I interviewed San Jose State head coach Ron Caragher over the phone last week. Here is the transcript.
Q: Most of the top QBs in the upcoming draft went to non-major-conference colleges. Is that a coincidence, or is college football evolving?
CARAGHER: Quarterbacks can come from all different types of colleges. Even a backup like the guy from USC – Matt Cassell – made it with the Patriots. At USD, a non-scholarship football program, we had Josh Johnson who is going into his sixth year in the NFL.
I think really what it is is how much football are they learning and understanding, and then can they keep up with the pace of the game, because it intensifies and speeds up in the NFL.
I think the quarterbacks, if they’ve got it, they’ve pretty much got it. Meaning the most important qualities are do they make good decisions with the football? Can they read through coverages and get a feel and find that weak link in the coverage? And then once they find it, can they throw and accurate, catchable pass? I think those two are huge. And a big part of that is anticipating the timing of the throw to get it out there so that when the receiver turns around, that ball is right there and the defender doesn’t have much time to jump it. The intangibles are another big element of that as well. How does the quarterback operate when the pressure is turned up? In the two-minute drill, the third-down conversions, down in the red zone, scoring position – how does he respond in those situations. Does he step up and make big-time plays, or does he acquiesce to the challenge in front of him? Whether that is in front of 200 people in the stands at a Division III game, or in front of 100,000 fans, I think those characteristics are nurtured, are developed and are learned throughout the college game.
I think it’s not necessary by any means to have to go to a BCS powerhouse because there are so many schools, there are so many good coaches out there that play good football, that teach good football, that can help these guys reach their goals and dreams at the highest level.
Q: Has that changed a lot since you were a QB at UCLA in the ‘80s?
CARAGHER: I think the game has changed. The equalizer in the game is the spread offense. You can have a one-on-one matchup of your quick receiver versus their corner one-on-one out in space. You can get the ball out there quick via a bubble screen, via a jet sweep, and you’ve got that one-on-one matchup as opposed to phone-booth football – big behemoth linemen, and you’re just trying to move that pile two, three, four yards. Over the course of a game, the bigger, stronger-type football team playing fight-it-out game is going to win, but if you can recruit exceptional athletes on the perimeter, which seems to be easier than the big, stud offensive lineman nowadays, then you can compete. That has really changed the game.
The most influential coaches in the sport of football are guys who have been able to experiment with a lot of these outside-the-box thinking at the high school level. You look at Art Briles at Baylor and you look at Gus Malzahn at Aurbun, and what they’ve done and what they’ve brought to the game with the spread offense and the up-tempo, and it’s really vanillaed down defenses with the hurry-up tempo. Throw in Chip Kelly in that equation. So college football has changed in that sense. And how has that affected the quarterback? In a way, you could say it has somewhat hindered the quarterback. Maybe these guys get shotgun snaps coming out of college, but they’ve never taken a snap under center. My understanding is the NFL really doesn’t want to go to a spread offense. They like the rules that keep it a conventional pro-style-type of play. I think some of these quarterbacks coming from spread offenses aren’t as developed in the pro system. Can they learn it? Some can. But the spread is a different type of offense. The quarterback doesn’t have to be just a big-time arm. He can be an athletic guy.
Q: Are QBs from smaller schools transitioning more quickly to the NFL than they did 20 years ago?
CARAGHER: Think of all the bumps and bruises Troy Aikman and John Elway took when they were young. I think of those guys going through some serious growing pains. And so the trend was not to throw them in to the fire the first year. Let them learn the game and make it an easier transition. But the way everything sped up and the way salaries are, you see more rookies being thrown in and actually surviving, doing OK. I think of Matt Ryan with the Falcons and Joe Flacco with the Ravens and Andrew Luck with the Colts and Robert Griffin with the Redskins. They were thrown right in and they had success early on. Maybe part of that is the NFL has simplified things a little bit to get these quarterbacks going earlier. Back in the day, coaches were a little more hard-headed in keeping the system complex so that a first-year rookie had a tough time learning it.
Is it a bigger jump from a mid-major program to the NFL than from a BCS conference? I don’t know. It’s pretty good football. The only thing that changes is not necessarily the terminology, the coaching, the reading of defenses, defensive blitz packages – I think the only thing that changes is the speed of the game. And it’s a jump for anyone, whether you’re coming from a BCS conference or whether you’re coming from a 1 AA FCS program.
Q: Describe David Fales’ game.
CARAGHER: I talked about the great qualities of a quarterback that you look for – making a good decision with the football. David does that. He makes good decisions with the ball. And then I think this is his biggest strength – he throws timely, accurate passes. So those receivers who are covered, David puts the ball where only the receiver can get it and the defender can’t. 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. I think those are his physical strengths. His intangibles are high as well. The two-minute offense, he executed that well. We were down 8 with just over a minute left against Navy, and David just chipped away, converting a fourth-and-six early in the drive. David got that last snap off with one second on the clock to throw what would eventually be the game-tying touchdown. So, I think David has the intangibles and the physical qualities to succeed at the NFL level.
Q: Is he NFL ready?
CARAGHER: I think so. He’s had a lot of exposure to some outstanding coaches over the years. I’ll start right here, Coach Dougherty, our offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. I think the coach before, Brian Lindgren, did a good job. And I’ll go back to junior college – Mike Rasmussen at Monterey Peninsula. Fales has had some really good coaches. If you can draw from every one of those guys, it’s beneficial. And that can happen in the NFL – the coaching turnstile. He could be around different people, and the key is to be able to adjust to different systems and different teaching styles. David has shown he can do that.
I think he’s ready because he can adapt to different styles of teaching, he anticipates well, his timing and accuracy is good. I think he’ll be successful.
Q: What type of NFL offense would he flourish in?
CARAGHER: A conventional, pro-style offense that has a mixture of shotgun or under center, spread it out or your traditional two-back I-formation power run game with play-action off of that. I think Dave has a nice broad arsenal of weapons he can use that can hurt a defense. He can be a pocket guy, or he can sprint out and throw the ball on the run. And when he needs to tuck it and run for that first down, he’s a good enough athlete to be able to do that.
Q: How did USD enhance Josh Johnson’s development?
CARAGHER: Even before Jim Harbaugh, the West Coast Offense was installed at USD. I mean to a T. That was used verbatim. And Jim came in and emphasized that. And you’ve got an NFL quarterback as a head coach. I think that was a big part. But I think, too, the quality of coaches that helped Josh as well — John Morton who’s with the 49ers now coaching receivers, David Shaw who is at Stanford was coaching receivers the very next year. Key components of the passing game. And then Jimmie Dougherty coached Josh’s last year. Josh’s last year he threw 43 touchdowns and 1 interception, and the interception hit our tight end in the chest and bounced up in the air. Josh still holds the record for the all-time pass efficiency. It’s unbelievable. Josh just had freakish numbers.
So with the terminology that was used and the coaches who coached him, when the Buccaneers met him, Jon Gruden loved him because he could talk the talk. He knew the protections, the concepts, the formations down to a T. There is was no learning. He knew the system. Some of these coaches don’t want to draft a quarterback from a whole different system because the learning curve is too high. It takes too much time. They want a guy who has a background in their system, and Josh fit that really well. Gruden said Josh was one of the finest rookie quarterbacks he’s ever been around.
Q: Do you think Johnson will become a starter one day?
CARAGHER: I do. I think Josh is special and when the opportunity comes, he will succeed. I know he had a few starts at Tampa Bay, but I also know those were challenging times. Those were tough Tampa Bay teams to be on. I think the day will come. They really like him in Cincinnati.
Q: Describe his game.
CARAGHER: Outstanding arm strength. Very quick release. That’s my favorite thing about him as a passer. That ball comes out fast. Anticipates well. Sees the defense really well, the flow of the secondary, disguises. He’d come off the field and see things I didn’t see on the sideline. And then you throw in his athletic ability. I think he’s the complete package. It’s scary to think if Josh were in a spread offense. He’s always been a pro-style offense. If he was in a spread offense with the zone-read and all of that stuff, that would be pretty dangerous, too.
Q: Why did he fall through the cracks coming out of high school?
CARAGHER: His coach, Alonzo Carter, told me this story. Josh was 5-10, 160 pounds his junior year at Oakland Tech, but he put up pretty good numbers until he got hurt. Everyone backed off because of the size thing and he missed part of his junior year. No one came out to spring recruiting saying, “There’s a stud quarterback at Oakland Tech, go check him out.” The two schools that were interested in him were St. Mary’s – they still had a team – and Idaho State. And Coach Carter went up to the newly-hired USD head coach, Jim Harbaugh, after the Raiders’ last game of the season. Coach Carter went up to Jim Harbaugh and said, “Coach, I know you just took the job at USD, but I’m telling you I’ve got a quarterback at Oakland Tech who is pretty darn good. He’s getting looked at by St. Mary’s and Idaho State. But he doesn’t want to go all the way up to Idaho State, and he’s not St. Mary’s top guy.”
To Jim’s credit, he gets to San Diego and he calls up Coach Carter and they end up recruiting him and bringing him in. They brought in two quarterbacks, what appeared to be a stud quarterback from the Midwest with a big-time arm. But it just became clear that Josh had talent written all over him, and the other quarterback transferred out. This is what I was told, I wasn’t there.
Josh played some as a freshman and then became the starter his sophomore year.
Q: Why didn’t David Fales get an offer to a major-conference-college?
CARAGHER: He wasn’t 6-4. Maybe people didn’t see him in high school. And he improved a lot over the last few years, to his credit. Worked hard on areas to improve and really delved into the game, understanding it.
David Fales had one scholarship offer when San Jose State gave him an offer in December of 2011. That scholarship offer was an FCS school, Indiana State. And San Jose State had just lost Tate Forcier. They were out looking for quarterbacks and came across David Fales.
There are a lot of good players that slip through the cracks that people pass on maybe because of certain physical characteristics, or maybe the player is not developed yet. Look at Tom Brady. Michigan saw something in him and he played some there and seemed to have a pretty good, solid career. He blossomed the most post-college. That’s when he played his highest level of football.
Q: Is there a hesitancy to recruit players from small towns?
CARAGHER: There could be. You look at level of competition, who someone plays against. If the level of competition is real questionable it takes away a little bit from some of the numbers. You could have a man among boys at, say, running back rushing for a zillion yards, or a quarterback passing for a bunch. You keep that in mind. Maybe you don’t get to know those guys as well as the guy in the bigger city who’s in close proximity to come over for official visits, come to camps. Maybe those guys are a little more hidden and not on the radar of some of the programs. I think you could probably say there’s a tendency of those guys to slip between the cracks.
Q: Do you ever wish you had gone somewhere else instead of UCLA?
CARAGHER: That’s a twofold answer. The first and most important thing is I met my wife there. She played tennis. We have three sons. And I met some wonderful friends there. On a personal level, it was the right choice. And then on a professional level, Terry Donahue was instrumental in me getting into coaching after I finished playing, inviting me on board as a graduate assistant coach. From a play experience, yeah, you always wonder. Had I gone to USD or San Jose State, would I have been able to play and been a three-year starter? Who knows? I’ll never know. But I think I made the right decision because it paid off. I have a wonderful wife and kids and I love career and I’m very thankful to those people who got me started in it.
Q: Anything else?
CARAGHER: Like we see in the NFL with the highest in the profession of evaluating talent and projecting talent, whether it’s the NFL or whether it’s recruiting at the Division-I level or the FCS level, there is no exact science in projecting talent. And quarterback is the toughest position to evaluate and to project at all three levels. There are so many variables involved – the systems they ran, who the competition was, do they read defenses or are they just making plays on pure athletic ability, can they actually make good, fast decisions? And then crank up the pressure. Throw a lot of people in the stands in the bigger games that come along. There is a lot at stake and a lot of things to consider. The more you know about a prospect – maybe you have a camp and you get to visit one-on-one, or you get to know people that have been around that prospect, maybe a Coach Carter, for example. Still no guarantees of success, but you have a better feel for assessing and projecting that talent.