Spavital Knows A Thing Or Two About Coaching Star Quarterbacks
West Virginia’s current offensive coordinator Jake Spavital has only been in the coaching profession for 10 years, but he’s already worked with an impressive list of college quarterbacks.
From Case Keenum at Houston in 2009, through Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State in 2010, Geno Smith at West Virginia in 2011-12 and Davis Webb at Cal in 2016, Spavital has coached four of the most prolific passers in the college game. All four are still in the NFL.
But despite the attention paid to each of those four, their hype certainly didn’t reach the level of Spavital’s QB when he first became the co-offensive coordinator at Texas A&M in 2013. And his star pupil now at WVU may eclipse that earlier quartet as well.
Of course, we’re talking about Johnny Manziel and Will Grier; two players who share some similarities in their play on the field but are vastly different off it.
Admittedly Manziel was a playmaker at A&M the likes of which the college game had rarely seen. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, he stormed on to the college scene by rushing for 1,410 yards and passing for 3,706 more. He broke a 43-year-old SEC record previously held by Mississippi’s Archie Manning by racking up 557 yards of total offense against Arkansas. He bettered that number a couple weeks later with 576 against Louisiana Tech. Manziel led the Aggies to an 11-2 record and became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
Spavital was still at WVU in 2012, mentoring Smith to his own record-setting season (4,356 yards of total offense). Kliff Kingsbury had been the offensive coordinator at A&M that season, but Kingsbury’s alma mater, Texas Tech, hired him before the Aggies’ Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma.
With Kingsbury off to Lubbock, Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin sought another bright, young coach to guide his offense and his young star quarterback.
Thus Spavital stepped into the Johnny Manziel Show in 2013.
“It was a circus,” admitted Spavital, “but I loved coaching Johnny; he was phenomenal to coach. There were a lot of things that came with coaching Johnny. He was probably the most publicized college player of our time, coming on as he did in the social media era.”
Under Spavital’s tutelage, Manziel improved his passing numbers in 2013, though he wasn’t asked to run as much. As a sophomore, he completed 300-of-429 passes (69.9 percent) for 4,114 yards with 37 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He also rushed the ball 144 times for 759 yards and nine TDs. The Aggies finished 9-4 that season with all their losses coming to top 25 teams, three of them by a touchdown or less.
“When he crossed the white lines, he was cold blooded and a fierce competitor,” noted Spavital. “Everyone thinks it was wild and off the charts, but it was a lot of fun to coach him.”
Manziel left for the NFL after the 2013 season, where he was a first round pick of the Cleveland Browns. The Circus that was encamped at Texas A&M during the Johnny Football days followed him to Cleveland. The ringmaster washed out of the NFL in two seasons, and now he’s trying to restart his career with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the CFL.
Spavital stayed with A&M for two more seasons after Manziel’s departure, then spent the 2016 season at California before returning to West Virginia as its offensive coordinator and quarterback coach in 2017. When he arrived back at WVU, Grier was waiting for him.
Will had gone through his own drama while at the University of Florida, where his fabulous start to his redshirt freshman season was derailed by an NCAA suspension for testing positive for a banned substance. Grier left UF after the 2015 season and sat out the 2016 campaign as a transfer at West Virginia.
The drama for Grier subsided once he arrived in Morgantown. With a new wife and a young daughter, Will had matured, and for Spavital, that showed in Grier’s approach to life and the game of football.
“It’s completely different than Johnny,” explained Spavital, who is married himself with a one-year-old daughter, Maddie, and a son, Landon, due to arrive any day. “Johnny was a single, college kid, where Will is very structured. He takes pride in being a good husband and father. He’s very regimented. When you talk to him in the morning, at say 6 or 7 o’clock, he’s playing with his daughter and then they have breakfast. He’s got a certain time set aside each day for her, and then he comes in and gets to work. His whole day is blocked out; time for stretching, time to watch film with me, time to work with (WVU strength coach) Mike Joseph. It’s fun to be around someone that goal-driven.”
As a junior at West Virginia, Grier didn’t put up Manziel-type numbers, but he had little to be ashamed of. In a season that was cut short by two and three-quarters games, he still finished eighth in the FBS ranks in passing yards per game. He completed 250-of-380 passes (64.4 percent) for 3,490 yards (317.3 per game) with 34 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He wasn’t nearly as prolific a runner as Manziel, rushing for 122 net yards on 63 attempts, but on occasion he would flash some Johnny Football escapability. It was Grier’s ability to avoid would-be tacklers and extend pass plays with his feet that helped him complete 48 throws for at least 20 yards, including 12 that went for 50 or more.
A native of Davidson, N.C., Grier weighed the options of bypassing his senior season and taking his shot at the NFL. But he eventually decided to return to WVU for one more go-round.
His final season with Mountaineers is still a couple of months away, but it’s already brought plenty of attention. He’s graced the cover of many preseason preview magazines, and most of the current Heisman watch lists feature him prominently — a few even at the top of the chart.
Such hype may remind Spavital of the Manziel circus at times, but so far no one is setting up the Big Top in Morgantown. Grier may be getting a whole lot of attention, but he’s a different personality than Johnny Football.
“Will is not only a good player, but he’s a good husband and father,” explained Spavital. “He’s also a coach’s kid, and really has a passion for the game. You can see that he has a great work ethic and his business-like attitude when he walks in to the Facilities Building.”