George Whitfield at Heisman time


LITTLE ROCK — From the end of spring football practice to the beginning of fall practice, speculation carries the conversation.

In Arkansas, discussions begin with the Razorbacks’ W-L record, melts into the SEC, and eventually the national picture. Along the way, subheadings include established quarterbacks and other playmakers, undiscovered stars, and question marks.

Today, let’s skip the local angles and go straight to the second Saturday in December when a handful of college football’s best sit together in a theater in Times Square and wait to see who will be awarded the Heisman Trophy.

The 2012 Heisman winner, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, is there. So are quarterbacks Braxton Miller of Ohio State, Marcus Mariota of Oregon, and Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville, and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina.

Manziel can’t win because his 2013 performance will be measured against the phenomenal numbers he posted in 2012. If a middle linebacker from unbeaten Notre Dame couldn’t win in 2012, a defensive end from South Carolina has no chance.

Louisville’s schedule cuts both ways with Bridgewater, whose performance in the Sugar Bowl is an excellent launching pad for a Heisman campaign. He will produce the yardage and the touchdowns against Big East opponents and a nonconference schedule of Ohio, Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky, and Florida International, but voters will ponder the numbers in light of the opposition and wonder if a half-dozen quarterbacks wouldn’t have done just as well.

The leading passer in the Pac-12 as a redshirt freshman — ala Manziel — Mariota would be my preseason favorite if Chip Kelly was still the head coach. Promoted after four years as Kelly’s offensive coordinator, Mark Helfrich is intimate with Mariota’s skills and the Ducks’ offense, but he has other responsibilities and Mariota’s progress now falls on former receivers coach Scott Frost.

The man most likely to influence the Heisman race is not on a college staff; in fact, I had never heard of George Whitfield until I ran across his name in an article about how Miller’s passing would improve. Guru is an over-used tag slapped on somebody who talks a good game, but that’s how Whitfield was identified. Skeptical about his resume, I dug deeper.

Turns out Whitfield’s methods are unorthodox (beanbags, brooms, and the beach are in play), his words very quotable, and his client list star-studded in only a brief time.

According to the 2012 NFL draft issue of ESPN The Magazine, Whitfield’s reputation spread after Louisville quarterback Hunter Cantwell — written off as a prospect — showed well on pro day in 2009. Asked about the turn-around, Cantwell told the Carolina quarterbacks coach that Whitfield was responsible.

In 2011, Warren Moon couldn’t commit full time to tutoring Auburn quarterback Cam Newton and recommended Whitfield. Months later, Moon told Oliver Luck about Whitfield’s work with Newton and how the instructor puts mechanics ahead of speed and strength. Andrew Luck signed up.

ESPN The Magazine quoted Whitfield as saying it is wrong to train quarterbacks next to left tackles and cornerbacks.

“Why are we treating it like it’s any other position? Franchises change, and programs rise and fall, all based on quarterback play,” he said. “If you’re a surgeon, don’t train with general practitioners — train with other surgeons.”

Ohio State’s 12-0 record was barely in the books when coach Urban Meyer challenged Miller to improve his fundamentals. Ohio State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman supported Miller’s decision to work with the San Diego-based Whitfield and the quarterback reportedly paid $1,500 for five days of one-on-one, staying with OSU receiver Michael Thomas, who lives in California.

Whitfield was quoted as saying that Miller has “rare, rare arm talent.” Maybe so, but his stats were very, very average — less than 60 percent completion in seven of 12 games.

If Miller wins the hardware in New York, remember the name George Whitfield.

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Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is hking@arkansasnews.com.