How much can Devin Gardner benefit from the change in OCs? Quite a bit, it appears.
Before new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier entered the coaching ranks, he was a Walter Payton Award winner (best I-AA player) as a quarterback for Idaho under the tutelage of John L. Smith and Scott Linehan before playing five seasons in the NFL and one in the CFL. After retiring as a player following the 2000 season, he spent two years as a quarterbacks coach in the CFL before taking the same position at Michigan State for his old coach, Smith.
Ever since, Nussmeier's coaching responsibilities have included working with quarterbacks, and like Al Borges he'll serve as his own QB coach at Michigan. While that arrangement didn't work out so well for Borges—who, notably, didn't have the playing pedigree of Nussmeier—there's a lot of evidence to suggest it'll go a lot better this time around. Here's a look at each of Nussmeier's coaching stops, starting with MSU, and how his quarterbacks fared under his tutelage.
Michigan State (QB Coach, 2003-2005)
John L. Smith hired Nussmeier in 2003, Jeff Smoker's senior year following a junior campaign in which he was suspended the final five games for substance abuse-related issues.
Below are the numbers for Nussmeier's starting QBs at MSU, including the years immediately prior to and following his time there. What we see from his time at East Lansing will come up again at future stops:
|2002 (Smoker, Jr.)||114||203||56.2||1593||7.8||13||10||133.4|
|2003 (Smoker, Sr.)||302||488||61.9||3395||7.0||21||14||128.8|
|2004 (Stanton, So.)||141||220||64.1||1601||7.3||8||6||131.8|
|2005 (Stanton, Jr.)||236||354||66.7||3077||8.7||22||12||153.4|
|2006 (Stanton, Sr.)||164||269||61.0||1807||6.7||12||10||124.7|
Smoker's senior-year numbers don't leap off the page, but they do exhibit one trend in Nussmeier's quarterback coaching: when he takes charge, interception rates fall. While Smoker threw 14 picks in 2003, he did so on 226 more attempts than he had in any other season, and his 2.9% interception rate was a career best.
Drew Stanton's numbers are muddled by injuries in each of his three seasons as the starter; even so, the huge strides he made under Nussmeier from his sophomore to junior seasons are apparent—his completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown rate, and overall efficiency all improved even with a significant uptick in attempts. Perhaps even more indicative of Nussmeier's skill with QBs is Stanton's huge dropoff when his coach moved on—not the last time this would happen after Nussmeier left a job. Stanton's quote to Angelique Chengelis after Michigan hired Nussmeier really stands out after looking at the numbers:
“Doug Nussmeier is everything as advertised and more,” Stanton told The News Wednesday night. “He has an unbelievable approach to the game that demands a lot out of his players but also has a way of making every day fun. He represents what college football should be all about. He’s going to make a great head coach some day, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. I was literally in tears when he left my junior year at Michigan State.”
Are there mitigating factors here? Absolutely. Smoker's lost 2002 season makes it difficult to parse out how much of his senior-year resurgence was due to coaching, while Stanton's injuries in his sophomore and senior seasons (remember LaMarr Woodley?) impacted his performance in those years. Stanton's outstanding junior year is still hard to ignore, however, especially once it's put in the context of Nussmeier's other coaching stops.
[Hit THE JUMP for Nussmeier's other stops, including Marc Bulger's Last Stand and the transformations of Keith Price and AJ McCarron.]
St. Louis Rams (QB Coach, 2006-2007)
Nussmeier left his former head coach (Smith) to work under his former offensive coordinator (Linehan) in the same capacity at the NFL level, getting a Pro Bowl season out of a 29-year-old Marc Bulger before injuries sabotaged the 2007 season.
|ST. LOUIS (NFL)||Cmp||Att||Pct||Yds||YPA||TD||INT||Rating|
|2005 (Bulger, 28)||192||287||66.9||2297||8.0||14||9||94.4|
|2006 (Bulger, 29)||370||588||62.9||4301||7.3||24||8||92.9|
|2007 (Bulger, 30)||221||378||58.5||2392||6.3||11||15||70.3|
|2008 (Bulger, 31)||251||440||57.0||2720||6.2||11||13||71.4|
Bugler's 2006 season was his best as a pro; he also made the Pro Bowl in 2003, his second NFL season, in the high-flying Mike Martz offense, but he did so while throwing as many interceptions (22) as touchdowns. Under Nussmeier, Bulger recorded a career-low 1.4% INT rate in 2006—good for second in the NFL—despite playing behind a patchwork O-line that gave up the second-most sacks in the league. The next year, both Bulger and his offensive line suffered a litany of injuries and the team collapsed, going 3-13. While Nussmeier left for the OC job at Fresno State in 2008, Linehan and Bulger butted heads; the Rams fired Linehan after an 0-4 start, while Bulger was out of the league within two years, never coming close to replicating his 2006 season.
Fresno State (OC/QBs, 2008)
While the wheels fell off in St. Louis, Nussmeier spent one season as the offensive coordinator and QB coach for Fresno State under Pat Hill. This is Nussmeier's lone stop in which his quarterback—senior Tom Brandstater—didn't improve statistically.
2007 (Brandstater, Jr.)
|2008 (Brandstater, Sr.)||221||371||59.6||2664||7.2||18||12||129.4|
Brandstater—a notoriously inconsistent QB—was playing for his fourth offensive coordinator in four years at Fresno, which certainly didn't help matters. Nussmeier did help him become a 6th-round NFL draft pick—Brandstater bounced between five teams without ever making a pro impact—and scouting reports indicate that he improved at going through his progressions, standing out in that regard at the NFL Combine. How much that had to do with Nussmeier is very difficult to tell given the one-year sample here.
Washington (OC/QBs, 2009-2011)
This is where the data starts to get pretty exciting. Nussmeier took the OC/QB position at Washington under Steve Sarkisian in 2009, when Jake Locker headed into his junior season after losing most of his sophomore campaign to a broken thumb. I've included his freshman-year stats to better portray his improvement under Nussmeier.
|2007 (Locker, Fr.)||155||328||47.3||2062||6.3||14||15||105.0|
|2008 (Locker, So.)||50||93||53.8||512||5.5||1||0||103.6|
|2009 (Locker, Jr.)||230||394||58.4||2800||7.1||21||11||130.1|
|2010 (Locker, Sr.)||184||332||55.4||2265||6.8||17||9||124.2|
|2011 (Price, So.)||242||362||66.9||3063||8.5||33||11||161.9|
|2012 (Price, Jr.)||263||432||60.9||2728||6.3||19||13||122.4|
Locker went from much-hyped athletic curiosity to the presumed #1 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, then surprised pundits by returning to Washington for his senior season. While Locker's numbers took a slight dip that year, which caused draftniks to project him as a second- or third-round prospect, Locker believed that a hard look at his senior film would display the type of improvement worthy of a first-round selection:
Now Locker is in the strange position of defending himself against the perception that he cost himself the No. 1 slot. He's weathered criticism of his play by accepting responsibility, even when other factors, such as a so-so receiving corps, were often at fault. Not only did he play most of the season with a broken rib and bruised quad, he also rebounded from the loss to Nebraska by beating the Huskers in the Holiday Bowl. He's convinced he's better prepared for having put up good numbers in a pro-style offense rather than great numbers in the spread, the system used by Newton and Gabbert. And just because he didn't turn pro when his stock was highest doesn't mean he won't be a better quarterback. "Success will come quicker because I played my senior year," he says. "The smart evaluators can see that."
Most do. On the heels of Locker's strong combine and further examination of all of his game performances, The Magazine's three experts admit they'd consider taking him in the first round despite having graded him lower.
Tennessee chose Locker with the 8th overall pick. After playing sparingly as a rookie, he's started 18 games for the Titans in the last two seasons, with his 2013 campaign cut short by a foot injury.
Then there's Keith Price, perhaps the best example of Nussmeier's deft hand with quarterbacks. After redshirting in 2009 and spending 2010 backing up Locker, Price posted the seventh-best passer efficiency in the country in 2011, his first year as a starter. Nussmeier departed for Alabama after that season, and Price's numbers fell off a cliff. While local scribes attributed a good deal of Price's dropoff to poor offensive line play, that argument doesn't hold water after looking at the numbers: UW posted an ugly 7.8% sack rate in 2011, and that number rose only slightly—to just under 8.0%—the next season. While Price had a major bounceback year as a senior, his sophomore-year completion percentage, yards, yards per attempt, touchdown rate, and overall efficiency still stand as career-highs.
Alabama (OC/QB, 2012-2013)
|2011 (McCarron, So.)||219||328||66.8||2634||8.0||16||5||147.3|
|2012 (McCarron, Jr.)||211||314||67.2||2933||9.3||30||3||175.3|
|2013 (McCarron, Sr.)||226||336||67.3||3063||9.1||28||7||167.2|
AJ McCarron's story should be familiar to you all; after being Nick Saban's proverbial game manager as a sophomore, Nussmeier helped transform him into a brutally efficient downfield passer in his final two seasons at Alabama. While the Tide's SBNation site, RollBamaRoll, isn't sure how much to credit Nussmeier, it's apparent that he played a major role in McCarron's leap to Heisman contention:
The 2011 version of McCarron would have a difficult time throwing the ball down the deep middle of the field, but the 2012 and 2013 versions have thrived in this area. He still lacks elite arm strength, but his mechanics are much improved – along with ability to go through his progressions and deliver the football on time, even to his third or fourth option. Once again, it’s nothing more than a guessing game when it comes to trying to determining how much of his progression is due to Nussmeier. Some natural progression is to be expected, and, over the summer, McCarron has a quarterback coach. But Nussmeier, as the quarterback’s coach, works very closely with the quarterbacks during the spring and throughout the season, so I certainly believe he deserves some amount of credit.
Improvement from sophomore first-year starter to experienced junior is to be expected, of course; it's still difficult to look at the above numbers, especially in the context of Nussmeier's overall resume, without a good deal of excitement for Michigan's future at quarterback. The noted improvement in decision-making and reading defenses by Nussmeier quarterbacks is a very positive indicator for Devin Gardner's potential as a senior returning starter, not to mention the growth Shane Morris should undergo over the next three years. From a quarterback-coaching standpoint, it's hard to look at this as anything but a home-run hire.