A pair of men sit at the top of the bleachers of the Drive5 Sports Center gym in Overland Park, the harmony of a half dozen footballs slapping against palms and an instructor’s gentle but pointed guidance providing the soundtrack for their conversation.
They chat proudly about their sons, each quarterbacks who are practicing their craft on the court below. One of the high school players is junior Graham Mertz, who committed to Wisconsin about a month into his first year as a varsity starter at Blue Valley North. The other is Jake Wolff, a Blue Valley freshman waiting his turn to get varsity snaps.
As the quarterbacks’ hourlong indoor group session progresses on a frigid January afternoon, their fathers reminisce. It’s become more difficult for them to fall back into old routines, like setting up in backyards to practice tossing footballs.
“If you can go for 45 minutes, you’ve trained yourself,” Darrin Wolff says to Ron Mertz. “After 20, I’ve had enough.”
Enough of catching the passes Jake, the 6-foot-2, 172-pound freshman who figures to compete for a starting job next season, rifles into his father’s palms. Wolff often finds bruises on his hands and will occasionally jam his fingers reaching for a throw.
Wolff’s injuries are, in essence, a testament to the power Jake has developed with the help of Justin Hoover, the 37-year-old owner and founder of Spin It Quarterback Academy. Hoover has mentored a host of Division I quarterbacks, Missouri’s Drew Lock and Boise State’s Montell Cozart among them, and currently tutors dozens more in the prep ranks.
Some of them, like Mertz, have a Division I future. Others strive to get to that point.
All of them sought out Hoover, who’s become one of the top quarterback specialists in the Midwest, for one thing: To have another mentor in their corner preparing them for the next step.
“He’s just been a blessing for us,” said Ron Mertz, who met Hoover when Graham was in seventh grade. “He’s a mentor, not only with the quarterback stuff but on the player development and recruiting stuff. He’s been a great advocate for us.”
“Don’t let yourself wiggle with that,” Hoover tells one of his pupils. He motions with his wrist and explains why a small, wayward motion will put the ensuing throw off course.
Later, during a drill where the quarterbacks press their elbows against the wall so they can keep their arms parallel to the floor as they go into their backstroke, Hoover advises them that they can’t “let the little things out the window.”
In the past, Hoover has swept at his quarterback’s feet with a broom, simulating a defender encroaching the pocket. The drill taught composure, something Graham Mertz, who transferred from Miege to BV North in 2017, possessed in spades throughout his first varsity season.
“Within the first 30 minutes you could see my throw change,” said sophomore Jack Caudle, a player at Maur Hill-Mount Academy in Atchison, Kan., attending his first lesson with Hoover. “None of the drills I’d ever done before. He doesn’t really do a drill that wouldn’t happen in the game. … That’s really a great thing that he does.”
That type of specialization is what inspired Caudle and his father, Todd, a former all-state quarterback from old Midway-Denton who played special teams at the University of Kansas in the early 1990s, to decide the 120-plus mile roundtrip would be a worthwhile investment.
Todd Caudle has coached Jack throughout his life, including as his offensive coordinator at the high school level. But his coaching began to reach a ceiling and he was limited in finding nuances in his son’s technique.
“It’s good to get more than one opinion,” Todd Caudle said. “Just to have someone with that experience that has sent players to different schools before and can look at a player and say you’re a really good quarterback but there are really good quarterbacks playing Division II. You have to keep your options open and have another person in your corner besides mom and dad.”
That’s where Hoover, himself an assistant coach at Bishop Miege since 2008, comes in.
“Justin possesses a diverse skill set which is different than a lot of QB coaches,” Super Bowl winning-quarterback Trent Dilfer said in a text message. “He, without a doubt, can train mechanics. But he can also coach other positions, coordinate an offense and has a strong track record as a playcaller.”
Hoover honed his technique as a Pittsburg State backup quarterback in the early 2000s. He began teaching it when he entered the high school coaching ranks in his hometown of Nevada, Mo., where he learned at a young age that he might be better suited to teaching quarterbacks than becoming a professional one.
A few years after arriving in Kansas City, Hoover began coaching privately full-time when he opened Spin It in 2013.
His reputation had already begun to flourish. A steady line of successful quarterbacks had marched down Miege’s field for several years, including Cozart and Max Shortell. Ryan Willis was next, followed by current senior Carter Putz, the back-to-back Kansas Gatorade player of the year who became the most prolific high school passer in state history.
Hoover, at first a defensive coach who worked with quarterbacks when Tim Grunhard led the Stags, was their common denominator.
Soon enough, the demand for specialized quarterback training steadily grew in the area, catching up to a national trend that started with Los Angeles-based Steve Clarkson about 30 years ago when he began working at the youth level. The trend has continued with the emergence of gurus like George Whitfield Jr., who became known for his work with Johnny Manziel, and Dilfer, who is also the head coach of the national Elite 11 quarterback competition, for which Hoover is a regional coach.
“Some of the quarterback coaches who are manufactured, they go out there because they’ve read books on how to do it,” said former college coach and Chiefs quarterback coach Terry Shea, 71. “If the drills are not game-specific, you’re wasting not only your quarterback’s time but you’re putting him in a position where he won’t be prepared to play at a high level. …
“(Justin has) that comprehensive approach that I think needs to be applauded.”
Clarkson is branded “The Dream Maker,” the one players like UCLA’s Josh Rosen and the Texans’ Deshaun Watson turned to when they were developing stars. A list of proteges on Clarkson’s website includes Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Leinart and Jimmy Clausen.
You won’t find something to that effect on Hoover’s profile. For no reason other than Hoover doesn’t want his students to get caught up in the glitzy idea that joining Spin It Academy guarantees any level of success.
“He treats them all the same,” Ron Mertz said. “He treats the kid who’s going to Baker the same as the one who’s going to Mizzou. He maximizes what he does with each kid without playing favorites.”
Of course his pupils have been successful on multiple occasions. Lock, one of the first Spin It clients, amped up his already stellar recruiting from Lee’s Summit after he began working with Hoover, becoming first-team all-Southeastern Conference and leading the nation in touchdown passes for the Tigers this season.
Willis, who played at Kansas for the 2015 and 2016 seasons before transferring to Virginia Tech this fall, also got a leg-up on competition through his private work with Hoover.
“We’re trying to get as high (up) as we can together,” Hoover said.
There is a hula hoop on the hardwood in this Overland Park gym, which Hoover sometimes uses for lessons because Spin It Academy does not have its own facility. A pair of sneakered feet squeaks its way around the hoop’s perimeter. The player halts, sinks his weight into his planted back foot and throws a pass.
This drill, simulating pressure in the pocket, and a host of other game-specific workouts are the tools to the success of many quarterbacks on both sides of the state line and in 11 other states.
They’re not revolutionary. Hoover learned his teaching philosophy through his work with Dilfer and Shea and a tightknit group of quarterback instructors from across the country.
The drills aren’t the main reason Lock and Willis, juniors in college, go back to Hoover. He can notice the moment someone’s knee buckles or elbow flies out too wide.
“You can find these (drills). These aren’t secrets,” Hoover said. “What I think is so important that I don’t think people get — but the rhythm and sequence to make it run smooth is completely different. You can train mechanics all you want. … There’s some engineering to it.
“I can handle seeing it live and understand what’s out of sync. As much as we use video and will do it, the ability to see it with the natural eye is valuable for me.”
So when seventh-grader Maxxwell Ford, a future Blue Valley High student working out at the gym, drops his gaze and his shoulders, Hoover is immediately able to correct him. He explains the importance of keeping his eyes up as the pocket shifts and why maintaining balance in his shoulders as he finds his footing will help him release the football on target.
Maxxwell, working with Hoover for the first time outside of a quarterback camp, gets it. His father, Austen, gets it too.
“He’s just known as the best guy. I want the best for my son,” Austen Ford said. “Even just today he got better. We’re constantly working, so it’s hard to see progression unless you look back a year before. But today I could see it before my eyes.”