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February 11, 2012TUSCALOOSA | Steve Buratto was there, watching every day, when the coach in Doug Nussmeier first began to crack the shell. It was 2001, and Nussmeier was a reserve quarterback with the Canadian Football League's BC Lions.
His playing career was over.
The University of Alabama's new offensive coordinator just didn't know it yet.
What was initially thought to be a nagging groin injury for Nussmeier turned out to be something more serious. It was, in fact, a hip injury. And when the name no athlete wants to hear attached to a hip injury - Bo Jackson - fell on Buratto's ears, he knew Nussmeier's future might be taking a turn.
"Doug suffered the same kind of hip injury that Bo Jackson had," said Buratto, head coach of the Lions at the time. "They discovered that part of his hip bone had died, so the groin muscles were contracting to make up for the fact that the hip didn't want to do what it was supposed to do. They did this fancy surgery that was supposed to get him back to where he could play again."
Not fancy enough, as it turned out.
But Buratto asked Nussmeier if he would coach the team's quarterbacks while he was rehabilitating in an effort to get back on the playing field. Every morning, Buratto would drive to Nussmeier's residence in White Rock, British Columbia - just north of the U.S. border from Washington state - and drive him to the Lions' football offices.
After surgery, Buratto said, Nussmeier was incapacitated such that he could not even drive.
But he could coach.
And the time to embrace a new profession was fast approaching.
Nussmeier is now 41 and arrived at the Capstone last month with a wealth of experience in tow from half a dozen previous coaching stops. He's been through the National Football League with the St. Louis Rams, the Big Ten Conference with Michigan State, and, most recently, spent three seasons as offensive coordinator under Steve Sarkisian at the University of Washington.
Buratto hasn't been a bit surprised by Nussmeier's rise through the coaching ranks.
"He's the kind of guy I thought would succeed as a coach because of his ability to think critically and make tough decisions, and visualize," Buratto said. "He was a natural when it came to working with players. Sometimes you get into coaching and some of the challenges drive people out, but not Doug."
The young lefty
John L. Smith didn't realize Nussmeier was just a junior when he first went to see the left-handed quarterback from Lakeridge High in Lake Oswego, Ore. At the time, Nussmeier was doing more for Lakeridge as a safety than as a quarterback, but Smith saw something he liked enough to make the trip. Smith was recruiting as an assistant at Washington State at the time, but a year later he was head coach at Idaho, and he needed a quarterback.
Nussmeier, now with some of the quarterback experience he had been lacking when Smith first saw him, was the ideal fit.
"He was leading the way I like quarterbacks to lead. His motion was terrible, he had a lot of flaws, but the guy was throwing darts," Smith said. "He was one of the first guys I ever recruited to Idaho."
Nussmeier shattered records at the school, amassing 10,824 career passing yards and 91 touchdown passes for the Vandals. He was a Big Sky Conference Player of the Year, and won the Walter Payton Award, the Football Championship Subdivision (then Division I-AA) answer to the Heisman Trophy.
After a five-year NFL career with the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts, Nussmeier took to the CFL's Lions, where the transformation from player to coach quickly began to unfold.
Making the rounds
As those in the coaching profession often do, Smith and Nussmeier crossed paths again when Smith hired Nussmeier as an assistant at Michigan State. It was there that Nussmeier began working with another MSU offensive assistant, and the coach he has now replaced at Alabama, Jim McElwain.
"Doug is high-energy. He demands perfection. He's a fantastic teacher," said McElwain, now the head coach at Colorado State. "Those Alabama quarterbacks will get a lot from him. If there's anything he's bad at ... he's really bad at rock, paper, scissors. He'll throw rock the first time - guaranteed."
Just as he followed McElwain as offensive coordinator at Alabama, Nussmeier followed McElwain in the same role at Fresno State in 2008. McElwain said his relationship with Alabama's players compelled him to make a recommendation of Nussmeier to UA coach Nick Saban before leaving for Colorado State.
"You get attached to the players you have in your program. I can't say enough for all the things those Alabama players did for me personally as far as giving their all and being committed to the program," McElwain said. "So on the way out, you feel obligated to at least mention a guy who you know would really take care of those players."
Those who have worked with Nussmeier in the past speak of his understanding not only of offensive football, but also his ability to set up defenses with mismatches and other such advantages. He looks to multiple formations and plenty of presnap motion to keep defenses confused, but also understands the importance of a strong rushing attack.
As for his demeanor on the practice field, it's not unlike most quarterback coaches.
"Doug isn't afraid to get after you if he needs to, but I don't think you would term him as a holler-and-scream guy," Smith said. "He's under control - he's a technician, but he coaches hard and firm and with persistency. His competitiveness comes out as a coach."
Honed as a Husky
Nussmeier's resume now has a top-10 NFL draft pick attached to it in the person of Jake Locker, the former Washington quarterback who played under Nussmeier before being chosen in the first round last April by the Tennessee Titans.
But if you ask former Washington running back Chris Polk, the better measure of Nussmeier's skill as a coach is the work he did with Keith Price. It was Price who replaced Locker for UW in 2011 as an inexperienced, undersized and largely anonymous quarterback. Price responded with 3,063 passing yards, 33 touchdown passes to only 11 interceptions, and a 67 percent completion rate.
"The difference he made with Jake was night and day. Early on, Jake was a running quarterback. By the end he was a passing quarterback, too. He developed a presence in the pocket under Coach Nuss that he didn't have before," Polk said. "But the way he communicated with Keith and kept our offense going without Jake around last year, I don't think you can overestimate what a difference that made. I know Keith loved working with him."
Polk would know. Price was his roommate at UW.
In working under Sarkisian for three seasons as Washington's offensive coordinator, Nussmeier built offenses that were nothing short of prolific.
"He obviously knows the game really well and does a great job of teaching it to his players. He sees the game from a player's perspective," Locker said. "He taught me how to play the quarterback position from a mental aspect, which allows your physical tools to be more effective."
Reach Chase Goodbread at email@example.com or at 205-722-0196.