When it comes to transforming instinctive athletes into intelligent quarterbacks, Ted Tollner qualifies as an expert.
As the quarterbacks coach at BYU in 1981, Tollner was instrumental in developing Steve Young, perhaps the most famous athlete-turned-quarterback makeover in football history. In 1981, Young was a scatter-armed, second-string sophomore playing behind Jim McMahon. Prior to Tollner’s arrival, Young was such a project that the coaching staff had asked him to consider a switch to defensive back after his freshman year.
But Tollner, the future head coach at USC and offensive coordinator for three NFL teams, looked at Young and saw the raw tools for success.
And the rest, of course, is college football and NFL history.
With that — and Tollner’s 40-plus years of NFL and college coaching experience — as a backdrop, it was interesting to get his impressions of modern-day quarterback guru Jim Harbaugh this week.
Tollner, 70, currently the Raiders passing game coordinator, got an up-close look at the new 49ers coach in 2006 when Harbaugh was in his final season at the University of San Diego.
In between NFL jobs, Tollner spent two months broadcasting USD games on the radio. During that time, he attended each practice, sat in on meetings and studied film, past and present. Harbaugh had asked the veteran coach to join his staff, but Tollner, instead, served more as an informal consultant.
This week, Tollner downplayed his role. He insisted Harbaugh really didn’t need his wisdom.
And Tollner pointed to Harbaugh’s work with quarterback Josh Johnson to illustrate his point.
Johnson, who went to Oakland Technical High, spent much of his prep career handing off to his cousin, Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch. Division I colleges weren’t interested in a scrambling 5-foot-11, 165-pound quarterback, but Harbaugh was.
Johnson arrived at the non-scholarship, Division I-AA program in 2004, Harbaugh’s first year at USD. After three years with Harbaugh, Johnson threw 40 touchdowns and one interception as a senior and became the first player in the program’s history to be selected in the NFL draft when the Buccaneers took him in the fifth round in 2008.
Tollner likens Johnson’s rise to that of Steve Young’s.
He credits Harbaugh for teaching Johnson how to read defenses, work through his progressions and stay in the pocket. And as he developed Johnson intellectually, Tollner says, Harbaugh made sure not to sacrifice Johnson’s athleticism.
Tollner, a former quarterback at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, says the insight Harbaugh gained during his 15-year NFL career has been instrumental to his success in developing signal-callers.
“I think it’s no accident,” Tollner said. “He has done it himself as a player and he knows what it takes to be successful. That doesn’t necessarily always equate, but then I think you take that and look at what he’s done in his pretty limited college coaching career, both at USD and at Stanford, his record speaks for itself.”
Harbaugh is one of three NFL head coaches to play quarterback in the league, a group that includes Houston’s Gary Kubiak and Dallas’ Jason Garrett (New Orleans’ Sean Payton was a replacement player in 1987). Last week, Harbaugh termed the quarterback position the “most difficult in all of sports.”
And as the Niners begin the search to identify a franchise quarterback in the draft, Tollner believes Harbaugh is uniquely suited to help the signal-caller of the future make a difficult transition.
“You look at the production of those quarterbacks, Josh Johnson, the development of (Stanford’s) Andrew Luck,” Tollner said. “Those all fit. It’s a unique situation when you have a new head coach who enters that played the position, who had great success as far as wins-losses in college and who also can develop quarterbacks. It all fits together.”