For the past five years, every quarterback who was chosen in the first round of the NFL draft went to a major-conference college. Meaning a college in the Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC or ACC.
Forget that trend.
Draft gurus expect three quarterbacks who went to non-major-conference colleges to get drafted in Round 1 this year — Blake Bortles from Central Florida, Teddy Bridgewater from Louisville and Derek Carr from Fresno State. For the sake of this article, call non-major-conference schools “small” schools.
Three more quarterbacks who went to small schools probably will get drafted before Round 5 — Jimmy Garoppolo from Eastern Illinois, Brett Smith from the University and David Fales from San Jose State.
Only one quarterback who went to a college-football powerhouse has a chance to get picked in the first round — Johnny Manziel from Texas A&M.
What has changed?
“If I were coming out in the draft today, maybe I would be a third- or fourth-round consideration because of my ability,” former 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia said in a telephone interview.
No quarterback symbolizes the NFL’s evolving philosophy toward drafting college quarterbacks better than Garcia. No team wanted him when he entered the draft in 1994, even though he started three years at San Jose State and broke the school’s total yardage record for quarterbacks. So he played five years in the Canadian Football League before Bill Walsh brought him to the 49ers, where he was a Pro Bowler three seasons in a row. He was a Pro Bowler in 2007 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“Coming out of San Jose State, I felt like I was ready to compete in the NFL had I been given that opportunity,” said Garcia. “I had been invited to the East-West Shrine Game. I was MVP of that game. I competed against some of the best in the country. I felt like I rose to the level, if not above the level of the competition in that game, and I felt like that’s how I always played.”
San Jose State was off the radar — hardly ever played games on television — and Garcia was too short — they list him at 6-1. Now, small schools like San Jose State are on television practically every weekend, and the NFL loves shorter quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Johnny Manziel.
“A lot of people compare Manziel to me, and maybe there are some similarities,” Garcia said. “I love his athletic ability. I love how he’s able to extend plays and make plays. I’m not a huge fan of his mechanics. I feel like he’s going to run into trouble throwing off his back foot, throwing off balance, throwing balls into coverage, not making good decisions, holding onto the ball too long in the pocket or relying on his legs too much. I think those things that he was able to get away with at the collegiate level he will not get away with at the NFL level.”
Manziel in the mix
One of the reasons certain draft gurus love Manziel is he played in the SEC, the toughest conference, meaning he played the toughest competition. But he also had a projected first-round pick at left tackle on his team — Jake Matthews — and a projected first-round pick at wide receiver — Mike Evans. Manziel played with great players in college. That does not accelerate a quarterback’s development. It may decelerate it.
“You look at the quarterbacks that have come out of the big schools,” Garcia said. “You look at Mark Sanchez, you look at Matt Barkley, you look at Matt Leinart coming out of USC. Look at quarterbacks that have come out of the University of Florida over the years. They’re surrounded by the best talent in the country. They go out there and they’re successful and it seems like things come so easy to them. Now all of a sudden, they get the opportunity at the next level and things aren’t so easy anymore. They don’t have the most talented skill players around them because everybody is talented and skilled. So now they’re facing evenly matched competition. How are they able to separate themselves from the rest? They have never had to do that because they had such great talent. They had an advantage. Now when they’re challenged, they don’t know how to deal with that.
“I learned how to do that at San Jose State because I was challenged every single week to be better, to be greater, to overcome the odds, to find a way to succeed. That wired me a different way. It wired me with the mentality that I was going to battle and fight and find a way no matter what the situation may be. You look back at that Giants playoff game with San Francisco and overcoming that 24-point deficit in a quarter and a half. I had been in that situation many times before. And I may not have always had a big-time comeback, but that didn’t scare me.”
In a lot of ways, going to a smaller school is more conducive to quarterback development.
“You can recruit the most physical players in the country at some big schools,” said Ted Tollner, who was a head coach at USC and San Diego State, and an assistant in the NFL. “Other schools, you’re not going to get all of those big offensive linemen where you’re going to pound and control the ball. So you spread the game open and allow your quarterback and wide receivers to make up for the physical bulk that some of those other programs have.”
Quarterback guru Terry Shea said, “For the position that we’re referring to, it all comes down to repetitions in practice and in games. It can only benefit a quarterback to get more reps at a younger age. And a quarterback has a greater chance to play early at some of the smaller schools we’re talking about, which consequently lends itself to more skill development at a younger age.”
Shea was Garcia’s head coach for one year at San Jose State. The past two off seasons, Shea has trained David Fales, San Jose State’s most recent starting quarterback.
Shea is wild about Fales, and so is Garcia.
“I think that playing at San Jose State where maybe your offensive line is not the strength of your team, it’s important to get the ball out on time,” Garcia said. “David Fales is not a guy who’s been able to rely upon foot speed. He doesn’t have it. But he has great pocket presence, great pocket awareness, he can move around enough to buy an extra second and he has really good anticipation. He throws the ball to spots and he’s accurate.”
Fales grew up in Salinas, 30 miles south of Gilroy, where Garcia grew up. Fales first went to the University of Nevada, but transferred because he was not a running quarterback and didn’t fit the zone-read pistol offense current quarterback Colin Kaepernick was running.
Fales transferred to Monterey Peninsula College and started there for two years. Then he transfered to San Jose State. His first season as a Spartan, he completed 72.5 percent of his passes — best in college football.
“David puts the ball where only the receiver can get it and the defender can’t,” said Ron Caragher, who became San Jose State’s head coach before Fales’ senior season. “He has a strong arm. He throws the deep out. He throws the dig route down the middle very well. And then he also has touch — throwing the screen passes and the check downs to the running back. And then he has the homerun throw, too — deep over the defense. Those are his physical strengths.
“His intangibles are high as well. The two-minute offense, he executed that well. We were down eight with just over a minute left against Navy, and David just chipped away, converting a fourth-and-6 early in the drive. David got the last snap off with one second on the clock to throw what would eventually be the game-tying touchdown.”
Quarterbacks who go to college-football powerhouses sometimes can’t develop those skills. Receivers are wide open. Everything is too easy.
So, should top high school quarterbacks start choosing to go to smaller schools?
“I think it’s going to be a trend,” said Josh Johnson, who went to the University of San Diego, a non-scholarship FCS (formerly Division I-AA) program. Johnson now is the backup quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals. “If you go to a big school, there will be a five-star running back, or a five-star wide receiver. If you try to get them to learn an NFL offense, that might not be their strength at 18 or 19 years old. But they’re a hell of a player, so the coaches have to simplify the game for them and allow them to be great athletes.”
From Johnson’s point of view, that inhibits the growth of the quarterback, who is almost a supporting player on these teams. “That’s what I see in college football nowadays. A lot of these offenses are allowing these running backs and receivers to be great athletes. It’s different at the small schools. All of the athletes have a similar skill set, so you need your quarterback to be on point.”
Johnson was a good high school quarterback at Oakland Tech, but was small (5-10, 160 pounds) and got injured his junior year. The only schools that were interested in him were Idaho State and St. Mary’s — the Gaels still had a team.
Johnson’s high school coach, Alonzo Carter, approached Jim Harbaugh after Harbaugh’s final game as an assistant coach of the Raiders. Harbaugh had just accepted the head coaching job at the University of San Diego. Coach Carter convinced Harbaugh to consider Johnson. Harbaugh ended up recruiting Johnson, and Johnson became the full-time starter at USD his sophomore year.
“I was able to start for three years, and it was a constant learning process for me in an NFL offense,” said Johnson. “But those big schools, they just try to win because the coaches have got to save their jobs. They’ve got to get the ball to their best players and make the game easy for their best players. This doesn’t help the quarterback develop.”
Johnson grew 5 inches and put on 45 pounds at USD, and now is one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the NFL. Does he ever wish he had grown earlier as a teenager and gotten to play at a big school like Cal or UCLA?
“Honestly, no,” Johnson said. “I like the player I’ve become. I like the person I’ve become from going to USD and I’m very comfortable with that. I don’t know if I would have been able to become that somewhere else. Going to these bigger schools, you’ve got to deal with five-star recruits and guys who are hyped up. Stuff that you deal with in the NFL. Now that I’ve been in the NFL, I don’t know if I really would have wanted to deal with that in college.
“We had something special there at USD. It was a bunch of guys who just wanted to play football, and there was no added incentive because we were paying to go to school.”
Think of small schools as a learning laboratory, not a factory of winning.
Like Johnson, Garcia was a small quarterback who was overlooked. San Jose State didn’t recruit him out of high school. He played his freshman year at Gavilan Junior College in Gilroy. His father was the head coach.
“In no way do I look back and wish that the road was any easier for me,” he said. “One of the best years of my life was playing football for my dad at Gavilan Junior College. Having to go to Canada, having to work my way back later to the NFL, it made me appreciate things that much more.
“I think when you talk to people who know me today, I believe they would say I’m a very down-to-earth, very genuine, very humble person. I think that having the path, the journey, the road that I went through made me truly appreciate life in general. I appreciate the fact that I had to go out there and work for it and continue to prove to people that I deserve it, and when I got the shot, the chance, I showed that I was worth it.”
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.