Soccer, dodgeball and baseball: Inside Jim Harbaugh's quarterback camp
If you were to walk by Al Glick Field House or any of its outdoor fields Saturday afternoon, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t have had any idea what was going on.
There were moments when dozens of high school football players were running around shirtless playing soccer. There were moments when rubber balls flew through the air as they played dodgeball.
And there was even a moment when Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler fielded cutoff throws from campers as Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown hit fly and ground balls.
In reality, what went on Saturday in Ann Arbor wasn’t a multi-sport camp. It was a football camp, specifically for quarterbacks. But the Ann Arbor Aerial Assault camp — A4 for short — ran according to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s plan, and that was with a unique emphasis on athletic versatility combined with a heavy NFL presence.
In fact, Harbaugh’s own views on what make a good quarterback were influenced by a NFL legend himself in Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Walsh.
“It’s in the name of Bill Walsh,” Harbaugh said of the camp’s unorthodox drills. “Spent time with Bill Walsh before he passed away when I was in my first year at Stanford, and I happened to ask him one day, ‘What do you look for in a quarterback?’ and he said, ‘Athletic instincts.’ I said, ‘Explain that to me. What does that mean?’ and he said, ‘It means that he’s the best athlete in the entire high school. It means that he could go make the basketball team, the soccer team, he can swim, he can field balls from centerfield, he can be a shortstop, probably pitches on the baseball team. Even if he didn’t play the sport, he’s a good enough athlete that he could go make the team.’
“That just always resonated to me, and you just want to pick some of that up here in the camp, see how they operate taking athletic reps wherever they are. Some youngsters aren’t playing multiple sports as much as they used to, so you’d like to test it. There’s a lot of athletic reps you can take — you can climb a tree, and that’s about as good of an athletic rep that you can get in terms of balance, strength, core, planning out what your next move is.”
So Harbaugh and his staff, including passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Jedd Fisch, interspersed Saturday’s camp with pickup games of other sports in hopes of bringing out the inner athlete from all 240 participating campers.
And they did so with the help of numerous NFL quarterbacks — including Cutler, Detroit Lions and former Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Stephen Morris and San Diego Chargers quarterback Zach Mettenberger — as well as numerous NFL coaches and private quarterback coaches such as George Whitfield.
The NFL presence added an air of professionalism to the setting — even when campers were engaged in non-football activities, they were urged on by the professionals. And when campers completed drills in which they actually used a football, the coaches studied them even more sharply.
In one activity, the campers were supposed to simulate a play-action rollout before completing a 20-yard pass to the sideline. With Mettenberger watching closely, highly touted 2018 quarterback recruit Artur Sitkowski began the drill. Sitkowski was less than a second into his attempt when Mettenberger interrupted, yelling at Sitkowski to come back and repeat the drill before showing the young high-schooler how it was done.
Later, while the campers ate lunch inside the Field House, they listened to speakers including former Michigan Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, Michigan basketball coach John Beilein and Buffalo Bills president Russ Brandon.
It was all part of the plan — a plan that even included giving each camper a Wonderlic test, an examination used to test the mental acuity of NFL prospects at the NFL Combine.
“Maybe we aspire to be the NFL’s 33rd team,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got 30 of their players and a whole heck of a lot of coaches out here today. So it feels like it.”
That was the environment Harbaugh tried to create, though not completely. After all, the average NFL team probably doesn’t have its players hurl dodgeballs at each other.