Caleb Williams took a deep breath as he stood atop a bosu ball, his gray Nike sneakers shifting little by little as he sought to keep his balance. He was at Athletic Republic, a sports performance complex in District Heights, Md., and his large palms gripped a football. With each rep on this Saturday in July, the 16-year old pulled his right shoulder back and then jerked it forward in a fast yet controlled motion.
But there was no actual throwing of the football in this drill. Instead, the purpose was to strengthen his core and perfect his throwing mechanics while trying to avoid falling off the half-platform, half-exercise ball hybrid. As the drill neared its end, Williams finally exhaled, a smile creeping across his face as he watched himself in the mirror.
Williams is the returning sophomore starting quarterback for Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., and will be one of the leaders of a talent-laden Eagles team in the fall. But Williams’s preparation for the position is a year-round effort, one that has seen him work with at least one private quarterback coach in each of the last seven years — instruction that at times has little to do with throwing passes.
“No summers off,” said Williams as he stood next to a specialized speed treadmill. “This is what I do.”
The market for quarterback trainers has grown significantly over the last decade, and they are now viewed by many in the sport as essential for any player who wishes to play the position at a high level — whether that be in the NFL, college, or even high school. It has exposed parents to the rising cost of having their children play the most valuable position in football, and players to the demands of year-round instruction in a team sport that competes only three months out of the year.
“It is a big industry, there are coaches everywhere,” said former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, the head coach of Elite 11, a premier high school quarterback competition. “The pivotal conversation in quarterback training is which ones are teaching kids how to self-correct and become more coachable by their high school or college coach. All we are is a value add to their existing coaching.”
For Williams, who is 6-foot-1 and weighs 205 pounds, having a trainer has been a part of his life since he was 10 years old. He spends every day of his summer either at Gonzaga workouts, at Athletic Republic with his quarterback trainer Russell Thomas and sports performance trainer Mark McCain, working with his other quarterback coach Chris Baucia, or swimming or doing yoga — two of the many non-football activities he participates in as part of his training.
While he still has three seasons of high school football, Williams appears to be on a path to play Division I. He already has 13 scholarship offers, including from some of the nation’s top programs: Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Michigan and Penn State.
But not all young quarterbacks who train with private coaches do so with the same guarantee. Such is the case for Brian Shelton’s 13-year old son, Cody.
On a humid, sunny July day at the River City Sportsplex outside Richmond, Shelton stood on the football field, cellphone out, recording Cody participating in a group session with his quarterback trainer, Malcolm Bell.
Cody, who is entering eighth grade, has been attending at least one session a week since November with Bell, the winningest quarterback in N.C. Central University history. Shelton knows that all kids can’t become Division I players, but by putting his son through specialized training, he’s willing to give it a shot.
“There is always a cost associated with it, and it is part of the journey,” Shelton said. “I am hoping one day that free college will more than pay that, but if it doesn’t, so be it.”
For Cody, the concern is not whether he has enough talent to keep up with other top players at the position. During the July throwing session, he held his own against a pair of older, Division I-bound quarterbacks. The issue is that Cody is only 5-foot-4 — a size that will limit his prospects at the position unless he hits a growth spurt.
“I tell Cody that the only thing a college is going to say is that you are not 6-foot-5,” Shelton said. “You can do everything and anything better than anyone else. We can’t control how tall he is going to be.”
Shelton will pay around $25 per group training session for Cody. One-on-one sessions get pricier, with other trainers in the DMV area charging $75 to $150 per hour. Nationally, some trainers have been said to charge their clients $550 per hour. While some trainers only work with QBs who are 10 or older, others take on clients as young as the first or second grade.
One of the biggest challenges for parents, according to Dennis Gile, one of the most prominent private quarterback coaches in the country, is finding the right trainer in an “oversaturated market.”
“This space is getting oversaturated, and it’s frustrating for some guys,” said Gile, who is based in Arizona and has worked with multiple NFL quarterbacks. “There are good guys out there who know what they are doing and teach it well, but the majority of these guys . . . are teaching what they were taught in Pop Warner or high school.”
Paul Troth, the owner of QB Invictus, a quarterback training program in Loudoun County, Va., has seen the market change over his 20-plus years in the sport. He is part of the Elite 11 coaching staff and is a teacher and coach at John Champe High School in Aldie. Troth said too many trainers see the job as a “money grab,” and that the private QB training model could potentially become a “runaway train,” with college coaches outsourcing instruction at the position to trainers during the offseason months.
Social media has become a breeding ground for private quarterback trainers looking to advertise their businesses. Workouts are often publicized on Instagram or Twitter, helping contribute to something of a me-first attitude in a sport that traditionally prioritizes the team over the individual.
“There is an entitled aspect to this whole thing that really rubs me the wrong way, but I don’t know how to fight it off,” Troth said.
Many players such as Williams, however, see benefits to both fine-tuning elements of his game and staying involved with the sport year-round.
Toward the end of Williams’s Saturday workout with Thomas, he finally got in some passing work, throwing the ball downfield for the next half-hour. At one point he switched it up, throwing a tennis ball at a small target to work on his precision and motion.
As his workout ended, after Thomas told the receivers they were done, the players stayed on the indoor turf field, roaming around before slowly lining back up into position. With or without a trainer, Williams didn’t want to quit just yet.
“Now they’ll be throwing it for the next three to four hours,” Thomas half-joked. “They just don’t stop.”