BOULDER - Football coaches march into spring practice eager to teach, hopeful that players are just as eager to learn. Rip Scherer, a consummate teacher, cruised into Colorado's spring drills hoping the guys at his position can't wait to unlearn.
Scherer is CU's new quarterbacks coach. He's been on more college campuses than ivy. His resume lists 11 college stops, a couple of them as head coach, and NFL stints at two places. He's as well-traveled as Greyhound.
Landing in Boulder might have surprised him more than anyone else. Prior to getting hired, he'd had no personal contact with his new boss, Jon Embree. The story, as Embree tells it, goes like this: In his search for a QB coach, Embree spoke with five different people in the NFL and Scherer's name was dropped by all five.
Said Scherer: "I'd like to know who those five guys are and send them a thank you note."
One of the Fab Five might have been Steve Marshall, hired by Embree as CU's offensive line coach. Another could have been Eric Bieniemy, hired as CU's offensive coordinator/running backs coach. Marshall and Scherer worked together with the Cleveland Browns for two years, and Bieniemy was on the Minnesota Vikings staff with former quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers - a former college teammate of Scherer's. Bieniemy and Scherer also had swapped notes at the NFL Combine and Senior Bowl.
As for his other three secret admirers, well, Scherer appreciates their votes of confidence, which initiated a welcome return to the college game after his former boss at Carolina (John Fox) was hired as the Broncos head coach. Denver was the only job Fox could have taken that wouldn't have included Scherer. Fox retained Broncos offensive coordinator/QB coach Mike McCoy, who had been on Fox's Carolina staff before moving to Denver. Scherer was McCoy's replacement at Carolina.
"The reality of it was that coming from the NFL after six years, there weren't many places I could go . . . because of not having a spread offense background," Scherer said. "This fit on both ends. I've been a coordinator or a head coach for most of my career, from time I was 25 or 26."
Scherer's head coaching experience (James Madison, Memphis) might have turned another rookie head coach in another direction. Not so with Embree, whom Scherer described as "very secure in his own skin. I had former head coaches on my staff; I think it's helpful. And I think you become a better assistant coach after being a head coach. You appreciate what he's going through; his seat's a lot different than the rest of ours.
"I know now I have a better appreciation of some of those difficult decisions he has to make. He wants to use J.D. (Brookhart, former Akron head coach who is CU's tight ends/special teams coach and passing game coordinator) and me as a sounding board for things. It takes a confidence on his part and a trust in those people he's hired."
Although Scherer concedes it is unusual in coaching to be hired by a "stranger," he adds, "You know the six degrees of separation? In this business, you're probably not more than two or three removed from somebody who has a relationship with somebody."
So the Buffs get a QB coach who knows his way around and, frankly, seems a little tired of being a transient. College coaching isn't the most secure of professions, but the NFL might be worse. Scherer, who also is Embree's assistant head coach, calls this "a good situation, coming in on a front end of staff, particularly one that has all the ties and associations (with CU) this one has."
Scherer hadn't spent much time in Colorado, visiting Boulder once when his daughter was scrutinizing the CU Law School, another time as a member of the Kansas football staff under former coach Terry Allen in 2001. "We got drilled (27-16)," Scherer recalled.
But he vividly remembers his introduction to the state. That came in the fall of 1989 when he was the offensive coordinator on Dick Tomey's Arizona staff. Intrigued by CU's I-bone, Tomey contacted former coach Bill McCartney and arranged to send the Wildcats offensive staff to Boulder to study the Buffs offense during a bye week in Tucson.
"I don't know how Tomey pulled it off," said Scherer, "but we flew up on a Monday night and spend the next three days with (Gerry) DiNardo, (Gary) Barnett and Mike Barry, sitting in meetings, watching how they practiced - everything. We (Arizona) were running the Flex-bone, so there were some option elements already in our offense. But the I-bone was a different enough concept to be surprising."
UCLA was more than surprised. The Bruins, ranked No. 22, visited Tucson on Oct. 14, 1989 and were hammered, 42-7. The Wildcats obviously borrowed a good concept and put it to good use, but that's a page from Scherer's past that won't be revisited.
Embree is installing a pro-style, West Coast offense at CU, which Scherer believes will benefit the Buffs in the recruitment of high-caliber prospects at his position.
"I think we've created a niche for ourselves in recruiting," Scherer said. "We're going to try and go nationally and recruit the top quarterback that we can every year. I think for a young player who has aspirations to play at the next level, when you're in this kind of offense you're more readily prepared and there's not many of us doing it."
College offenses, he contends, are cyclical, with the spread and its variations the current rage. "It'll cycle back to this, but we'll be on the cusp of it, the front edge," he said. "We create an alternative for a top flight quarterback that has projected ability to move on beyond college. It's an opportunity to be better prepared.
"From a pro perspective, scouting a spread quarterback and projecting him as a pro style quarterback is a difficult thing to do. Look at Tim Tebow (Broncos), Cam Newton (formerly of Auburn) . . . they're talented guys but their learning curve and adjustment curve is so much greater because of just the difference in the style of play."
Scherer pointed out that 18 NFL teams "run a West Coast offense of some sort. I think you can sit in front of a high school kid and his parents - not that that should be the only reason that a guy comes to Colorado or anyplace else - but the fact is, it gives us a little different niche. The NFL's not changing; the NFL's not going to the spread offense. I think it will allow us to get our foot in the door of some of the top prospects in the country."
In Embree's first recruiting class, one cobbled together at the 11th hour, CU signed two quarterbacks - junior college transfer Brent Burnette and incoming freshman Stevie Joe Dorman. Before Scherer accepted Embree's offer, they both watched tape on Burnette and Dorman. Scherer believes both "enhance the position" and is anxious to see how Burnette competes during spring drills. No other players who ended the 2010 season at other positions will be given spring looks at quarterback.
Scherer is asking scholarship returnees Tyler Hansen (senior) and Nick Hirschman (redshirt freshman) and Justin Gorman (walk-on redshirt freshman) to erase much, if not all, of what they were accustomed to at their position in the previous regime's offense. It's a challenging unlearning/relearning process that will require much longer than 15 spring practices to complete.
From game experience and leadership standpoints, Hansen - as a returning starter - has an edge. From a technical standpoint, Hirschman - as perhaps a more shapeable, prototypical prospect - might have an edge. The athletic Gorman is an acknowledged dark horse, but Embree has let it be known that he'll run an equal opportunity camp.
Scherer calls the two scholarship returnees at QB "great kids who are excited to learn. I wasn't here in the past so I don't know what went on. But for whatever frustrations they had, their focus is on looking forward.
"Tyler knows he has a one-year window. Some of the football stuff we've been able to do within that eight-hour (off-season) time frame we have, he's shown a great aptitude. He learns quickly . . . he's played in a lot of games.
"They're both coming from different perspectives. Nick was not as entrenched because he hadn't been in that offense, so it's easier for him to wipe the slate clean. With Tyler, it's more association . . . there's going to be a lot more dissimilarities than similarities, just in terms of how we approach it.
"One of first observations I've challenged Tyler with is to play more disciplined in the pocket. That's his challenge. I know the want-to is there. Some guys are resistant, but he's embraced what we're doing. That makes it easier to transition to what we're asking of him.
"The thing Tyler has to learn to do is when to use his feet, when not to use his feet. Sometimes when you're a guy that has running skills as a quarterback you're too quick to rely on them. His adjustment, his challenge is to learn to play from within the pocket. I don't want to handcuff him and take away his ability and instinct to make plays off rhythm. That's a real advantageous skill set to have - if you can balance it out.
"Nick, at first sight, is more of a true in-the-pocket guy - athletic enough to avoid trouble and keep himself alive. He's not just a tackling dummy back there. But it appears to me that with his body type (6-3, 225), he's at least has that and looks to be a guy who can stand in there."
Scherer calls Burnette (6-3, 205) "more of a pocket guy - at least that's how it look on his junior college tapes. His team (Western Arizona) ran some spread and shotgun, so there's still going to be a learning curve. But I think his forte is to play from the pocket."
And that will be the spring directive for all his players, no matter the systems they've played in the past. The offense will be new for everyone, but even more of a seismic shift at Scherer's position.
"Anytime you go from a spread offense to a pro-style, it's different for everybody, but more different for the quarterback," he said. "It's a whole different perspective for the quarterback to take the ball from center and go back three, five or seven steps, put your foot in the ground and make a decision - as opposed to standing back there and kind of sorting things out."
Scherer has tutored enough quarterbacks and coordinated enough offenses to know that efficiency at the position cannot be overvalued. He also knows the statistic that matters most is in the W/L column.
"I've coached (QBs) all my life and I always understood the value of the position," he said. "But after being in the NFL, it hits you right over the head. It's a quarterback-driven game. If he's productive - and that might be being smart with the ball or throwing for 350 yards - but if he's productive, then you have a chance to win every week.
"I've seen games where everyone else plays well, that guy plays poorly and you get beat . . . a couple of bad decisions, bad choices, it makes a huge difference. That's the challenge. Everything begins with that guy - if you're a running team, a spread team, whatever, it all evolves around that position."
Scherer knows his stuff, knows what he's getting into. He's been around the block that his boss is eagerly stepping onto, which should be beneficial for both. Fits are everything, and this one seems perfect.