Craig McClain wouldn’t call himself a “quarterback guru.”
But he knows a good QB when he sees one and has coached plenty of them over his 26 seasons at Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, Iowa.
For McClain, who is starting year 27 at Dowling, his current quarterback, Jaxon Smolik, is as talented, if not more, than anybody he’s coached.
He saw it years before Smolik even started playing at Dowling.
McClain remembers starting to work with Smolik back when he was in the fifth grade, thanks to a mutual friend that he shared with Smolik’s father, Mark.
Mark Smolik and his son were looking for whatever guidance they could get to help young Jaxon become the best QB he could be.
It didn’t take long for young Jaxon to impress his future high school quarterbacks coach.
“We had one workout,” McClain said, “and I literally looked at his dad and said, “your son’s really good.”
McClain remembers Smolik’s throwing motion, footwork and the zip he put on his passes all being well-advanced for his age.
“He was throwing it like my varsity quarterbacks do with the follow-through foot,” McClain said. “His hips, all the footwork was perfect. You just didn’t see that in a fourth, fifth-grade kid, and you’re seeing it.”
After McClain saw Smolik’s physical talent, it wasn’t long before he noticed Smolik’s passion for football’s mental aspect.
McClain said he didn’t try to pressure Smolik to enroll at Dowling.
Fortunately for the program, when Smolik was in the seventh grade, he decided he wanted to enroll at Dowling—a private school—and play for the Maroons in high school. After Smolik made that decision, he started learning the system he’d one day operate.
“He’d come to practice and watch and stand with me and the quarterbacks and behind the offense,” McClain said. “So he knows our offense inside and out.”
Fast forward five years and Smolik has proven himself as a varsity QB enough to where Dowling head coach/offensive coordinator Tom Wilson has changed the offense to suit Smolik’s talents.
Over the years, Dowling had been a run-heavy team, and it worked out well. The team has won 10 state championships since 2000 and won seven straight from 2013-19.
But because of Smolik, what used to be more of a “three yards and a cloud of dust” operation now often resembles streetball.
“When we get in our empty set, it’s like backyard football,” McClain said.
Smolik has the arm strength and accuracy (a 65.5 completion percentage in a little more than four games last season) to make “backyard football” work more often than he might be able to in the Big Ten. Something that would undoubtedly go over in college, however, is Smolik’s knack for showing up in big games.
He showed off this trait even in an injury-shortened 2021.
After breaking his collarbone on the first possession of Dowling’s first game, Smolik came back seven games later against Dowling’s rival, West Des Moines Valley. After Dowling fell behind with less than two minutes left, Smolik led a game-winning drive in 47 seconds, and the winning touchdown pass, in particular, sticks out to McClain.
Here’s the pass.
Another clutch throw that happened in the state of Iowa came from a Penn State legend and a QB Smolik grew up admiring, Trace McSorley.
McSorley’s 2017 walk-off touchdown to Juwan Johnson in Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium is perhaps his signature play at Penn State and one Smolik remembers watching. In the years since, Smolik and McClain have studied McSorley, looking at positives and negatives.
Anything that will help Smolik become a great college quarterback in his own right.
“He and I were going back and forth, sending each other videos of the plays that McSorley was doing and the reads,” McClain said. “We’re always watching film of quarterbacks and then texting each other and sending film to each other of good and bad plays.”
Before McSorley’s last college season, rapper and Penn State fan Matty Fresh released a rap song about Penn State’s quarterback.
The first words were “throw it on a dime.”
Those 14 letters became the nucleus for a viral TikTok video that took off in 2020.
In time, McClain believes Penn State fans will appreciate Smolik for his ability to throw it on a dime.
“People are going to realize how good he’s going to be throwing the ball,” McClain said. “His accuracy, like I said. His ability just to feel the defense and know where to put the ball. That’s what they’re going to see.”