As Elijah Qualls discussed his team’s loss to the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday night, the topic turned, unsurprisingly, to Stanford’s massive offensive line. And to senior guard Joshua Garnett, in particular.
Qualls, the Washington Huskies’ starting nose tackle, was impressed. He knew Garnett was a likely All-American and an NFL prospect, but it was clear that Qualls respected him even more after bashing heads with him for four quarters.
Qualls called Garnett “a hell of a pass blocker,” and said “he got me stuck on a few.”
And then the 6-foot-1, 311-pound sophomore said something … different.
“I told him after the game, ‘I’m hitting you up later, and I want you to tell me what I need to do better,’” Qualls said. “‘What did you feel like were my weaknesses, and what did you feel like were my strengths?’”
That’s a new one. Athletes seek constantly to improve and refine and mature, searching endlessly for the slightest advantage over the opponent. But it’s not often that you hear of a player who possesses the necessary humility to ask that opponent for pointers.
Watching film one day, Qualls said, the idea simply came to him. Coaches watch copious amounts of film, then identify and correct as many errors as possible before next week’s game. Players watch more film on their own, obsessing over technique and consistency.
That’s all plenty constructive, Qualls says. But then, he thought, “why don’t I just ask the person I went against how I can get better?”
So he has. He’ll add them as a friend on Facebook, he said, then send a message introducing himself and asking if they wouldn’t mind assessing his play.
“I ask the opposing linemen what they felt was something they had leverage on me with, or they felt like they knew they could get me on, after the game,” Qualls said. “So that can be something I’d be aware of and work on and get better at, just to make my game that much closer to being perfect.”
The feedback, he said, has been helpful.
Opponents mostly tell him that he’s stout in the run game — Garnett told him after Saturday’s game, in a complimentary fashion, “you’re a big dude,” Qualls said — but that he could do a better job of getting off blocks more quickly.
Defensive line coach Jeff Choate seems to find Qualls’ strategy somewhat amusing, but says it proves that “he understands that there’s something to be gained from constructive criticism.”
“You think about the feedback loop, that’s one that you don’t really get very often,” Choate said. “They’re going to hear it from me, or they may hear it from another coach or a peer or another player — he can go ask (UW center) Sifa (Tufunga), ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’ But for him to be able to reach out to those guys and say, ‘Hey, where do you think I need to improve my game?’ … It probably makes those guys go, ‘What are you talking about? Why are you calling me?’”
So far, that hasn’t been the response.
“But, like, I’m pretty sure they’re not really used to it,” Qualls said. “I haven’t really heard of anybody ever doing that, so it’s probably not a common thing.”