Texas A&M's Spavital ready to manage Johnny Football
For more on college football's youth coaching movement and additional spring practice coverage, check out the March 4, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Jake Spavital leaned back in his office chair on the afternoon of Feb. 15 and pondered the pitfalls that could await his star player. The NBA's All-Star weekend beckoned 100 miles to the southeast in Houston. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was en route. Spavital, the Aggies' new quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator, knew this could be a critical moment on his watch. He prayed Manziel would maintain as low a profile as Johnny Football could conceivably maintain.
"If I see him throwing an alley-oop or getting dunked over in the Slam Dunk Contest," Spavital said, "I'm quitting tomorrow."
Spavital was kidding, of course. He understands the Heisman winner's quest to enjoy his offseason as thoroughly as possible before a lofty preseason ranking combines with the quest for trophy No. 2 to create the ultimate pressure cooker. Spavital remembers what it was like to be 20. After all, that was only seven years ago.
Spavital was one of the coaches I visited for a story in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated on the new wave of young coaches with huge responsibilities. This spring, three head coaches and 25 coordinators under 35 will take the practice field at FBS programs. Of those 28 coaches, 14 were hired or elevated this offseason. In the chase for recruits and the quest for innovation -- especially on the offensive side of the ball -- youth has become an advantage rather than an impediment. Spavital, 27, is one of seven coordinators or co-coordinators who have yet to hit the big three-oh.
So why did Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin trust Spavital with his Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback? Because despite his age, Spavital might have been the most uniquely qualified for the job. He knows the offense as well as coordinator and play-caller Clarence McKinney, and Spavital has worked recently with a pair of elite quarterbacks. "A lot of people equate age with experience," Sumlin said. "There's some truth to that, but just because a guy is older doesn't necessarily mean he's better. It's not about experience, it's about what type of experience you have. ... The ability to coach is not necessarily what you know, but what you can communicate to the players."
Manziel blossomed last season under the tutelage of coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, another young coach who has proven himself an excellent communicator of concepts. Kingsbury coached Manziel and the Aggies' offense so well that Texas Tech hired Kingsbury, 33, as its head coach this offseason. Kingsbury had been Sumlin's offensive coordinator at Houston, running the high-octane scheme Dana Holgorsen originally designed for Sumlin's Cougars.
Where does Spavital fit in? The son of a renowned Tulsa-area high school coach, Spavital knew his quarterbacking days were over when he graduated from Missouri State in 2008. He took an offensive quality control -- translated from Footballese: low-level grunt work -- position at Tulsa in 2008. There, Spavital soaked up whatever he could from creative coordinator Gus Malzahn. After that year, Spavital moved to Houston, where older brother Zac had been hired to coach cornerbacks. There, Spavital worked alongside a former Texas Tech quarterback who had just wrapped his NFL career. His name? Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury, a quality control assistant, helped Holgorsen with the quarterbacks and receivers. Spavital, a graduate assistant, helped position coaches with the backs and the linemen. Kingsbury had learned the offense as a player under Holgorsen's former boss, Mike Leach. Spavital made it his mission to know as much about the offense as Holgorsen and Kingsbury did. If he could, Holgorsen would consider Spavital essential personnel. That meant job security in an insecure business. "I kind of made myself irreplaceable," Spavital said. "If you wanted to bring somebody else in, you'd have to re-teach them or start another philosophy."
The long hours paid off after the 2009 season when Oklahoma State hired Holgorsen to run its offense when head coach Mike Gundy ceded play-calling duties. The only catch? Holgorsen couldn't take any assistants with him. The Cowboys' staff was full. "He could only take a GA," Spavital said. "So he took me."
Because Spavital knew the offense better than anyone in Stillwater except Holgorsen, Spavital had to help Holgorsen teach the scheme to the players and the other assistant coaches. That made for some awkward moments as the 24-year-old Spavital taught concepts to accomplished assistants. Heck, even the quarterback, former Minor League Baseball player Brandon Weeden, was older than Spavital. "I became a better coach, because I had to be smart," Spavital said. "I had to know what I was talking about, because I'd get called out immediately if I didn't." Spavital remains grateful to Weeden and veteran Cowboys offensive line coach Joe Wickline for understanding the situation and making sure the install ran smoothly. Running Holgorsen's offense, Oklahoma State shredded Big 12 defenses in 2010, and Holgorsen was tapped to be the next head coach at West Virginia. He brought Spavital as his quarterbacks coach. After a year with one future first-round quarterback, Spavital was about to meet another.
The two seasons he spent working with Geno Smith at West Virginia offered plenty of reasons for Spavital to be excited about the possibilities ahead for Manziel. Spavital, who remained in close contact with Kingsbury, said Manziel's first season in the offense sounded similar to Smith's. While wildly successful, the quarterbacks routinely missed throws they should have made because they didn't completely grasp the offense. In his second year in the scheme, Smith eliminated most of those missed reads. "Normally, year two of this offense is when it goes off," Spavital said. "The first year, you're trying to figure out everything. ... With Geno, he'd seen everything. He knew what he needed to do."
Having worked with Smith and Weeden, Spavital understands he has to tailor his coaching style to his thoroughbred quarterback. "If you get after those quarterbacks in the wrong way, they can easily tank," Spavital said. Smith, for example, was a film rat who would watch games and practices multiple times before meeting with Spavital. To keep Smith from getting bored by material he'd already covered on his own, Spavital scoured NFL videos to find concepts that would intrigue Smith while still educating him. "I couldn't throw on our practice tape when he's already watched it six times," Spavital said. "I had to create ways to keep him interested. Now if you put on Aaron Rodgers..." In Manziel's case, Spavital has a thorough scouting report from Kingsbury. He knows Manziel is the most competitive Aggie. He also knows Manziel judges his performance more harshly than any coach ever would. "He is so hard on himself in meetings," Spavital said. "I kind of get a kick out of it. You've got to respect the nature of competitive people."
Spavital also knows that while he is a poor substitute for style icon Kingsbury in the fashion department, he can connect with Manziel and hopefully put him at ease. "I'm not a GQ model like [Kingsbury] is, but I can relate," Spavital said. "I can get him to open up and start talking. The way this offense is, you have to have that relationship with your quarterback. Otherwise they'll get out there and be afraid to make a mistake."
NBA All-Star weekend came and went without incident. Manziel made it safely to the Davey O'Brien Award ceremony, where he again became a topic of debate after he revealed he was taking only online classes. Now, Manziel's corporation is suing a T-shirt maker for trademark infringement, and the ramifications of the case could reverberate throughout the NCAA. As spring practice approaches, it will be Spavital's job to ensure Manziel remains focused on improving upon last season and helping Texas A&M chase an SEC title. "I'm not worried about the pressure of it," Spavital said. "It's more keeping the operation going."