How did Michigan quarterback John Navarre deal with mounds of public criticism and media scrutiny last season? Simple.
Navarre internalized everything. He wouldn’t talk about football, even with those who were closest to him. He probably wouldn’t have picked up a newspaper if a gun were held to his head. Then just a redshirt sophomore, he did everything he could to block out all the people who said that Michigan could never win with him under center.
“He has a quiet nature,” said Jeff Cavanaugh, Navarre’s quarterbacks’ coach for four years at Cudahy (Wisc.) High School. “I know what he went through. He’d say, ‘I had a tough game,’ but I knew deep down inside it was really tough on him.
“He had his game face on a lot.”
Navarre needed that “game face” to keep going. He became the “whipping boy” for all Michigan football fans when last season’s Big Ten championship run came crashing to a halt. Navarre threw eight touchdowns and nine interceptions in Michigan’s final five games, including four interceptions in the Wolverines’ home loss to Ohio State which sent Michigan to the Florida Citrus Bowl for the second-straight season.
The boos came in that loss to the Buckeyes, as Michigan fans turned on Navarre, and they continued into the annual spring scrimmage last April. Every time Navarre came on the field, the boo-birds let loose, and each time challenger Spencer Brinton was called upon, the fans cheered. Brinton outperformed Navarre, and Michigan coach Lloyd Carr tabbed the situation at quarterback an open competition.
“One thing John knew going into Michigan was that every year, you’re only as good as your next game,” Cavanaugh said. “You can’t rest on your laurels. There was some heat.”
Michigan players and coaches adamantly believe that the “heat” was wrongly placed on Navarre’s shoulders. The Wolverines had to replace an NFL-caliber offensive line from the previous season, and receiver Marquise Walker was the only receiver that the Michigan offensive scheme allowed to make plays. Navarre’s inexperience was just part of the problem.
“We didn’t have a running game, guys weren’t blocking, it was a little bit of everything,” receiver Ron Bellamy said. “For John to get all the blame isn’t fair, man. You pick up the paper and it’s Navarre this and Navarre that.
“Last year, on the field, you would just watch him get hit in the mouth every play, but the thing about John that I like is that he got up every play.”
Navarre wasn’t even supposed to be the starter last season until “Golden Boy” Drew Henson bolted to the New York Yankees for fast cash. Before Navarre knew it, Michigan was his team – one year too early.
“Because John was a year younger last year and it was his first year starting, he self-imposed some pressure,” said Cary Venne, Navarre’s high school coach. “He didn’t really have the capability of doing things without the supporting cast.”
‘John’s biggest critic was himself’
With his future as a starting quarterback at Michigan in doubt, Navarre didn’t need anyone to tell him that he had to improve. The 6-foot-6, 228-pounder had always had the arm, but he still needed to “polish up” some things.
Navarre knew that he had trouble going through all of his reads, that he took too many sacks and that his footwork was not what it needed to be.
In February, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks’ coach Stan Parrish resigned. Carr wasted no time in hiring former Michigan quarterback and graduate assistant Scot Loeffler, who was coaching quarterbacks at Central Michigan, to coach the Wolverines’ signal callers.
“Scot coming now was perfect timing,” Navarre said. “I needed Scot coming in with more instruction.”
Loeffler came to Michigan with the goal of turning Navarre into a “State Street QB.” His philosophy is that before you could become a “Stadium QB,” you have to learn how to get things done at the practice field on State Street. Navarre said that Loeffler came in with an approach more geared toward mechanics, while Parrish had been more interested in making him a “mental warrior.”
Loeffler, 27, and Navarre worked mainly on his footwork in spring practice, as well as Navarre’s understanding of Malone’s offensive scheme. Loeffler introduced Navarre to a process of “progression reading” in which “you let your footwork take you from receiver to receiver.” He also presented Navarre with some “general rules” about quarterbacking that he still follows to this day.
“If a guy is not open, don’t wait, he’ll be more covered,” Navarre said. “The main thing is the rhythm of the play, the footwork, believing in your footwork. Buy in and believe the system.”
After the spring scrimmage, Navarre said he still had a long way to go. But he’d have to do it on his own until August (because of NCAA rules), which meant no help from Loeffler, whom Navarre had grown to trust already.
An average summer day for Navarre consisted of waking up in the early morning to watch 2-3 hours of film, lifting weights for an hour with trainer Mike Gittleson, and working out with his receivers. Over the summer, Navarre lost 18 pounds as well, and became a true “student of the game.”
“He knew for himself that he had to step up and improve,” receiver and former quarterback Jermaine Gonzales said. “He worked harder than anyone on this football team to get better. John got a lot mentally stronger from last season.”
“When you come off a season where you have taken all the criticism and all the blame, it takes a strong guy to maintain confidence and belief,” Carr said. “It takes a certain toughness, and John has always had that.”
‘He’s turned last season into a positive’
The season-opening game against Washington was quite an unveiling for Michigan. Not only was new offensive coordinator Terry Malone’s revitalized offense on display for the first time, but also the “new and improved” Navarre.
The junior second-year starter quickly hushed all the doubters by leading the Wolverines to a last-second, 31-29 win over the Huskies. The new offense spread the ball around to six different receivers, and Navarre threw just one interception in a game that signaled that Michigan was “back.” With his fourth-quarter performance, Navarre took his first step toward becoming the “Stadium QB” the Wolverines needed.
Two-and-a-half months later, Michigan has two losses and is out of the race for the Rose Bowl for the third-straight season, but the blame – for the most part – has not fallen on Navarre this time around. He has thrown 19 touchdowns and just four interceptions in 10 games this season (only Iowa’s Brad Banks can boast a better ratio), becoming a legitimate candidate to make an All-Big Ten team.
Navarre is moving up the list in the Michigan record books in career passing yardage, touchdowns and completions, and he could own every significant passing record by the time he graduates after next season.
His consistency week-in and week-out has left many fans wondering, “How?”
Navarre has all the answers.
“Last year, when I was out of rhythm, I would kind of pound the ball and wait for guys to get open,” Navarre said. “This year, if a guy is not open, I’m off on my second read or my third or fourth read. I have rhythm, I have a groove in the offense, I’m confident and I’m comfortable.”
Navarre said that last season many of the passing plays featured just one or two reads. This season he has a greater understanding of the game and many more options on each play under Malone’s scheme.
“I don’t think I understood (last season) what we possibly could have done,” Navarre said. “I think we had that as an offense as a whole.
“It’s hard to watch myself last year. We have cutups in the film room, and every once in a while a clip from last year will be in there. And you look away, because you don’t want to grab those old habits.”
Luckily for Navarre, Loeffler will be there to make sure he forms no bad habits. Venne, Navarre’s high school coach, said he thinks one of the best changes for Navarre is having Loeffler as his personal coach, so that when Navarre makes a bad decision or something is out of sync, he immediately can get on the phone with Loeffler in the press box to fix the situation.
“It’s the type of relationship where you don’t need to be best friends, but you better trust each other,” Loeffler said. “The majority of the time, he knows what I’m going to say before he picks up the phone to talk to me, and I know exactly what he’s thinking.”
Loeffler’s influence on Navarre has been a “huge asset,” said Navarre’s roommate, linebacker John Spytek. But no matter how positive an effect Loeffler has had on his student, there is one thing he might not be able to teach – no matter how much they concentrate on footwork.
“I don’t think anything could make me a better dancer,” Navarre said.
If his learning curve on the dance floor is anything like it’s been on State Street, give him about six months.