telling him he was going to pursue that degree. Bob’s response: “Yeah, but you’re a football coach.”
To which Verduzco had his own “Yeah, but,” explaining how that training would allow him to better coach any position on the field.
“That makes perfect sense,” Bob thought.
San Jose State went 9-2-1 in 1990, winning the Big West Conference title. In Verduzco’s second season, 1991, the Spartans had future All-Pro Jeff Garcia at quarterback. Verduzco, with his developing knowledge of motor behavior, had to convince a skeptical Garcia he wasn’t trying to make him a sidearm thrower.
“I told Jeffy way back, I said, ‘Jeffy, you’re never going to be a sidearm guy. Don’t worry about it. Just throw the bitch.’”
Verduzco next took his special blend of teaching to De Anza College, eventually becoming the head coach. He reunited with Shea in 1996, becoming the recruiting coordinator at Rutgers. Time on the trail –– which included the recruitment of yet another member of the Verduzco clan of quarterbacks, Perris, Mario’s cousin –– meant less time on passing drills, however.
“He came into my office one time at Rutgers and said, ‘You know, I really need to be the quarterbacks coach,’” Shea said. “I said, ‘Mario, you’re the only pure recruiting coordinator in the country and I need you to be that guy.’”
Shea finally gave Verduzco full control of the quarterbacks three years into their time at Rutgers. Two years later, after going 11-44, Shea was fired. His next job was as the quarterbacks coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. Verduzco also found a home coaching quarterbacks in the Corn Belt.
Verduzco’s 14 seasons at Northern Iowa represent a good chunk of his résumé. It’s a very good résumé. He had five multi-year starters over that stretch and they came in all shapes and sizes. Tom Petrie had prototypical quarterback size (6-3, 220), and was the Gateway Conference freshman of the year on offense in 2001, Verduzco’s first season in Cedar Falls. Eric Sanders was smaller (6-1, 190), but also won the freshman of the year award in 2004 after stepping in for the injured Petrie. Sanders developed into another monster over the next three seasons. He still holds the FCS records for completion percentage in a season (75.2) and over a career (69.6).
Next came Pat Grace, a 240-pound wrecking ball of a quarterback who ranked in the top 25 in passer rating both seasons as a starter. Then came Tirrell Rennie, a dual-threat quarterback from Ellsworth Community College, who became the first Panther to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season and earned conference newcomer of the year honors. After two years of Rennie it was back to a more prototypical passer, Sawyer Kollmorgen (6-2, 215). Guess what he did. He earned freshman of the year honors in the Missouri Valley Conference and started for three seasons.
Over 14 seasons that group of starting quarterbacks combined to complete 61.1 percent of its passes, throw 204 touchdowns against 98 interceptions and compile a total passer rating of 142.95 (a number that would be good enough to rank in the top 25 nationally any year during that span). Efficient and effective.
Verduzco left Northern Iowa for Missouri State in 2015, joining the staff of Dave Steckel who had been a colleague at Rutgers. He was there for a season. Scott Frost called in December that year with an offer for Verduzco to join the staff he was assembling at Central Florida.
“When I became a quarterback coach again after coaching a lot of other positions, Mario was the first one I went to in order to brush up on quarterback fundamentals and coaching the position,” Frost said at the time of the hire. “He’s the best I’ve ever been around in terms of getting a quarterback ready to play. A lot of the things I taught Marcus Mariota and Vernon Adams were what I learned from Mario.”
Mariota, Oregon’s first Heisman Trophy winner, and Adams, who played one season for the Ducks as graduate transfer from Eastern Washington, led the nation in passer rating in back-to-back seasons, 2014 and 2015.
Twenty-five months on from the day Verduzco was hired, Knights sophomore McKenzie Milton finished the season with a 179.29 passer rating, second only to Heisman-winner Baker Mayfield in 2017. Three of the last eight FBS quarterbacks to have a passer rating of 175 or better have been coached by Verduzco or Frost.
“The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies, but also hate his friends.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen
Nietzsche is on Verduzco’s bookshelf. Not just his works, but also critical analysis of his works by Verduzco’s favorite Nietzschean scholar Laurence Lampert.
“Friedrich? Friedrich’s awesome, man,” Verduzco said by way of explanation, perhaps making him the first football coach to ever say Nietzsche is awesome.
Next to the Nietzsche are The Jerusalem Bible, Pope Benedict XVI’s three volumes on Jesus of Nazareth and other religious texts. To some those might make for odd literary neighbors, the philosopher revered or reviled (depending on your perspective) for writing “God is dead” next to the works of a Pope, but it’s all part of the package with Verduzco.
“I’m a good Catholic boy, but I can’t proselytize,” he said. “Within the framework of the affective domain, we can rely on theology or philosophy. So I’ve used Friedrich and a lot of other guys to get our guys to understand their responsibility as players.”
The Nietzsche quote on friends and enemies is part of the 50-page packet Verduzco gives each of his quarterbacks. The four domains of learning –– cognitive, affective, psychomotor, physical –– come up often in conversation, too. That’s the sort of stuff Nebraska’s current crop of quarterbacks has been swimming in since January.
How do they keep their heads above water? Through a little bit of art and a little bit of science.
Verduzco laid out in precise detail his plan for quarterback instruction while writing his thesis. He’s continued to add to what’s contained there but the initial version, three chapters on Philosophy, Motor Behavior and Biomechanics, provides plenty. Drawing on his studies at San Jose State and the work of Richard A. Schmidt, Verduzco breaks down the “general motor program,” for throwing a football, five stages (Stance, Movement, Acceleration, Release, Follow Through) broken down by the positioning and relationship of the feet, knees, hips, torso, shoulders, elbows, forearms, hands and head each time.
It’s unlike anything you’ve ever read because nothing like it has ever been written.
“It lays a tremendous foundation and it captures the imagination of the quarterbacks themselves when Mario presents it in such a way,” said Shea. “He might have been one of the real pioneers back in the early 1990s when he had that kind of presentation to make. He was ahead of his time when he brought that phase of it into the quarterback development.”
Shea, who recruited Frost to Stanford where he was the offensive coordinator from 1992 to 1994, knows the business. In recent years he has trained Robert Griffin III, Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford, among many others, for the NFL Draft.
While Verduzco may have broken that ground in his early years with Shea, it’s not apparent anyone has caught up since then. Know any other quarterback coaches with a biomechanics degree?
But all the scientific founding in the world wouldn’t mean anything if the coach couldn’t convey it in a way that ensured ace quarterback play on the field. This is the art of what Verduzco does.
“He always had an uptick in his coaching personality,” Shea said. “You can hear the compassion in his voice. He makes it a lot of fun for the players. I think he really wins them over. They start to understand that he believes in them. It does wonders for a quarterback’s confidence and self-esteem.”
“Mario had just a tremendous blend between demanding the highest from you, but couching all of that in love and support and just a sense that he knew what you needed on that day,” Bob Verduzco said. “It was just a gift. He knew so much and he was so above you from that perspective, but he could still come down and talk to you at your level.”
Current and future signal-callers at Nebraska now stand to benefit from that level of instruction in the same way others at Northern Iowa, Oregon and Central Florida have. Verduzco has the cleanest of slates this first year in Lincoln. The three eligible options –– sophomore walk-on Andrew Bunch, redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and true freshman Adrian Martinez –– have yet to take a snap in a Division I game. Sophomore transfer Noah Vedral, who played last season at Central Florida, isn’t eligible this season.
That all makes for a fascinating race and it’s the question Husker fans obsessed over all summer: Who’s going to play quarterback?
Read Verduzco’s thesis and you’ll have a totally clear idea of the criteria that will provide the answer. Verduzco first details all the ways a coach can’t select his starter. To meet Rawls’ definition of justice, the position must be open to all. Thus “inherent gifts,” i.e. talent and physical tools, cannot be the sole criteria because not everyone will be 6-foot-4 and have an arm that makes draftniks drool. Social standing –– the most popular guy in the locker room, the son of the head coach –– isn’t justifiable either.
Instead the quarterback decision comes down to work ethic. That’s because Verduzco views playing quarterback as a skill, and skills can be learned. Provided someone is willing to teach them.
You may not find anyone more willing than Verduzco.
“A work ethic based system indicates that the coach utilizes a method of quarterback development,” he writes. “In addition, the coach evaluates and chooses his quarterbacks based on quantitative, accurate, and objective criteria.”
That’s how the Huskers’ quarterback race will be decided, which probably won’t tip anyone off as to which guy takes the first snap this fall. It’s impossible to know the work being put in and whose skills are developing most efficiently when all of that work happens far from public view.
Verduzco doesn’t tip his hand while going through clips of Nebraska’s spring game either. He quickly diagnoses why a pass flew high or wide or in the dirt. “There’s always a reason something went wrong.” Just as quickly, he heaps love on all of quarterbacks that played in the game.
On Vedral: “I was really impressed when I saw him throw in person,” Verduzco says, recalling his in-person evaluation of the Wahoo, Nebraska, native. “Nobody screwed him up.”
On Bunch: “He’s not just filler, now,” Verduzco says while watching the walk-on’s touchdown pass in the first quarter.
On Gebbia: “He’s got a tremendous stroke, now.” Verduzco believes Gebbia might have one of the best three or four arms in college football though, like with Garcia, the strict over-the-top passing style occasionally provides some mental static.
On Martinez: “That dude’s a dude, man,” Verduzco said with his teeth clamped on the cigar. “I’m just telling you, he is a straight-up dude.”
Democratic. Open to all. The way Rawls lays out. The only way Verduzco would ever do it.
“These guys’ development will be no more or less remarkable than KZ’s.”
KZ is McKenzie Milton who is on every preseason watch list for quarterbacks you bother to look at in 2018.
“Skills are the very essence of playing football.”– Bill Walsh, Finding a Winning Edge
Maybe the most complete collection of the works of Bill Walsh is on Verduzco’s bookshelf. Finding a Winning Edge is there. The 550-page, 3-pound tome touches on every detail of running a football program. Copies sell for hundreds of dollars online because seemingly every football coach in the world has bought one or hopes to.
The Score Takes Care of Itself, the book your brother-in-law who is really into leadership has most likely read, is there, too. Verduzco’s favorite, however, is Walsh’s first book, Building a Champion, which goes in-depth on the construction of the 49ers juggernaut of the 1980s.
Verduzco has Walsh’s real first work, too. In a tattered brown leather cover with gold lettering is Flank Formation Football; Stress: Defense by William E. Walsh. It’s his San Jose State thesis from 1958, an offensive genius’s treatise on defense.
“I might be one of the only human beings that has that,” Verduzco said. He took it to a 49ers practice one day, pulled it out of his bag and asked Walsh to sign it. Walsh did through fits of laughter.
Verduzco is willing to pull from all corners of the world’s collected knowledge to help inform his instruction of quarterbacks, but Walsh may still loom as the ultimate influence.
“The way he talked about the position was interesting to me,” Verduzco said. “It wasn’t like I had heard anyone else talk about the position and offensive football in general that way. You would hear people talk about offensive line play from a technical perspective, but you didn’t hear very many quarterback coaches, if any, talk about the position like Coach Walsh did.”
Verduzco does. The bulk of his thesis is the first three chapters of a book titled Quarterbacks Born or Made? Destroying the Myth. It has never been published beyond its inclusion in the San Jose State library. Verduzco has spent the past few years rewriting those chapters and adding two new ones. He’s still deciding just how he wants to share it with the world. Traditional publishing might be out.
“I think Bill probably got 25 to 30 percent (of sales). Which is a lot. He’s Bill Walsh. If it was me, what am I going to get 5 percent? On my life’s work? It doesn’t make any sense to me. Whether it sold a bazillion or not doesn’t matter to me, but that’s my life’s work that I care deeply about.”
Deeply enough that Verduzco would rather that work remain hidden from all but the most curious rather than have it cheapened. There’s some of the same “I’m a nobody” sentiment from earlier in there, too. Or, as Verduzco puts it this time, quoting humorist George Goebel, “I feel like a pair of brown shoes and the whole world is a tuxedo.”
He admits to feeling that way around some of the younger coaches on Nebraska’s staff. Frost was the hottest coach in the country last December. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander was a Broyles Award finalist in 2016 with stints at Oregon and the Philadelphia Eagles on his résumé. Offensive coordinator Troy Walters was a Broyles Award finalist last season and a Biletnikoff-Award-winning receiver at Stanford. Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher was a nine-year NFL vet.
“They all have tremendous pedigrees,” Verduzco says.
And he’d still feel that way around Walsh, too.
“If Bill was to walk in the room, I’d do what I always did, ‘Hello Coach Walsh, Mario Verduzco.’
“And he would look at me and go, ‘Mario, would you quit doing that.’ But he knew so many people. Like I told you before, I’m just a little fish, man.”
Maybe being at Nebraska can change that. If it’s not the last stop on his 40-year climb up the coaching ladder, it certainly represents the highest rung reached so far based on built-in prestige. He knows that from there, if things go well and the Cornhuskers start winning championships again, his message has the potential to be heard by more people than ever before.
“You would be foolish if you didn’t recognize that, you know?”
Of course Verduzco doesn’t do forced naiveté either.
“I’m going to work just like I have at all the places I’ve been,” he says. “God willing the cubes are going to be successful. I’m confident that they’re going to be able to do everything that Coach Frost and Coach Walters want them to do and be effective and efficient.
“If that allows me a platform by which I can maybe change some perspectives and to continue Coach Walsh’s philosophy about coaching the position because I’m at Nebraska, man, wow, that’s awesome.
“That’s tremendous to me.”