George Whitfield Jr. pulls the rolling duffel bag out of the back of his 2006 Nissan Xterra. His intern, Carlos Martinez, unloads the bag of tennis racquets, cones, bean bags, flash cards, a blindfold, a broom, a speed ladder and footballs — all of the tools necessary for coaching quarterbacks, of course.
Pete Thomas and Luke Del Rio loosen up for a session with Whitfield, who, on this day, is preaching using the throwing arm less and the body more.
“The body pays the tab; the arm pays the tip,” Whitfield preaches. “If the arm takes the whole bill, the arm can bankrupt you. The body can’t bankrupt you.”
Somehow, it all makes sense.
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Whitfield refers to himself as a Quarterback Engineer. Others call him a Quarterback Whisperer. His unorthodox methods and sensible sayings helped turn Cam Newton and Andrew Luck into No. 1 overall draft picks and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel into a Heisman Trophy winner.
Whitfield also counts Oklahoma product Landry Jones, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Georgia’s Aaron Murray among his Jedi, or master quarterbacks. The Pittsburgh Steelers made Jones a fourth-round draft choice in April, and NFL scouts see Miller, Thomas, Boyd and Murray as future top prospects.
“George has helped me a lot,” Jones said in a phone interview from Pittsburgh. “As far as work on mechanics and footwork, he’s really, really talented at what he does. He’s great at getting outside of a box and being creative with his drills. He also makes everything fun, and he makes everything a competition. He makes you want to come out and work, and work hard.”
Despite only one year of formal training as a coach, Whitfield is in demand as one of the top quarterback gurus in the country. And his reputation is growing by the quarterback.
Manziel was “Johnny Nobody” when he started training under Whitfield before the 2012 season. Then a redshirt freshman, he projected as the backup to Jameill Showers. But Manziel, who spent eight days working with Whitfield last summer, won the job and eventually the nickname “Johnny Football” as the best player in college football.
He continues to hone his skills with Whitfield with three weeks of sessions this off-season.
“I heard his reputation, and from who he was working with at the time, I knew he was the best in the country,” Manziel told the Star-Telegram. “I wanted to be the best, so I wanted to work with the best. It was a no-brainer for me.”
Private coaching is a burgeoning industry. LeCharles Bentley runs an academy for offensive linemen, and Michael Husted trains kickers. Both played in the NFL.
Quarterback coaches especially have prospered. Bob Johnson, Steve Clarkson, Terry Shea and Steve Calhoun, among others, also own established résumés as quarterback tutors. Private coaching costs $150-$300 per session or $3,000-$3,500 a week for pre-draft training.
Many of the best high school and college quarterbacks seek outside instruction, and some pro quarterbacks also consult with private coaches. Ben Roethlisberger, Vince Young, Brady Quinn and Donovan McNabb, despite years of NFL experience, have conferred with Whitfield.
“Any time you’re working on your skill level, I think you’re helping yourself,” said Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, whose son Luke, an Alabama freshman quarterback, has worked with Whitfield since last summer. “Obviously, Luke is getting great coaching at the University of Alabama. They do a great job when he’s there, but when he’s got downtime, he wants to push; he wants to develop; he wants to grow. So for him to go work extra, that’s just what it is — it’s extra. It’s additional on top of what he’s getting at school. I think that’s why you see guys out doing that. Even pros are out there working on their trade, working on the fundamentals that are required for that position.”
Finding his calling
Whitfield, 35, didn’t find his calling as much as it found him. At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, he looks more like a linebacker than a quarterback. Defense runs in his family’s veins.
His father, George Sr., played linebacker at Wichita State before becoming a coach. His uncle, David Whitfield, played linebacker for Woody Hayes at Ohio State. George Jr. followed them to the high school football factory of Massillon, home of Paul Brown and 22 Ohio state championships. But George Jr. didn’t share their love of defense. He always saw himself as the next Elway, Montana or Moon, his childhood idols.
“When he was in the seventh grade, he was big,” George Sr., now an elementary school principal in Akron, Ohio, said in a phone interview. “I figured he was going to be a linebacker, but he said, ‘Dad, I want to play quarterback.’ I said, ‘Son, quarterback at Massillon? That’s a long road, and you might not play until your senior year.’ I’m trying to give him all this stuff so he’ll go play defense. He said, ‘Dad, I want to play quarterback.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll support you.’ He stuck with it all the way.”
George Sr. drove his son four hours to Freemont, Ohio, to work with Tom Kiser, a longtime quarterback tutor. George Jr. started as a senior in 1995 at Massillon and was team MVP and honorable mention all-state after leading the Tigers to four fourth-quarter comebacks.
Several big Division I schools offered Whitfield but with one condition: That he move to defense. He chose Youngstown State to play quarterback for Jim Tressel. But after a season on the bench, Whitfield again was asked to change positions. He instead changed schools, transferring to Division II Tiffin University, which, conveniently, was closer to Kiser.
Whitfield finished third in school history in career completions (368), passing yards (4,391) and touchdowns (31) but a separated shoulder after his senior season prevented him from pursuing a pro career.
Coaching seemed like the natural next step, so Whitfield started making calls. He contacted 85 schools and received 42 responses, with 27 job offers. Whitfield’s post-playing career began as a weight-room assistant at the University of Iowa.
He excelled at his job, which entailed a lot of grunt work, and he enjoyed it. But Whitfield couldn’t shake the quarterback bug. He quit coaching after one season to pursue a playing career in the arena leagues.
Whitfield’s pro quarterbacking career ended after two seasons, and he began looking for work in San Diego, where he had moved so he could train year-round. Whitfield applied for a sales job at Green Flash Brewing Company.
After reading Whitfield’s résumé, owner Lisa Hinkley offered Whitfield a job — not in sales but as a coach for her then-8-year-old son, Michael, a Pop Warner quarterback. She paid Whitfield $40 for what was supposed to be a one-time session on a Little League outfield. Instead, it turned into a career for Whitfield.
“We were his first customer,” Hinkley said in a phone interview. “It was so random. I think he helped us more than we helped him. We just gave him the hook to start the thing.”
Whitfield went from training other lion cubs — friends of Michael Hinkley’s — to lions — high school quarterbacks — and finally to Jedi after getting his big break in 2010. After the NFL suspended Roethlisberger for four games, Roethlisberger’s agents hired Whitfield to fly to Pittsburgh to train the Steelers’ Pro Bowl quarterback.
Whitfield’s work now is seen every Saturday and Sunday on national television in the fall.
“I was the third or fourth guy he trained before he blew up and become George Whitfield,” says Pete Thomas, a San Diego native who is expected to start for North Carolina State this season after transferring from Colorado State. “I had never played quarterback, never played football, before I started working with him in the eighth grade. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.”
Whitfield chases quarterbacks with a broom in the havoc drill, something he borrowed from Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. He throws bean bags at their feet while an assistant holds up numbered flash cards to keep the quarterback’s eyes focused downfield. Whitfield moves a soccer goal in the middle of the field so they can perfect their touch by floating passes over it. Or he has assistants hold tennis racquets overhead to simulate defensive backs’ raised arms. He uses chairs for quarterbacks to throw sitting down.
In May, he invented the Zorro drill by having Manziel throw blindfolded.
Whitfield takes his quarterbacks into his back yard — South Mission Beach — to have them throw in the sand and in the ocean.
All the while, Whitfield corrects, urges and cajoles with movie references and common-sense analogies. He tells them to “cast the fishing line” or “draw the sword” or to “use power steering instead of bus steering.” He says he speaks the same language with lion cubs as with Jedi.
“I know people think I’m crazy sometimes,” Whitfield says.
Whitfield works as an independent with no ties to a group of agents. He employs two full-timers and two interns, and he recruits local college receivers eager for extra practice. They work on the infield at Triton Track & Field Stadium at the University of California, San Diego or on an artificial turf soccer field on campus.
His business, Whitfield Athletix, keeps Whitfield running … like Manziel out of the pocket.
Lunch is scarce; his voicemail full; and his sleep cycle short. Whitfield wants a new SUV to replace his Xterra, which has 175,000 miles, but he lacks the time to go car shopping. He would love a dog, too.
Still, he describes this as “paradise,” and he isn’t speaking of the 71-degree temperature or the cloudless sky. Whitfield can think of only one job he considers better than his. That’s playing quarterback.