The videos were a hit last fall. They featured the San Diego State-of-the-art offense directed by the Aztecs’ long, tall quarterback, Dan McGwire. They got a thumbs-up from most of the critics.
McGwire was called the most underrated quarterback in the country in 1989 by one publication. He has been highly touted by two others this year.
For the most part, the critics saw the videos--in the form of game films or television highlights--and raved. But there are a couple who, although impressed, think McGwire, the tallest quarterback in NCAA Division I at 6-feet-8, can deliver more. They are McGwire’s toughest critics.
Their names are Al Luginbill, San Diego State’s coach, and . . . Dan McGwire.
When the two flipped on the VCR in the Aztec football operations center and plugged in game films last season, they both liked what they saw. But both wanted more.
Yes, Luginbill, kept saying, Danny is a good quarterback. But he can be better.
When the season ended. McGwire took a couple of weeks to unwind. He reread the statistical sheets, replayed a few games in his head and came to that very conclusion. He had been a thrower, he determined, not a quarterback.
Yes, this was the same McGwire who had thrown for 3,651 yards in 1989, the second-highest single-season total in school history and ninth-best for a season in the pass-happy Western Athletic Conference--and the same guy who completed 258 of 440 passes for 57%.
He did all of that in what was basically an adjustment year for him, when he spent much of his time answering questions about his transfer from Iowa and about being the younger brother of Oakland Athletics star Mark McGwire.
“I thought he made the adjustment very well,” Luginbill said. “I don’t think there are too many people in college football who threw for over 3,400 yards in their first year. Ty Detmer didn’t.”
True. Detmer, the Brigham Young star, passed for 1,252 yards in 1988, his first season.
So what’s the problem?
“I’m a thrower,” McGwire said, slowly. “I remember seeing (Detmer) on the field last year, how he moved the chains. It’s amazing how he is so precise and crisp in his passing. He doesn’t have a strong arm.
“Anybody can be a thrower. A quarterback is someone who can move the chains, someone who makes the right decisions on the right downs. A quarterback has got to be aware of all of that--what down it is, what yardage he needs.”
McGwire said he wasn’t as aware of what he needed to do in certain situations last season as he needed to be.
“Last year, there were times I’d force balls,” he said. “That’s not being a quarterback. I’d get greedy.
“Example: BYU. I threw a touchdown pass over the middle. The next time, I tried to go over the middle again, and it got picked off. I’ve got to take what they give me. When they take the middle away, I’ve got to go over the top. I have to be more aware of that than I am--knowing down and distance.”
McGwire discusses the things you would expect a guy starting his senior season of eligibility to talk about, such as how badly he wants to lead the Aztecs to a bowl game this season and what his prospects might be in the NFL draft. But the conversation usually ranges back to the improvement he needs to make if things are to go as he hopes.
He is the marquee player on a team picked by WAC coaches to finish fifth in the conference. His height allows him good vision all over the field and a strong arm gives him the ability to throw the football just about anywhere he wants.
“In practice, very few people I’ve been with can throw a seven-step deep comeback route like he can,” said Steve Fairchild, Aztec quarterback coach. “I’m talking about a route where he’s dropping back 10 yards and the guy is running 20. Sometimes he throws 20 yards across the field and it doesn’t arc at all. It’s just a rope, a flat rope.
“It’s hard not to be impressed with the guy’s arm strength.”
The Aztecs finished 6-5-1 in 1989, their first winning season since ’86, and that was largely because of McGwire. They averaged 30.7 points a game.
But it was a learning experience in a couple of ways. Not only was McGwire new to San Diego State last season, Luginbill and his staff were also in their first year.
“Last year, there was a new coaching staff and a new scheme,” McGwire said. “I think people will see a new Dan McGwire this year.”
To that end, he followed a special workout program this summer devised by David Ohton, the team’s strength and conditioning coach. The sessions, designed to increase McGwire’s foot speed and agility, lasted for six weeks.
“We have such a quick, drop-back passing game here,” McGwire said. “Being a big guy, I need to be quick.”
Three days a week, for an hour a day, McGwire worked out in the sand. He ran 10-play series, working on his bootlegs, play-actions, handoffs and drop-backs of various distances. He ran 40- and 15-yard sprints.
“He trained much like a boxer, soccer player or volleyball player,” Ohton said. “The first week, when he was jumping over cones laterally, he was like an ostrich. Terrible. After a week, he went over the cones like they weren’t even there. In three weeks, he accomplished more than a lot of athletes. Not just quarterbacks, athletes.”
The goal was to do so many repetitions in the sand that McGwire would not even think about foot placement as he backpedaled. Then, when he moved onto the grass, it would come naturally and he would be quicker.
“You see a big man like that backpedal and you think he’s slow,” Ohton said. “But he’s not. He’s 245 pounds and he is solid.”
McGwire gained about 10 pounds during the summer and said he would like to maintain a weight somewhere between 240 and 245 this season. Last season, he said, he weighed about 235 at the start but lost about 15 by the time the Aztecs were finished.
“I think it affected me,” he said.
He is also stronger. His bench press is up to 325 pounds from 280.
“All of my lifts are improving,” he said. “I feel really strong. I feel really good as far as the physical part (goes).”
But McGwire is as concerned with the mental nuances of the game as with the physical part this season. One of the things that bothered him in 1989 was his yardage and touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio. He threw for 16 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. By comparison, Detmer, his WAC measuring stick who threw for 4,560 yards, had 32 touchdowns and only 15 interceptions.
“Mentally, it was a bad fall for me,” he said. “That was (the coaches’) big key, and mine, during the spring. In the spring, I really worked on decision making. I wanted to be a better decision maker.”
Luginbill is happy with McGwire’s progress.
“A quarterback uses his offense, moves the chains and is patient,” Luginbill said. “Dan has all of these qualities. Now, he needs to execute. He had two interceptions in close to 200 throws in spring practice (during scrimmages), and one of those was a tipped ball. Those are the kinds of things we’re looking for.
“I’m excited about him because of the progress he’s made, and he should be, too.”
Said McGwire: “I thought I was doing all right, but when I go back and evaluate . . . A lot of people say I had a good year numbers-wise but, if I made the right decisions, the numbers could have been astronomical.
“I’m not a big-numbers guy. I want to move the chains on our way to putting points on the board. For the team to win, I need to throw the ball. All of my individual goals will come in team success on the field.”