ASHBURN—There might not have been anyone in the Washington Redskins organization as excited about the acquisition of quarterback Alex Smith as passing game coordinator Kevin O’Connell.
“Per the rules, [I reached out to Smith] as fast as I was able to do it,” O’Connell said.
O’Connell, 33, and Smith, 34, both grew up in the San Diego area and competed against each other in various camps across the region when they were in high school.
They both played in the Mountain West Conference—Smith at Utah and O’Connell at San Diego State—and faced each other in 2004 when Smith led the Utes to an undefeated season and victory in the Sugar Bowl.
Their respective careers have taken different paths, with Smith being a three-time Pro-Bowl selection and O’Connell becoming a coach after a brief stint in the league as a player.
However, each are taking on new roles this year and will have to lean on one another in different ways to ensure success for a potentially robust offense.
Stepping into the role of passing coordinator this year and his second year as the Redskins quarterbacks coach, O’Connell is one of the youngest passing game coordinators in the league.
Yet, his experience of playing under Bill Belichick in New England and coaching with Chip Kelly in San Francisco is a priceless counterweight to that youth.
“I wanted a guy that would help coach quarterbacks that had a little bit of a different background,” Gruden said Wednesday after the team’s last minicamp practice.
The Redskins trade for Alex Smith put them in win-now mode, which is freely admitted within the organization. Despite O’Connell’s familiarity with Smith, asking a young, up-and-coming coach to succeed in his first year with added responsibility provides a substantial challenge—even if O’Connell doesn’t see it that way.
“All these guys care about at the end of the day is are you helping them, are you giving them the best possible situations and are you preparing them every single day,” O’Connell said Wednesday. “If you’re doing that, I think they respond to that no matter what.”
In 2015, O’Connell coached Josh McCown in Cleveland, who was also entering his 14th year in the NFL. There, and as a member of the New York Jets quarterback room with an older Mark Brunell and a young Mark Sanchez, O’Connell said he learned to trust the knowledge of the experienced players and pick his spots for critique.
“You’ve got to be prepared for meeting every day because what you say, they’re going to absorb and if you say something that you don’t feel strongly about, they’re going to ask you why and you’ve got to have an answer,” O’Connell said.
That might seem simple, but how much can a 14-year quarterback like Smith learn from a young coach like O’Connell? He said it’s more about putting them in the right position to succeed.
“[O’Connell’s] done a good job of embracing our [ideas], but also adding some new concepts to our system that we already have,” Gruden said, “and quarterbacks all look up to him despite his age.”