New Albany State quarterbacks coach Brian Von Bergen gives instructions to quarterback Frank Rivers during a recent practice. (Staff Photo: Tim Morse)
ALBANY — Practice is over and most of the players head back to the field house to get dressed.
But in a small corner of the football practice field at Albany State University, quarterback Frank Rivers and newly hired quarterbacks coach Brian Von Bergen continue to work, oblivious that most of the team has called it a day.
It doesn’t matter that Rivers, who was named the 2014 SIAC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, threw for 1,898 yards and 18 touchdowns last year. He listens to everything Von Bergen says, nodding in agreement.
“Everything is going pretty good,” said the soft-spoken Rivers. “He’s bringing out some new stuff that I need to add to my game, which I believe is helping me and I feel myself getting better each and every day. So I’m kind of excited to see where this year is going to go with a new coach.”
How well these two work together will play a large part in determining how successful the Rams will be on offense. And Von Bergen is no stranger to helping develop players.
For the past five seasons, he was the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach at Montana State University, helping transform the Bobcats’ offense into one of the top teams in the Big Sky Conference.
He also spent 10 seasons at Miami (Ohio), where he was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. He played a key role in recruiting and developing Ben Roethlisberger, now the quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Von Bergen and Albany State offensive coordinator Steve Smith share a strong bond, dating back to the days when Smith played under Von Bergen, who then was coached running backs at Southern Illinois.
It was Smith who sold Von Bergen on the idea of coaching Rivers.
“He gave me some information before I got here on Frank, “ Von Bergen said. “Electronic media helps, so I had the playbook before I even got down here and was able to get on top of it. But there’s nothing like getting here and getting to work with Frank individually.
“He’s a very strong football mind. The obvious is he’s tall and he can run. He’s got big strides. I think if we wanted to, we could use him as a runner. But right now, we want to use him as a pro-style quarterback who can lead the offense, work out of the pocket and escape when he needs to. But the thing he’s really got and the thing that I like is his football smarts.”
At 6-foot-6 and 220-pounds, Rivers towers over the much shorter Von Bergen. But when the coach speaks, Rivers listens intently. He has been working on better techniques, footwork and other aspects that Von Bergen said “he’s been missing from his game or he hasn’t been technically sound on.”
The quarterback played an integral role in helping the Rams win their final five games and claim the SIAC title last year. With Von Bergen having helped to develop Roethlisberger, Rivers said, he’s heard fans make premature comparisons.
“I try not to pay attention to stuff from the outside,” Rivers said. “I try to stay humble and work on myself and let everything else happen with my play. I don’t really think about (the comparisons) too much.”
Albany State lost former quarterbacks coach Willie Totten, who resigned to take an assistant coaching job at Alabama A&M. While ASU head coach Mike White was disappointed to see Totten leave, he said Von Bergen and Rivers could have a special relationship.
“They are both working hard to improve on our passing game, so I like what I see,” he said.
Von Bergen said Rivers’ greatest attribute is his humbleness. But the senior standout does give the Rams plenty of options.
The new coach said he plans to keep things the same on offense, wanting to fit in rather than the re-invent the proverbial wheel.
“I’m not trying to come in and say here’s what I’ve done in my past,” Von Bergen said. “There’s enough different ways to move the football, you just really have to be on the same page with the players. So my priority has been to learn what they’re doing here, do it well, and then maybe add some thoughts to make it better.
“I didn’t come in here to change it. I came in to make it better, enhance it, get Frank playing with the fundamentals and help his decisions.”
That’s something Rivers is welcoming with open arms.