Quarterback coach Steve Clarkson, left, works with David Sills, a high… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
The vanity license plate is hard to miss as the black BMW sport-utility vehicle pulls into a parking spot outside a middle school in San Marino.
From behind the wheel steps a man dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and ball cap, all black. From the passenger side emerges a teenage boy, tall and slender, wearing a white T-shirt, black shorts, cleats — and clutching a football.
The two walk determinedly past an expansive grass field and head toward the playground.
The young quarterback drops the ball, and then grips the post of a chin-up bar and stretches his right arm. As the man barks instruction about the fundamentals of throwing a pass, it is clear they are there for more than a simple game of catch.
The man grabs a large plastic trash bin, steps to within a few feet of the teenager, and hoists the receptacle onto his shoulder with the open end next to his right ear.
"Throw it," he commands, "right down the barrel."
The ball ricochets off the bottom of the bin in staccato blasts.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
The man laughs. The boy keeps firing away.
In an era of specialized sports training that includes high-tech gizmos, computerized feedback and virtual-reality scenarios, is this any way to develop a Heisman Trophy winner or professional football star?
Apparently it is.
In December, when USC's junior quarterback Matt Barkley was pondering whether to leave the school and turn pro, pundits and fans speculated about who might take over the Trojans' offense.
One thing was clear: Steve Clarkson was likely to figure in the succession.
Clarkson, the man with the trash can, is a private quarterback coach. He had a hand in developing Matt Leinart and Barkley, two of the last four starting quarterbacks at USC. Two of his protégés, including the boy on the playground, could be next in line.
The vast majority of drills Clarkson uses are variations of basic footwork and throwing concepts taught by many coaches. But the high-priced tutor — he says he is paid as much as $600 an hour for private lessons — is not afraid to introduce low-tech equipment to emphasize a point about proper mechanics.
"You're always looking for new ways to teach fundamentals," he says. "Sometimes the simplest method is the best."
Hence the trash can, a prop Clarkson started to use in training regimens about a year ago. Borrowing principles of focus and movement from tai chi, he aims to make quarterbacks simulate distance by hitting the "eyeball" at the bottom of the bin.
The drill also allows Clarkson a close look at every aspect of the passer's delivery.
David Sills, a 15-year-old high school freshman from Delaware, has grown accustomed to Clarkson's unconventional ways. So he doesn't flinch when instructed to imagine a scenario unfolding inside the garbage can.
"Look at the target," Clarkson says, "like you're throwing a dig route downfield."
Sills hesitates for a moment, laughs, then begins his barrage of passes into the barrel.
"I don't know where he learned it, but he knows what's wrong with it and knows how to correct it," he says of Clarkson's ability to help with his throwing mechanics. "I guess that's the magic touch."
Barkley says Clarkson focuses on details such as arm angle, hand and foot position and recognizing defenses. Emphasis also is placed on making what Clarkson describes as "the imperfect perfect throw" — when quarterbacks must execute under duress in game conditions.
"People think it's 'drop back and throw the ball,'" says Barkley, who now works out exclusively with USC coaches, "but there's so much that goes into just making it spiral."
Clarkson, 50, did not set out to be a coach. Growing up in the Lincoln Heights area of Los Angeles, he was intent on becoming an NFL quarterback, a dream born after watching Roman Gabriel of the Rams and Joe Kapp of the Minnesota Vikings duel in a 1969 game at the Coliseum.
At Wilson High, he learned in an innovative, freewheeling system under legendary offensive coach Vic Cuccia. "He gave us the concepts, and we literally made up plays in the huddle," Clarkson says.
Clarkson had a record-setting career at San Jose State, where his coach was Jack Elway, father of Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway.
Clarkson attended training camp with the Denver Broncos but never played in the NFL during an era when black quarterbacks were a rarity. He played briefly in the Canadian Football League.
"If I were coming out of college right now, it would be a different story," he says. "I've moved on. It was a sign of the times, and I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing."
Clarkson fell into coaching in the mid-1980s after answering a newspaper advertisement seeking a youth football coach. He later became an assistant at Palisades and Carson high schools, mentoring record-setting quarterbacks while gaining a reputation for stirring up controversy by orchestrating transfers.