EJ Manuel had one clear goal in mind as he started his preparations for the 2013 NFL Draft.
He believed he was the best quarterback available, and very much wanted to be the first one selected.
To get there, Manuel did what so many of the elite quarterbacks at every level of the sport – high school, college and the pros – now do, and employed his own positional coach.
For four months, Manuel went through intensive one-on-one training in Boca Raton, Fla., with Ken Mastrole, owner of the Mastrole Passing Academy.
The training paid off when the Buffalo Bills made Manuel the first, and only, quarterback to be drafted in the first round, using the 16th overall selection on the Florida State product last month.
“It was huge,” Manuel said of his apprenticeship. “Ken and I really set a goal when we first met. We wanted to accomplish a lot of things. Thankfully we did.”
Manuel believes his steady rise up draft boards was due in large part to the work he put in with Mastrole during the pre-draft process.
“We anticipated every drill I’d be doing at the combine or the Senior Bowl,” Manuel said.
That emphasis on position-specific training — especially at the quarterback position — continues to grow. With each success story like Manuel’s, more and more young quarterbacks are turning to “gurus” like Mastrole in hopes of landing a college scholarship or professional career.
It hasn’t always been like that.
A new era
Take Bills coach Doug Marrone, for example. He considered himself a pretty good baseball player as a youngster growing up in the Bronx. He didn’t have the benefit of a pitching coach or hitting coach, just one Little League coach.
“He picked us all up in a station wagon,” Marrone said. “We all went to a batting cage. We all went out and practiced. We all walked down to the field. I think everyone can relate to that.”
Everyone from a certain generation, that is. Marrone shared the story of his 9-year-old son, who’s in Little League now.
“He has a pitching coach, a hitting coach and a baseball coach. I struggle a little bit with that, personally,” the coach said. “I think that’s what we’re seeing now. You see that at a Little League level. Kickers have been doing it for quite some time. Quarterbacks are doing it. Offensive linemen are going and training with people. I think you see a lot of people doing that.”
As a parent, Marrone wonders if it’s all worth it.
“My wife and I, we argue about this all the time,” he said. “Logistically, it is very difficult. For us, the expenses are high, too. We want the best for our children. I think that’s become so individualized. I want my son to play multiple positions and multiple sports. Be a kid and have fun. … Nowadays everything is becoming more specialized at a younger age and that’s what we’re seeing.”
It’s a trend that’s not going away. Of the four quarterbacks on the Bills’ roster, only Kevin Kolb does not work with a personal coach.
Does Marrone fear the possibility of mixed messages coming from his own coaching staff and that from those employed by the players themselves?
“I don’t think so. The player is training to a certain point, and then once we get the player, we become the coaches,” he said. “Here’s the good part about it – he’s working, he’s training, he’s trying to get better and he knows what we’re expecting now. So if one of our players left to go train with someone else, they know what our system is, and they know what our drills are, so I don’t have a problem with that.”
Mastrole said he never conflicts with what a team wants from its player.
“I always get the feedback from the athlete. Like if there are certain steps that they want them to take in their offense, well I work within those parameters,” he said. “I don’t try to go outside and say, ‘hey, we need to do this a set way. Because there’s so many different offensive philosophies.
“The NFL is ultimately timing, speed, and being in sync with great athletes. Obviously the windows are so small at the professional level and the mistakes are so magnified, so it’s important that you’re on the same page. They provide the feedback with what they do in their NFL offenses, and I just work on the things the coaches can’t get to with the players during that offseason time.”
Bills quarterback Jeff Tuel has had a personal coach since he was 12 years old. It was then that he attended “Camp Quarterback,” led by legendary California coach Bob Johnson of Mission Viejo High School. Johnson has tutored more than 100 Division I quarterbacks, including his son, Rob, who played for the Bills.
“That’s been my guy for years,” Tuel said of the elder Johnson. “He actually wanted me to move to Mission Viejo and try to play quarterback at their high school, because I lived in Arizona at the time. It’s been a long-standing relationship. We’ve kept in touch the entire time. I make trips down whenever I can. It’s not something I can do every month or every week, but whenever I get the opportunity, I go get some work.”
Johnson had previously worked with Tuel on accelerating the quarterback’s dropbacks, but the offense installed by Nathaniel Hackett with the Bills calls for quarterbacks to make slower, time drops.
“It’s a lot about the timing of your drop and the receivers’ routes so I’ve slowed down a little bit, but it’s not anything huge,” Tuel said. “There are basic mechanics that every quarterback should have and work on. Those things stay the same wherever you’re at.”
Tuel plans to meet with Johnson after the Bills’ mandatory minicamp next month and prior to the start of training camp.
“You have someone pushing you and telling you, ‘hey, you opened your front side that time. Keep it closed. You open your hips up.’ He can see all that and it’s something you can’t see yourself,” Tuel said. “We’ll film it and watch it. We’ll watch tape of Brady and some of the best guys to see how they do things mechanically. All that stuff helps.”
Familiarity helps Jackson
When deciding on a positional coach, Bills quarterback Tarvaris Jackson stuck with someone he’s had a long-standing relationship with.
Jackson works with Richard Moncrief, a former quarterback for Clemson University and coach at Alabama State in Jackson’s hometown of Montgomery.
“He’s going to tell me the brutal, honest truth,” Jackson said. “This offseason was some footwork stuff. I felt like I made some major strides.”
Jackson returned home after the Bills’ recent voluntary minicamp to start working with Moncrief on what Hackett is installing.
“I let him know this is the way coach Hackett wants to do it here,” Jackson said. “When it really boils down to it, it’s all about getting comfortable with that.”
The world’s best golfer, Tiger Woods, has had three different swing coaches in his professional career alone. The comparison between a quarterback coach and a swing coach is one made often by Mastrole when explaining what he does.
“When we’re on the driving range or we’re on the practice field, we go through a pre-shot routine,” he said. “You go through that mentally to get in the right place and find the right rhythm. Once you develop that rhythm and establish it, you step away. You go out on the course and let all the other elements play themselves out. Then the athlete just goes out and performs. He doesn’t think, he just lets him natural athletic ability take over. All I’m trying to do is just help to en grain those things on that driving range or on that practice field prior to competition.”
Of course, there is one big difference between the golf course and being under center: Nobody’s trying to tackle Tiger in his backswing.
That’s why Mastrole wants his clients to, in essence, forget all that they’ve heard from him.
“The thing I always tell the athlete is you’ve got to feel comfortable, you’ve got to shut it off. There are a lot of relaxation methods and focus things that I do. I think that kind of differs my program,” he said. “It really helps them once they step on the field, they can shut down all that thinking.
“EJ’s got to worry about what coverage is being thrown at him, where are his reads, his protections? The last thing I want him doing out there is focusing on ‘am I set up to the target? Am I extending my figures to the target?’ “
Mastrole, 36, started training quarterbacks about four years ago. He had a brief professional playing career mainly in the arena leagues, and also coached in arena ball for one season before opening his academy.
“I felt like I’ve got this knowledge, I can relate to kids from a high school to professional level, let me provide them everything I really didn’t have,” he said. “I put it together to speed up the learning process, which I wish I could have had earlier.”
The “quarterback guru” business is booming. In California, coaches like Bob Johnson, Steve Clarkson and Tom House have worked with some of the biggest names in the profession.
House spent eight years in the majors as a relief pitcher and started as a baseball coach, but is an expert in “motion analysis.” He focuses on how athletes turn their hips and shoulders. House counts the Patriots’ Tom Brady, the Saints’ Drew Brees and the Ravens’ Joe Flacco among his A-list clients. Manuel is Mastrole’s biggest client to date.
Given their desire to always get better, it makes sense that the kids who look up to them would emulate their path. “It’s the most sought-after position in American sports,” Mastrole said. “People gravitate to it.”
Whitfield a rising star
Mastrole isn’t the only quarterback coach Manuel has worked with. Starting in high school, and continuing during his career at Florida State, he’s also worked with perhaps the “hottest” quarterback guru in the country, George Whitfield. A former college quarterback at Tiffin University, Whitfield established Whitfield Athletix in 2004 and has quickly risen to the top of an ultra-competitive field.
In consecutive years, Whitfield trained the No. 1 overall draft picks (Cam Newton and Andrew Luck), has tutored the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger and is currently working with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M.
“The main reason had nothing to do with George, it was just more so I wanted to stay on the East Coast with my mom still dealing with breast cancer at the time,” Manuel said of why he switched coaches.
Manuel and Mastrole met about three weeks before the Senior Bowl through a mutual friend, Tony Villani of XPE Sports. Villani works as Manuel’s speed coach.
“Tony set me up a meeting and a workout with EJ, so I got an opportunity to meet him, tell him a little bit about my program and the way I conducted things and set it up,” Mastrole said. “We kind of clicked, and step-by-step his stock continued to rise. It was just a really good fit.”
Mastrole first watched tape of every one of Manuel’s games from 2012 so that he could tailor a workout program to fit his needs.
“The things I was really looking for were that fine tuning which will take him to the next level. His base, his balance, set up and body position. Everything from his anticipation to where his shoulders were when the throws were happening,” Mastrole said. “We try to find out why he was inefficient on some of the throws. Was he playing flat footed or was he playing on the balls of feet?”
Gradually, Mastrole saw a more consistent quarterback.
“It was just a tweak here and here, like getting more extension on throws,” he said. “He didn’t do any drastic changes. He wouldn’t have warranted a first-round pick if he had to do major surgery.”
“We’ve really been honing in my footwork, getting my hips and shoulders in line so I can be accurate and have even more ‘pop’ on my ball,” Manuel said.
When the Bills made Manuel the first quarterback taken, it was a moment of gratification for Mastrole.
“It was pretty incredible. That’s what we pushed for,” he said. “It wasn’t just his on-field preparation, it was his personality and the way he conducted himself.”