Doug Nussmeier has worked as a quarterback coach and offensive coordinator with several talented groups and individuals over his career. Generally speaking, the offenses he has worked with have grown during his first season of tutelage.
But even more significant than the offenses, the quarterbacks he has worked with have gotten better in their first seasons with him. There is something to be said for an offseason and another year of growth in an offense for a QB, but with the obvious trend at many schools and programs, there’s clearly a Nussmeier-factor as well.
Perhaps this has never been a bigger deal than it will be in the 2014 season at Michigan, where he'll be working with Devin Gardner. The Michigan quarterback is coming off a season in which some of the fan base called for him to be pulled. He struggled with his decision-making early in 2013 while working behind an inexperienced offensive line.
But as the season went on and the offensive line evolved, giving him better protection in the pocket, Gardner showed his prowess as a passer, throwing eight touchdown passes and zero interceptions in the final four games of the regular season. During that same time span, he accounted for 971 passing yards and a 61 percent completion rate.
Based on statistics, Gardner's numbers from 2013 aren’t that far off from other first-year quarterbacks whom Nussmeier has worked with. Like his previous quarterbacks, Nussmeier plans to help the Michigan signal-callers grow by creating a hyper-competitive environment in practice.
“The biggest thing -- from a quarterback standpoint -- is trying to simulate a game-type environment for them Sunday through Friday,” Nussmeier said. “Because when you get on the field on Saturday, things happen fast. And if you’re not prepared you can get exposed very quickly. You never want to put a quarterback out on the field who’s not prepared and the way you prepare them is trying to simulate, as much as you can, a game day experience Sunday through Friday.”
One of the biggest issues Nussmeier must address is Gardner's decision-making and interceptions, both of which plagued him earlier this season.
The only quarterback whose touchdown-to-interception ratio didn’t improve in their first season with Nussmeier was Tom Brandstater at Fresno State. Every other QB Nussmeier has worked with has gotten better in that category and it’s necessary to note that as time has gotten on, that jump from pre-Nussmeier to the first season under Nussmeier has seen an even bigger growth.
Michigan State quarterback Jeff Smoker threw 13 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in 2002, the season before Nussmeier joined the Spartans. In 2003, Smoker threw 21 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions. More recently, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s touchdown-to-interception ratio went from 3.2 to 10 in Nussmeier's first season as McCarron's position coach.
Last season Gardner threw two touchdown passes for every interception, which is actually better than what Smoker did in his first season under Nussmeier and exactly what Jake Locker did in his first season under Nussmeier at Washington. So if Nussmeier was able to help both of those quarterbacks grow in his first season, Gardner is likely to improve.
But Nussmeier knows it’s not just going to be what he does with the quarterbacks Sunday through Friday. A big part of what fans see on the field next season, because of time constraints, is what Gardner and the other QBs do on their own time this offseason.
“The biggest thing is the amount of time spent together in that meeting room,” Nussmeier said. “I think it’s real important at that position that the players possess a quality of self determination, they have to be self starters, they have to be driven, because you have to do more on your own because we just don’t have the time that you’d like with the NCAA rules. We’ll prepare our quarterback to play and play successfully.”