July 14, 2008

McElwain no softy

The first time Tom Brandstater ever sat in the visitor's chair in Jim McElwain's office, he didn't find it to be very comfortable. But it wasn't about the quality of the furniture in the Fresno State football offices. Brandstater, the Bulldogs' returning quarterback, didn't know what to expect from his new position coach before meeting him.

And after his first sit-down with McElwain, he was downright edgy.

Brandstater had just been throwing to his receivers during an informal workout prior to Fresno State's 2007 spring practice, and went to McElwain's office to fill him in on offseason progress.

"He had only been here for about a week at that time," recalled Brandstater. "I sat down and started saying 'I did this or that', and talking about my workout, and coach Mac interrupted me and said he didn't ever want to hear the words 'I' or 'me' ever again. He said he only wanted to hear 'we' and 'us' out of my mouth from then on. He was hard to read and I didn't know how to take him. At first I thought it was kind of rude because I wasn't trying to be self-centered, but looking back, I realize he was setting a tone that it's always about the guys around you and never about yourself."

That was how things started between McElwain, the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Alabama, and Brandstater.

Anything but smooth.


"I think Tommy [Brandstater] was starving for an education, and Jim was there at just the right time for that." - Fresno State coach Pat Hill


But by the end of their only season working together, the pupil was a different quarterback, and the teacher's job was done. Without McElwain, Brandstater's sophomore year at Fresno State wasn't especially impressive: a 54-percent completion rate, more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (13), and a pedestrian average of 135 yards per game. Under McElwain's tutelage last year, Brandstater's numbers jumped in every way. His completion percentage ballooned to 62.6 percent, his TD-INT ratio improved to 15-5, and he averaged 204 yards per game. Upon taking the coordinator's job at Alabama, McElwain got so much credit for Brandstater's improvement it was almost as if McElwain himself had been under center for the Bulldogs last year. But the one guy who might have felt slighted by that - Brandstater - didn't.

"I give every bit of the credit to coach Mac for the improvements I made," said the upcoming senior. "From start to finish he's made me the quarterback I am today."

Surprisingly, Brandstater's high opinion of McElwain was developed under a demanding coaching style rather than the kid-glove treatment some players - especially quarterbacks - get from their position coaches. Under UA coach Nick Saban's policy, assistant coaches are unavailable for media interviews, so McElwain isn't on the hook for a self-description. But those who have worked around him echo Brandstater's portrayal of a guy who insists on excellence from his quarterbacks.

"He isn't afraid to get after people," said Fresno State head coach Pat Hill. "I think Tommy was starving for an education, and Jim was there at just the right time for that."


The McElwain file
YearTeamDuties
2008-presentAlabamaOff. Coordinator, QB coach
2007Fresno StateOff. Coordinator, QB coach
2006Oakland RaidersQuarterbacks coach
2003-05Michigan StateReceivers/Special teams coach
2000-02LouisvilleReceivers/Special teams coach
1995-99Montana StateOff. Coordinator, QB/WR coach
"He has a different teaching style - just a little more intense," Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson said earlier this spring. "He'll let you know if you're not doing something right, but so far it's been great."

It is anticipation for Wilson's improvement that is perhaps foremost on the minds of Alabama fans about the fall season, hence the reason why so many Crimson Tide fans familiarized themselves with Brandstater after McElwain's hire. Ironically, the areas in which Wilson's stat line could just a jolt - a completion percentage in the mid 50s and his TD-INT ratio - are exactly the areas where Brandstater improved in his year under McElwain.

Wilson struggled in his first spring scrimmage under McElwain's watch, but steadily improved and highlighted the A-Day game with three touchdown passes. With a nationally-ranked Clemson team up first on the Crimson Tide's schedule, however, there will be no time for early struggles this fall.

"I think they've got nine of 11 back on defense," McElwain told WKRG in a rare television interview earlier this summer. "That's a great way to see where we are. Let's go get in the fire right now."

Check back Tuesday for the second of BamaOnLine.com's two-part feature on McElwain, which will focus on his role as a coordinator and his on-field points of emphasis.

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