Johnny Manziel’s Secret Weapon

Manziel with Whitfield breaking the waves in San Diego.
Manziel with Whitfield breaking the waves in San Diego.Nick Lucero / AP

After Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy during his breakout freshman year at Texas A&M in 2012, quarterback coach George Whitfield Jr. asked him: What’s the best way to beat Johnny Manziel? The QB answered: “Probably do nothing. Keep me in the pocket.” So Whitfield and Manziel went into the water.

Whitfield, the 36-year-old trainer, has been coaching protégés in the ocean near his San Diego home for the past eight years. After watching surfers bushwhack through the waves, he realized the ocean was the perfect place to create a more challenging version of the pocket while fostering sturdy footwork in the waves.

“If walking in waves is that tough,” Whitfield says, “then imagine dropping back in it.” The water work paid off: Last season, Manziel completed 73.5 percent of his pocket passes, the highest percentage among major college-football teams, and he did another month in the surf with Whitfield before he was drafted by the Browns.

A former Division II college quarterback, Whitfield now charges up to $500 an hour to the biggest names in football – Manziel, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton. In the field of private quarterback coaches, Whitfield distinguishes himself with his bizarre – but effective – techniques. He chased All-Pro QB Ben Roethlisberger with a giant rake to simulate defensive pressure, blindfolded Manziel to teach precision passing, and threw beanbags at the Steelers’ Landry Jones to improve his footwork. “George makes you want to do the things you really need to work on,” says Jones.

The NFL has taken notice: In June, the San Francisco 49ers hired Whitfield as a quarterback coach. The move reunites him with 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, who once taught Whitfield his most important lesson. In 2006, while visiting Harbaugh’s summer players camp, Whitfield saw the 49ers coach sprint up a hill, puke, and then run back down – and realized coaching goes beyond technique. “It’s not just tactics,” he says. “There has to be that Southern Baptist–revival type of electricity in there, too.”

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