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Sports >  WSU football

Grooming Gordon: Meet the two men who tag-teamed the pre-NFL draft process for Washington State’s record-setting QB

The grand U.S. tour that encompassed Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon’s pre-NFL draft process looked something like this:

  • Ten days in Denver at the Landow Performance facility for position-specific training, film study and chalkboard work the first week of January.
  • Seven days of practices, interviews, measurements and evaluations at the Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, later that month.
  • Twenty-four hours in Arlington, Texas, the day after the Senior Bowl for the State Farm All-Star Football Challenge, held at AT&T Stadium.
  • Three weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area for more predraft work, spent with QB trainers, strength coaches, speed specialists and nutrition experts.
  • Four days of speed, strength and throwing tests, plus obligatory media and team interviews, at the NFL scouting combine in late February/early March.
  • Another cross-country trip back home to Northern California for two more weeks of training sessions at California Strength in San Ramon.

Had the novel coronavirus outbreak not prohibited Washington State from holding its NFL pro day, the back of Gordon’s official tour T-shirts would’ve been inscribed with another stop.

  • One day in Pullman for another cycle of combine-like drills and on-field throwing sessions in front of NFL scouts.

Frankly, at that point, Gordon and his record-setting arm probably didn’t need another audition.

“I felt like his body of work was very good, and so he’s one of the guys I think that not having a pro day really wasn’t going to be a negative for him,” said Will Hewlett, a private coach at QB Collective who mentored Gordon through the predraft process. “Some guys needed a pro day; I think everyone got to see what he was capable of. And good evaluators will really rely on the game film anyway, so I think he’s in a good spot.”

There isn’t much of a consensus among NFL pundits and writers as to where the next stop on Gordon’s tour will be, but the WSU signal-caller – projected to be taken in rounds 5-7 – should have an idea by Saturday night. He’ll be keeping tabs on the virtual event just blocks from the Pacific Ocean at his home in Pacifica, California. In lieu of a draft party, the Gordons plan to hold a smaller open house where friends can drop in to offer congratulations “while keeping social distancing,” father Ryan Gordon assured.

The comfortable position Gordon finds himself in a few days before the draft – an average of 11.8 QBs have been taken in the draft since 2010, and Gordon is firmly in this year’s top 10 – is partially a product of the stats he posted in his lone year as Mike Leach’s starter, setting Pac-12 single-season records for passing yards (5,596) and touchdowns (48).

But don’t overlook the four months of regimented strength training, on-field development and film study Gordon sandwiched between his last game and now to guarantee he’d be a popular commodity for NFL teams looking to fill out their quarterback room this week.

The first week of January, Gordon and two other QB prospects – Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke, whom Cougar fans know uncomfortably well from a certain bowl game in 2017, and D-III national champion Broc Rutter of North Central (Illinois) – traveled to Denver and spent 10 days in the same apartment while working with Hewlett and longtime NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels, who’s also employed by QB Collective.

Three or four hours every day, the QBs supplemented field work and physical conditioning with a chalkboard session, watching film and sketching out play calls and defensive coverages they’ll see at the next level. Rosenfels played for current Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell – Gordon’s OC at the Senior Bowl – so his understanding of the vocabulary Gordon would be using in Mobile was a key component of the QB’s time in Denver.

Another aspect was developing a basic understanding of how to play the position under center, as opposed to from the shotgun – the same crutch Gordon’s WSU predecessors, Gardner Minshew and Luke Falk, had to overcome during the predraft process.

“Imagine the biggest interview of your life you’re about to go into, which is the Senior Bowl at that point, and you’ve never done a very basic thing of your job, which is get the ball from the center and having the correct footwork to hand it off and then after that, have the play action,” Rosenfels said. “So yeah, I think that really helped him, and I heard from a lot of NFL quarterbacks coaches that they were surprised about how much he knew from a pro style offense and two, what his footwork was during the Senior Bowl and Senior Bowl week.”

At WSU, Gordon also had a tendency to stand in the pocket and throw from a flat-footed position – something that isn’t optimal in the NFL when you’re dealing with crowded pockets and more imposing pass-rushers.

“I know he didn’t always have a lot of rhythm,” Rosenfels said. “Usually in NFL systems, the coaches like the quarterback to have some rhythm, so you don’t stay on that number one receiver for too long, and if he’s not open, you’re moving on to somebody else. … If you stay on somebody for too long in the NFL, balls just get intercepted. So that was one of the differences, trying to create a little bit of rhythm in his drop, in his hitches.”

Rosenfels and Hewlett split up Gordon’s duties, so to speak. Rosenfels focused on X’s and O’s, film study and helping Gordon with the particulars of the NFL game – especially those that differed from what he accustomed to in the Air Raid.

“I thought one of the cool things we did,” Rosenfels said, “they had a workout in the morning, then we watched a whole bunch of film and then right about 2:30, 3, it was one of the playoffs came on. We got right to taking a quick break, then right into this playoff game and all those things I was just talking about, you could really see it.”

Hewlett oversaw the technical side of Gordon’s predraft process, working with the QB on his arm release, motion, footwork and throwing base, among other things. When the group left Denver, Hewlett commuted from his home in Texas to the Bay Area in order to work with Gordon through the next two phases of the process – before the combine and pro day, though the latter was shortened from three weeks to two because of COVID-19.

Gordon, who did morning strength, conditioning and speed work at California Strength, moved on to the facility’s turf field in the afternoon to tune up his mechanics. One of Hewlett’s top priorities when working with a quarterback is something he calls “guidance discovery,” explaining, “I want them to self discover a solution on their own timeline.”

Hewlett invested lots of time into improving Gordon’s five-step drop, something the QB hadn’t done regularly since his sophomore year at Terra Nova High School. For Gordon and many others who come from an Air Raid background, figuring out the drop itself isn’t as difficult as transferring the backward momentum into a strong, clean throw.

“We knew his under-center footwork had to improve and he had some instability in his lower body when he’d throw, which would create minor inconsistencies, sometimes inaccuracy or velocity,” Hewlett said. “So he knew those were things he had to work on. But it’s one of those deals where it’s hard to – you can identify it yourself, but like I don’t know what to do.”

Hewlett recalls an “aha moment” during the 10th workout. Something clicked for Gordon.

“There was a moment on a five-step drop where he stopped – he was like, I feel it, I get it now,” Hewlett said. “I get what you’re saying. We were working on a skinny post … He was like, boom got it.”

Gordon was excellent in the Senior Bowl, throwing two touchdowns in the third quarter and leading another touchdown drive to help the North erase a halftime deficit, and he backed that up with a solid throwing session at the scouting combine.

While Rosenfels and Hewlett added tools to Gordon’s arsenal, they’ll admit the player they inherited was already polished.

“I think at the end of the day, I’m always about accuracy and decision-making and on top of it if you add quick release,” Rosenfels said, “I think he’s got the quickest release in this draft by far.

“I think just the way Mike Leach is, there’s a confidence there of always sort of having your foot on the gas. And I think you can hone that in a little bit, but it’s hard to put that into a player to make them super confident. I think those Washington State quarterbacks, they never lack confidence they can make throws.”

Gordon also displays elite anticipation when he throws the ball – something Hewlett thinks only the national championship-winning quarterback from LSU can match when it comes to signal-callers in this year’s draft class.

“When you throw a ball where your receiver still has to travel 8 to 9 yards across the field on like a horizontal plane behind defenders and then it hits them right in stride,” he said. “Those things are, when the ball’s out of the hand that early, to me really jumped off as really him and Joe Burrow were the elite in the class with anticipating and timing and placement.”

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