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THE PASSING SCHOOL : Players Eagerly Return to Classroom and Practice Fields to Learn Finer Points of Game at Saddleback Assistant’s Camp

After enduring nine long months of homework, pop quizzes and term papers, the last place you’d expect high school kids to be during summer vacation is in the classroom.

But this week at Saddleback College was just where you could have found about 35 of them--most taking notes more eagerly than they ever did in U.S. History.

That’s because the lectures at Bill Cunerty’s third West Coast Passing School were nothing like the ones in U.S. History. Here, they talked about the subjects that inquiring prep football minds really want to know about: two-deep zones, secondary and tertiary receivers, reading a blitz.

If it all sounds sophisticated, it’s because it is. But with high school passing games becoming more and more complex, almost nothing seems too advanced for these mostly teen-aged quarterbacks and receivers.

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As Cunerty, an assistant coach at Saddleback College, pointed out, this was more a seminar than a clinic. The students spent nearly as much time listening to Cunerty,Rancho Santiago College assistant Tom Shine, El Camino College Coach John Featherstone, El Toro High Coach Bob Johnson and USC graduate assistant Ken Sharrar talk about the finer points of the modern passing game as they did performing drills on the nearby Saddleback field.

“It’s nothing like a passing league; there is no competition between the kids, and it’s non-contact,” said Cunerty, a former coach at North Torrance, Dana Hills and Capistrano Valley high schools. “They just come here to get better.”

Players such as Jason Schmid, the former Foothill High and Saddleback College star who is now at USC, have attended the camp and done just that.

Among the current students was Todd Marinovich, the talented junior quarterback who has transferred from Mater Dei to Capistrano Valley.

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Cunerty had helped coach the four-day quarterback camps held annually at Cal State Bakersfield for years when he decided in 1984 to start one here with the help of former Stanford assistant Jim Fassell, who is now the coach at the University of Utah.

“We figured Orange County could use a camp like this,” Cunerty said. “But we wanted it to be different from any other camps. That meant keeping the number of kids involved down so that there would be at least one coach for every five kids.

“It also meant having it in the afternoon, so the kids could have flexible schedules. We’ve set it up so that kids can go to summer school in the morning, come here after lunch and then play in the baseball or passing league games at night.”

The other thing that makes Cunerty’s camp different is his philosophy. The affable, enthusiastic graduate of USC, where he was the scout team quarterback from 1966 to 1968, will never be regarded as a disciplinarian.

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He prefers being on a first-name basis with his students, and likes them to challenge his ideas about the game he loves.

“Quarterback is the most dynamic position in sports, and I’m always still learning about it,” Cunerty said. “One of the ways I learn is from the players, from their questions and suggestions.”

Like many of the students, Rob Adams, who will be competing for the starting quarterback job at Mission Viejo this fall, found Cunerty refreshing.

“He’s just like one of us,” Adams said. “He jokes around with us, and that makes everyone more comfortable.

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“And he really knows what he’s talking about. He knows everything there is to know about playing quarterback.”

Area prep coaches give Cunerty’s camp their seal of approval, too.

“As a former high school coach, Bill is familiar with what we need our players to be able to do,” Corona del Mar’s Dave Holland said. “What he teaches are the fundamentals; it’s not so specific as to detract from what we’ll teach him and want him to do during the season.

“I also think it’s worth what you pay. Some of the camps run by NFL superstars are like going to a spa. You have breakfast, have a sing-along, watch some films of him scoring touchdowns against the Cleveland Browns. You don’t learn much--and it’s expensive.”

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The fee for attending the West Coast Passing School is $125. That’s not cheap, but it’s not making Cunerty rich, either.

He had to pay the other coaches for helping out and also pay for an insurance policy that covers the participants.

“When I told my wife what I expected to make from this, she said we’d be better off just going on vacation,” Cunerty said. “She couldn’t understand why I’d want to spend a week of the summer with some kids I’ll probably never see again.

“But I’m obviously not doing this for the money. I do it just because I enjoy it. It’s so great seeing kids from different schools come here and become best friends.”

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Cunerty’s camp began everyday with a lecture on such subjects as how quarterbacks must cope with certain defenses, speed and strength improvement, preseason preparation and the mental aspects of football.

On Tuesday, the lecture was augmented by a videotape made of John Elway a few years ago when the Denver Bronco quarterback was still at Stanford. The tape emphasized how a quarterback’s quick footwork can render even the most agile defensive lineman harmless.

That was followed by about an hour of drills on individual techniques, stressing the proper drop a quarterback should take, how he should release the ball, how he should follow through.

After a short break, the players returned to the practice field for group work on pass patterns and adjusting to different defenses.

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The day concluded with demonstrations by clinic coaches on topics such as Utah’s goal-line pass offense.

After meeting 3 1/2 hours a day, Monday through Friday, coaches and students alike were a little tired.

But Todd Parker, a Capistrano Valley receiver, said it was worth it.

“I definitely learned some things I’m going to use in games this fall,” he said.

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