Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin seems to have a knack for developing quarterbacks who can flourish in the Canadian Football League. Matt Nichols, Mike Reilly and Bo Levi Mitchell all played for the 44-year-old during their college careers. And so did Vernon Adams, who Montreal sees as a potential franchise man.
Justin Dunk: Is there something that you saw with all three of those guys that led you to believe they could be franchise quarterbacks in the CFL, with all the different nuances up here?
Beau Baldwin: “I thought every one of them had a possible shot in the NFL in terms of their ability. But I also know how tough that is and you can be really good and that might not happen. Reilly spent the most time in the NFL. They’re all different in their strengths, but one thing they have in common: those guys were competitors and winners. Those are the two things I can say more than anything. Obviously, they’re all talented. The things they have in common: they have great talent, they’re incredible competitors, and they’re winners. You’re seeing it out of all three of them. Even with their differences in terms of strengths and weaknesses of quarterbacking that’s something that to me all three of those guys have in common.”
Dunk: Is there something about the offence that you run that gets quarterbacks ready for the pro game?
Baldwin: “I don’t know if it’s any more ready for the CFL than it would be the NFL. I feel like we’ve done a good job and I’ve had good help around me too in terms of coaching. Coach Zach Hill, who was an All-American quarterback at Central [Washington], he’s coached with me two out of those three guys, he’s coached Matt Nichols and Bo Levi Mitchell. We believe strongly in what we do to develop quarterbacks and to put them in a good situation for success. We’re always learning and trying to get better. Traditionally and over time we’ve been able to establish a good system that has allowed guys, by the time they are seniors, to have a chance to play at a very high level at that position. To me it comes from hard work, the little things and knowing that you’re not just going to recruit a guy, roll the balls out and tell him to go play. It takes a lot more than that to be truly great and have a chance to play at the next level.”
Dunk: What are some of the things that you believe in and that helped these quarterbacks be successful at the next level?
Baldwin: “A lot of times you can get in a spread offence and it’s almost like you know where you’re throwing the football, it’s kind of told to you. Where within our offence that hasn’t been the case with those guys. With those guys they were reading things. They were reading things, seeing the whole field, going from plan ‘A’ to plan ‘B’ to plan ‘C’ in terms of a progression, so they were always learning how to see defences, how to read the field, how to take what a defence gives you. We always have done a great job here of truly using the whole field. When you go up to Canada, obviously, that field is even bigger, so you can utilize your arm strength to use the whole field. And you have one more player out there too, so you really have to be good at being able to get through your progressions. That’s something we’ve taught and worked with these guys. I don’t know enough about true intricacies of Canadian offences, but what I would say is there are probably situations where they feel comfortable getting through a lot of progressions and a lot of different reads quickly. And they can think quickly through that because we have that in our system.
Dunk: Why doesn’t the CFL have any franchise quarterbacks who are from big name NCAA schools?
Baldwin: “Here would be my explanation on that. To me, you’ve got your top tier guys at the highest level, whether it’s the Big 10 or the PAC 12 or whatever it might be. You’ve got those top tiered guys and they end up in the NFL. So then if you get to the next tier of guys at that highest level, maybe they’ve only played one year or two years as a starter, they weren’t a four-year starter. If all of a sudden you’re at the highest level, but you’ve only taken ‘x’ amount of snaps or you’ve only played one or two years as a starter, as opposed to Matt Nichols who started for four years, Vernon Adams who started for four years, Bo Levi Mitchell who started at least a year at SMU and then two years here. Those guys have played more football, even if it’s been at a lower level. Then they’re the best of the best at their level which sometimes maybe they see as not being quite what the NFL wants, but they go up there and compete with someone else who maybe was kind of that next tier at the highest level. And the best of the best at this level I feel like can be right there with some of the top tier guys and definitely those next tier guys that didn’t get as many college snaps.”
“There is a fit to being successful playing in the CFL. Sometimes it might not be the prototypical NFL guy that fits a Canadian offence. So even though a guy was drafted in the second or third round because the NFL saw him being prototypical of what they want to do, it doesn’t mean that’s going to translate into what a Canadian offence is doing. The number of reps that the smaller school guys get – the number of reps – and fit would be a great way I would categorize it.”
Dunk: What order did you coach Nichols, Reilly and Mitchell in?
“I had Nichols first as a true and redshirt freshmen. Then I went and coached Reilly for one year. And then I came back as the head coach and coached Nichols as a junior and a senior. I missed Nichols’ sophomore year. I coached Reilly for one year as a junior. Then Bo Levi followed Nichols and Vernon followed Bo. And it was Erik Meyer before that. You guys don’t know about him before Nichols and I still think he fits the Canadian game, but he’s probably too old now. He’s been a two-time AFL MVP. He was the quarterback before Nichols that I really thought fit the Canadian game. He was a Walter Payton award winner. If he had done what Bo Levi did and went straight there out of college I think things could’ve gone a little different. Hindsight is always 20-20. Instead, he went and kept trying out for NFL teams. So he would come into camp and be a cut and by then the Canadian season is halfway done. It was putting him two, three and four years out of playing in college.”
Dunk: What are the differences between Nichols, Reilly and Mitchell?
Baldwin: “What put Nichols over the top to make him a true All-American was his true understanding of what was going on. Nichols was a gym rat. He had a great body and he’s athletic enough to make plays. In the college game, Nichols was incredibly accurate and on time with the ball. I really felt like he had a shot to make an NFL roster. Some of Matt’s biggest strengths, I felt like his timing was great, he could make every throw you’d ask him to make. Impeccable timing, he understood where to go with the football, he was a very good leader that way. He used the whole field, and he really hurt defences that way. They couldn’t be right, I felt like defences had trouble being right against Matt when he was on top of everything. He was a film junkie.”
Baldwin: “Reilly could drive the ball in any situation. That’s probably why he had the biggest chance to be in the NFL for a little while. Extreme competitor. He probably had the best ability to gain yards with his feet too. He would take off and run and really kill a defence that way. He drove the ball. Just made throws where it didn’t look like there was much of a window. The level of competitiveness, when he would take off and run on a third-and-seven and not be denied – just will a team down the field. It would’ve been to coach Reilly for more years like I got to with Matt and Bo, but I’m glad I at least got one year with Mike because that was a lot of fun.”
“Bo can use the whole field and just flick it. Bo had the ability to just flick the ball. He can throw the quick screen and flick it or he can flick it out there 60 yards. He has that natural baseball player to him. Bo had an amazing ability to flush things. He’s always been clutch. He always had that ability to flush something that didn’t go right and come back and find a way. And he always brought his best in the fourth quarter. There was just something about his mindset. Now his record is as good as anyone’s who has started their career in the CFL. And it’s not by accident. He was also 13-2 in his first year here and won a national title. He also did that in high school. He just has that ability to find a way at the end of the game no matter what’s happened. The development that I saw from Bo, what he doesn’t get enough credit for, he doesn’t run and gain yards in terms of rushing that often, but he gets out of more stuff than people give him credit. He has a quick suddenness. It’s subtle but he’ll get out of things and extend plays. Bo can use the whole field, make every throw you want, he has that gunslinger mentality even if the first three-quarters haven’t been perfect.”
Dunk: Did you talk with Nichols and Reilly about choosing between the NFL or CFL right out of college?
Baldwin: “I honestly thought because of both Matt and Mike’s body type that they were going to have a better shot in the NFL than Bo, and that’s taking nothing away from Bo. But with Matt and Mike because they had a little more size than Bo I really believed they would have an NFL shot. Mike played a full season with the Rams. Matt was down there with Jon Kitna and the Cowboys and sometimes it’s a numbers game.”
Dunk: What was the pro conversation like with Mitchell?
Baldwin: “Bo and I when we talked – he could’ve maybe gotten into an NFL camp – but he might have just been a camp arm and all of a sudden he’s cut and then it’s too late to get to Canada. He said if I don’t feel like I’m truly, truly wanted then I’m going straight to Canada. Obviously, that turned out to be a heckuva decision for Bo. I just thought because Bo was more around that five-foot-11, six-foot height. And even just five years ago that was a little less than what was acceptable. The NFL wouldn’t look at a guy if he was barely carrying 200 pounds, even if he’s done all these things. For Bo and I we just had that discussion. They’re just going to look at your intangibles, it doesn’t matter sometimes how your throw, if you’re not what they see from a size standpoint they’re just going to say no. That’s out of your control because you’re not going to get taller at that point. Whether it was the NFL or doing what he loves up there I just wanted to see him have a chance to keep playing. Bo Levi just loves to play. That’s part of the reason he left a $100,000 scholarship at SMU. They didn’t take him off scholarship he decided to leave and come to our place because he wanted to lead a team and play. We just had honest conversations. It has nothing to do with your ability, it’s just a matter of they’re going to measure you at five-11, six-foot and weigh you at 200 pounds and it’s almost like sometimes that can be the end of it for some guys. It’s just the way that league is built.”
Dunk: Do you keep in touch with all of the quarterbacks?
Baldwin: “All of them. I’ve probably had texts back and forth with all of them. I was actually texting back and forth when Matt was playing the other night.
Dunk: Have you noticed an increase of CFL scouts on campus scouting your players?
“Baldwin: We’ve seen a number of CFL scouts around our Pro Day. I talked to Calgary guys on the phone about Bo and a few others as well. Vernon [Adams] situation same type of deal.”
Dunk: Did you have similar chats with Adams as you did with Mitchell?
Baldwin: “B.C. put Vernon on their neg list early in his college career. There’s a good correlation of guys coming from here and being successful. I had the same conversation with Vernon about Bo. I said Bo’s got a pretty good life right now. He made that decision to go up there and do that and he’s loving things.
Dunk: Do you believe Adams can be a franchise quarterback in the CFL?
Baldwin: “Absolutely. It’s not going to shock me. That guy he’s something else when you turn the lights on. He went to the Shrine Game and lit it up. Every time he’s played. When he was healthy for Oregon he was 6-0. When he was here with us he broke records. He threw seven touchdowns against a [Washington] Huskies team that had three first-round [NFL] picks. You got your quarterbacks that I call driving range quarterbacks. He looks really good, he’s striping it on the range, he’s got all the gear and he gets on the first tee and he hooks it left and you can’t believe it because he was hitting it so good on the driving range. That’s kind of like the guys who can look really good, but when the heat is on and the battle is going and things are flying around you, then what’s going to happen? It’s kind of like going to the first tee. Vernon’s just the opposite. You may not ever be totally wowed in practice, but when the game starts and it’s going he’s one of those guys that gets a lot better when the game goes. He’s the best quarterback to play here. That’s not taking anything away from those other guys – I just believe that. It’s hard to say that, but that’s true. I won’t rank the rest of them, though – I’m not willing to do that. Nope. Not going to do that.”