You build a quarterback as much from the neck up as the ground up. Yes, it is essential for a coach to refine his QB’s technique, and to instruct him on the finer points of reading defenses and playcalling. But it is no less important to get the young man to believe — in himself, in those around him and in the system.

Bill Walsh, the late Hall of Fame coach of the San Francisco 49ers, once told Sports Illustrated that “the most important relationship on a team” is the one between the head coach and the quarterback.

“That’s because,” Walsh said, “the quarterback is under such tremendous stress. The entire defensive team is after him, and consciously or unconsciously it wants to knock him out of the game. He’s being threatened, and if he doesn’t get full support around him or doesn’t have confidence in the person calling the plays, he’s going to crumble.”

So as a coach you’ve got to let him know you’re in his corner, that you want the best for him. Doesn’t mean you don’t coach him hard. Doesn’t mean you don’t demand as much from him as you do the other players. But he’s got to know that he’s your guy.

That’s where we are with Jaden Johnson, our redshirt freshman QB. He transferred to Missouri State from Southern Mississippi over the summer, but I already knew him, having gained his commitment to Louisville when I was coaching there — in part because he was aware that Lamar Jackson, the NFL’s MVP last season with the Baltimore Ravens, had won the Heisman Trophy while quarterbacking our team in 2016.

There is no question about Jaden’s ability. He was a four-star prospect coming out of Kirby High School in Memphis. Nor is there any question about his desire. As he told Wyatt Wheeler of the Springfield News-Leader when he decided to join us, “I want to work for the job and show ‘hey, I’m the new sheriff in town and this is how we’re going to do it.’ ”

Wyatt also wrote a fine story illustrating Jaden’s leadership ability. It concerned his senior year of high school, when a rat infestation, of all things, forced Kirby officials to shut down the school for a time. Kirby coach Chester Flowers told Wyatt it was Jaden who “kept everybody focused” during that stretch, the result being that the Cougars went 11-2 and reached the postseason for the first time in two decades. 

That’s a great foundation upon which to build, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. Certainly Jaden has had some tough moments. In our first meeting with Central Arkansas he was sacked nine times and turned the ball over on three occasions, the last of them a fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter that was returned 30 yards for the tying touchdown. 

And late in the game, after we fell behind by seven, he drove us deep into Central Arkansas territory. We were unable to muster the tying TD, but we believe in Jaden. We will continue to bring him along, continue to build him from the neck up. We’re quite certain that will pay off handsomely in the long run.