Grand Valley State's unique passing game approach has propelled them into the DII semi-finals. This past spring, GVSU hosted X&O Labs for an inside look at their practices and their passing philosophy.
By Sam Nichols
Editor’s Note: Perennial Division 2 Powerhouse Grand Valley State University was kind enough to invite X&O Labs Managing Editor out for an exclusive look at their practice. While there, GVSU’s Quarterback Coach Jack Ginn went into great detail on how they coach their quarterbacks and receivers to make explosive plays in the passing plays in unconventional, but highly effective ways. The following practice review shows how GVSU has built its practices around its vertical passing attack. Insiders, be sure to log in and see the in depth interview with Coach Ginn that details the coaching points that he and his coaches use to redefine what it means to be "open."
Grand Valley has always been able to score points. Dating back to its emergence on to the national stage under now Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly, they have done much of this scoring by pushing the ball downfield in the passing game. I have personally set through multiple clinic talks by Kelly and his successor and now Notre Dame Offensive Coordinator Chuck Martin where they detailed both the importance of throwing it vertical and the schemes they use in that part of the game. I was always amazed at how they were able to be so consistent in creating big plays with these relatively simple schemes.
So the question is… how are they able to be ranked 5th in the country in passing efficiency in 2012 and 1st in 2011 if they are so focused on throwing vertically. That is what I set out to discover as I visited Grand Valley for their 9th practice of their 2013 spring practice calendar.
Below are some notes of how the practice came together and details regarding the concepts related to Grand Valley’s potent passing game:
Pre-Practice - Period 1 (5 min)
Pre-practice at Grand Valley is all about the basics. Each position group met with their coaches and worked on the most basic skills that they need to execute to win. Here is a rundown of the drills / concepts the offensive coaches were working on:
Offensive Line and Tight Ends: Installation review
Quarterbacks: Worked on snaps and drops with centers.
Receivers: Worked on catching the ball while coming back to the QB. The specifically focused on coming off their line to get the ball thrown into space.
Running Backs: The running backs started with simple bag drills including high knees, 1 foot every bag, 2 feet every bag, and quick cuts among others.
Pre-Practice – Period 2 (5 min)
Receivers, backs, and quarterbacks come together and run Pat and Go. Receivers and backs ran down the bottom of the numbers and the quarterbacks worked to get the ball outside of the receiver. Coaches pressed the players to run and to hold their line. Quarterbacks were intentionally working different angles and velocities on these throws and the RB’s / WR’s we expected to respond.
Pre-Practice – Period 3 (5 min)
After 5 minutes running "go" routes, the receiver / backs switched to curl routes at 11 yards followed by hitches at 6 yards. The players were coached to pound their feet as they entered those breaks. The difference between the new players and veterans was obvious by how loud they were as they worked their hitch cuts. They are also coached to not come back to the football on these routes. This allows them to have a wider radius of effectively catching the ball further freeing the QB up to throw to open space.
Team Warm-Up – Period 4 (2 min)
The whole team gathered at the north end of the field and went thought a quick warm-up period. In only 2 minutes, the players completed lunge and twist, wide leg crawls, high knee crossovers, backward crossovers, wide leg skip forward, wide leg skip backward and backpedal. Each exercise was done for 20 yards and the pace was obviously very quick. Then then broke right into team session.
Starting the practice with team is a GVSU staple. Many times they will actually start with a live blitz period. While today wasn’t blitz, it was certainly aggressive. The offense was looking to work the ball deep from the first snap. On play 1 they completed a 40 yard bomb down the right side and then followed it up with a 35 yard wheel route to the tailback down the left. After an inside run, the 6’7 quarterback launched a 50 yard touchdown back down the right side. As you can imagine, things got heated quickly and the coaches ramped up the intensity from that point on.
Individual – Period 7 (5 min)
All of the non-lineman started the individual session with a 1 minute drill focused on ball security. The players lined across the field with 1/3 of them holding balls on the 30 and the other 2/3 waiting to rotate in. When it was their turn, the player would tuck the ball into the high and tight position and then follow the coaches instructions. He would yell "run, jump back, spin right, spin left, down." The players would mirror his command and coaches were constantly reminding them to keep 5 points of pressure on the ball regardless of if they were running, jumping, or falling. In 1 minute, the players each got 2 reps and then they broke up by position.
Backs and quarterbacks worked on the meshes of their draws from gun and under center. Receivers worked on their stalk block technique against cover 2 and cover 3 corners. Coaches preached that they always be gaining ground as they block.
Individual - Period 8 – (5 min)
The skill players came together to work on their 3 Ball Screen Drill (Diagram 2). For the most part, this drill was about timing of the release and the route, but the way it was set up also forced the QB to work quickly. Since each QB would throw 3 passes in a row, he would have to react and not wait on each throw. This drill also allowed players to work the screens from different locations with some players working through all three lines. Coach Ginn said that this is a new drill this year and said it has been a great way to get reps and get the players more comfortable with their screen game.
Individual - Period 9 – (5 min)
Following the screen drill, all of the skill players transitioned into working each of their variations of their boundary vertical concepts. The players worked go routes down the sidelines, inside go routes stressing the near safety, and wheel routes from the tight end or #2 wr position.
1 on 1’s - Period 10 – (5 min)
While the line continued to work on their pass sets, the rest of the offense went to the south end of the field to work one on one routes with the defense. The drill was set up with four lines or receiver / back / tight end players spread out across the field and the quarterbacks starting on the right hash. The receivers then ran their drill one at a time from right to left. The next offensive and defensive players in each line waited behind the quarterbacks and rotated in when their turn arrived.
When we interviewed Coach Ginn, the newly appointed offensive coordinator, he told us that they use this time to rep the vertical passing game. That was most certainly the case during this drill as 4 out of every five passes were thrown at least 20 yards in the air and at least half of the reps were go routes of come variation.
Team Offense vs. Defense – Period 11 – (10 min)
Grand Valley’s second team session of the day was focused on vertical passes and draws. The offense worked a variety of different vertical concepts including their 4 verticals, choice, and wheel concepts. They also worked their drag / post combination over the middle paired with go routes on the outside.
Individual Punt – Period 12 – (5 min)
During this session, the majority of the players were involved with repping their spread punt concept. The front line players worked on the first 10 yards of the play focusing on their spacing, blocking / collision points, and getting into coverage lanes. The back wall worked on timing their movement and holding the line through the punt.
The quarterbacks took this time to work on their throwing motion. Coach Ginn took them through a progression of throws starting on their knees and progressing by adding drops and distance.
Team Punt – Period 13 – (5 min)
These team reps were done against a live block on the line of scrimmage. Coaches stressed the proper releases and getting into the proper coverage lanes.
7 on 7 / 1 on 1 Pass Pro – Periods 14 – 16 (15 min)
This period was very straight forward. The offense worked a variety of passing concepts from a coming out position. The defense changed up coverages on a regular basis and the quarterbacks were constantly changing the play at the line of scrimmage. The younger quarterbacks received more reps during this period and were definitely challenged by the looks they were getting.
Team Offense vs. Defense – Periods 17 and 18 (10 min)
This last team period was a mixed bag of plays and concepts. The coaches appeared to be working on plays that they only use situationally. They even lined up in 21 personnel and an I formation which is a large departure from the norm for those of you that know GVSU football.
After a crisp and quick team period, Coach Mitchell called the team in and gave them a quick "state of the team" speech as they move into their 3rd week of practices. When the team broke, I had to opportunity to sit down with Coach Ginn and discuss in much great detail their vertical passing game and how they teach their players to consistently make big plays.
X&O Labs Research Manager Sam Nichols spent a day this Spring with the staff at Grand Valley State University and Quarterback Coach Jack Ginn talking about their vertical passing concept. While X&O Labs Insiders members can gain access to the entire full length interview, some of the contents of what they spoke about are in the video below.
What you’re missing…
Join the X&O Labs Insiders and gain full access to the exclusive interview Sam Nichols conducted with Coach Ginn which includes:
How he varies his receivers pre and post-snap leverage to gain advantages on defenders in the vertical passing game.
- GVSU’s concept of "Open" and what triggers receivers to find space.
What he uses to teach receivers to "hold the line" on deep balls, making a more high percentage throw for QB’s.
The technique he uses to get DB’s to turn their hips, giving a free access throw by the QB in the vertical game.
Why he discourages the classic "over the shoulder" fade catch.
Plus game film of these concepts and much more.