Football Recruiting

Heard heads to Austin

Jerrod Heard is the player Mack Brown should have been looking for since the 2005 Rose Bowl victory over Michigan. He just found him a little too late.
I took the opportunity to watch both of Heard’s championship game performances along with some Elite 11 footage and another perusal of his highlight tapes. The first thing that stands out is his ability to take juke-steps that move him laterally with a suddenness that makes him exceptionally hard to tackle if he has any space at all to operate. It’s the same kind of ankle strength and long-striding suddenness that Vince Young called his “Texas two-step” and it has arguably greater value for a player in the QB run game than a blazing 40-yard dash or shuttle time.

Those moves and jukes show up both when Heard is running one of the designed QB runs of the Denton Guyer offense or when he’s looking for a receiver and decides instead to pull it down and scramble for what he can get. He can also throw the ball with accuracy while moving his feet. He’s an exceptional athlete and eminently comfortable making moves and decisions on the move with the ball in his hands.

There’s a million ways to skin a cat, but the easiest way is with a dual-threat QB.

You can draw up the perfect plan before the snap but things always get messy once you tip over the dominoes and initiate a scrum of 22 adrenaline-filled young men looking for violent glory. What’s more, many defensive coaches pride themselves on creating a confusing mess that attacks what they perceive you are trying to accomplish. Mike Stoops says hi.

Maybe the OC sees the blitz coming and has the perfect screen called to punish it. Maybe he’s designed an exceptionally comprehensive system and drilled the QB to understand all of his options and be equipped for anything that might occur.

The problem with this approach for the college game should be fairly obvious. You get these kids for four or five years unless they are particularly talented and you developed them particularly well, in which case they might leave after three years.

Creating a program that acts as an assembly line for QBs who can handle the madness and always know where to put the ball is easier said than done, especially if the system in place is demanding.

The Oklahoma system is fairly reasonable in the way it looks to use the running game, tempo, and spacing to arm the QB with easy to wield tools for surviving on the football field. From the 2002 recruiting class to the 2012 class, OU took 12 QBs in 11 seasons in order to find a fit for that system.

From that group they landed two productive QBs (Landry Jones and Sam Bradford), two QBs who were just competent enough to preside over winning teams (Blake Bell and Paul Thompson), Rhett Bomar who fit into the prior group before transferring in disgrace, and Trevor Knight whom I suspect will fit in with Bradford and Jones when he’s done.

If you counted each of those names as successful takes you’d have a hit rate of 50%. If you only counted guys that were capable of, or might have been/will be capable of being featured players (Bradford, Jones, Bomar, Knight), then you’d get a hit rate of 33%.

Over that span of time, Texas took 12 QBs as well and found five that became starters and three that were successful in that role. That’s a 25% hit rate.

Unless you’re Baylor, it’s hard to have a strong enough program that you can always fill a vacancy with a player ready to run the show.

But what if your QB can create positive plays outside of the system? What if he doesn’t have to have a mastery of every option, checkdown, or throw needed within the system to beat defenses?

Of course, possessing that ability was a big reason that Colt McCoy and Vince Young were so successful in college, and that’s the most exciting characteristic of Heard.

Where’s Jerrod heart at right now?

Both McCoy and Young both benefitted from redshirt seasons that gave them a chance to acclimate to life as a college football QB at a major program and to grow and mature while sitting in meeting rooms with college coaches teaching higher level concepts.

If Heard is pressed into action as a true freshman without that redshirt buffer year, he’s going to have a steep learning curve.

The Denton Guyer offense he wielded in securing consecutive 4A state championships was a step down in passing game complexity from what he’ll be asked to do in Austin.

The Guyer Wildcat offense is primarily geared around the running game and Heard managed to top 2k rushing yards as both a junior and senior while paired with a couple of 1k yard backs in each season.

When the Wildcats did throw the ball, their concepts began to fall into one of three main categories: screen passes, one-read outside throws, and “vertical or run” plays.

The screen passes were largely of the variety that ask the QB to dangle himself in front of the pass rushers for as long as possible before finding a way, under pressure, to hit the targeted skill player and lead them to paydirt behind the developing wall of blocks.

Heard’s height, athleticism, and overall comfort making things happen on the fly made him very effective executing these throws:

On the quick read plays, Heard generally demonstrated both great awareness of where the ball should go as well as decent accuracy in getting the ball to his receivers in stride.

On this play he handles a two-step process in identifying the deep coverage (single deep safety), finding the dropped down robber safety and throwing into the vacated window to the post route left open by that safety dropping down on another route:

Finally, possibly the best plays for Guyer were what I call “vertical or run” plays where Heard looked to see if the deep coverage could handle three vertical routes, and if not, he’d make something happen on the run.

At times, they’d have the three vertical route patterns and then max protection, which I’d guess resulted in Heard scrambling in open space ¾ of the time, a valuable outcome. At other times, they’d have a fourth receiver in the pattern run a hitch route and then find open space if Heard still had the ball in his hands after the throw would have come:

It’s clear that Guyer practiced this play to account for the possibility of Heard having to scramble and the receivers often adjusted their routes on the fly to find open space if they saw Heard leave the pocket. Major Applewhite was doing the same thing with Texas’ 4-verticals concept and Ash before tragedy struck the 2013 season and precluded such a play from usage.

Heard’s long-term skills are hard to project because currently he’s still primarily a great athlete with a lot of exciting but raw tools. Those tools include his exceptional open field moves, good but not breathtaking speed, comfort under pressure, ability to throw on the run, touch on his passes, and overall coordination.

All told, Heard’s best chances for short term success would come in a shotgun-spread offense that utilizes the QB run game, provides several easy reads and throws off play-action, and has built-in plans for the Jerrod Heard improv show. Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes would probably make him into an All-American.

What he can do long term will depend on how well his footwork and throwing mechanics improve along with the extent to which his vision and processing abilities translate to reading defenses before and after the snap.

How does Heard fit into the new Texas system?

It’s ironic that Mack Brown finally replaced the despised Greg Davis after the cataclysmic 2010 season only to see Texas stumble through the next few seasons before hiring possibly the most similar, living OC to Davis in Shawn Watson.

On the bright side, Watson has an obvious resource to draw from in finding ways to craft an offense around Heard: the Davis West-Coast spread teams.

The existing Texas offense has several features that Heard’s skills should project well in. To begin with, the spring game indicated that Watson is bringing back the RB screen which Heard has already shown great aptitude for.

Additionally, the one-read play-action rollout plays that exist within Watson’s offense will be a place where Heard will probably find comfort and success sooner than later.

The Wickline zone run game can easily be adapted to involve the QB-read and Texas also has Draw and Power blocking schemes in the playbook, which can also be amended to include the QB as either a featured or option runner.

The challenges will be in executing the intermediate passing game and guiding the offense at the line of scrimmage. Heard’s touch on his passes will play well eventually when navigating the middle of the field but his accuracy will need to become more consistent before that becomes a safe option for the offense.

Additionally, he’s not currently well-versed in many of the concepts in Watson’s offense and will probably need a lot of reps before he’s ready to make all the desired reads and throws in the middle of the field and understand common defensive traps that will be set for him.

Finally, the job of making calls at the line of scrimmage, switching between different plays and protections, and managing the offense in a way that will allow Watson’s methodical approach to work will require a high degree of command over the entire system.

While Heard is likely to find many of his skills translate quickly to the Watson offense, it’s likely that he won’t have command of the entire system until he’s been in the program for a few years.

Of course, ultimately what’s most exciting is Heard’s ability to create explosive plays that aren’t in the playbook.

Whether Heard is forced into action as a freshman or if he has time to sit behind David Ash or another QB and start after a few years of well-needed seasoning, there’s a major onus on the coaching staff to utilize him properly.

Heard should not simply be handed the Teddy Bridgewater offense, he has a knack for creating out of the pocket or on the loose with the ball in his hands that should be built into the offense and repped in practice. Indeed, what doomed Applewhite was preparing the ideal Heard offense and impatiently using it to batter Ash’s brains.

The Charlie Strong era and possibly the 2014 season will depend on how creative and flexible the coaching staff can be in facilitating Heard’s inner VY and putting him in situations to make explosive plays that aren’t in the playbook.

There’s a cure for systems that struggle to find players who can make plays when things get wild on the football field, and Heard carries that cure. Hopefully he gets a redshirt and some time and Watson figures out how to extract that cure and inoculate the Strong era Longhorns.

History major, football theorist.