Inside the Gameplan: Options at QB

OSU Heard 8The process of Charlie Strong choosing and successfully hiring Sterlin Gilbert to be the new OC at Texas raised all kinds of questions about the climate in Bellmont and whether Charlie has the ability or support necessary to stick around for the long haul.

But now that an OC is hired, we can discuss this in terms of pure football talk, because whether Charlie survives a tough 2016 schedule depends almost entirely on whether his new offensive coordinator is able to field a good QB.

As I’ve detailed already, while the new offense is built on the running game it also puts a higher premium on throwing the ball than most any other run-centric offense in football history. There is no getting around the need for a QB that can punish defenses for how they play the run game. The “shoot” part of the “veer ‘n’ shoot” offense is what makes this offense special.

Gilbert is going to have probably five or six real options to sort through in finding his QB for 2016. What he’s looking for in particular is a QB that can handle the RPOs (run/pass options) that make up the bulk of the standard down play-calls, make quick reads and throw accurate strikes outside the hash marks, and connect on the frequent vertical option routes that set this system apart.

Arm strength, ability to make quick (and easy) reads from the pocket, and overall grasp of how the system attacks defenses are the most important tools for a QB to have. There’s also often some QB run-game mixed in so literal quickness and physical toughness are also valuable skills.

Here are the options:

The returning veterans

There isn’t just a ton of hope for what these guys will offer given that their inability to wield effective passing attacks is the reason that Texas is going to have three different play-callers in three different seasons.

Tyrone Swoopes:

If Swoopes had been redshirted and brought up in this system, there’d be good hope for him eventually realizing his awesome physical tools and leading the Texas offense. As it happens, without taking a redshirt season that would then exclude him from the competition, this will be Swoopes’ final year as a Longhorn and there probably just isn’t enough time to repair the damage.

Tyrone Swoopes. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Tyrone Swoopes. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Swoopes does look the part for this system, his strength in the Watson days was always making the quick and easy reads on the outside and zipping passes with placement and velocity that made them exceptionally difficult to defend. However, Tyrone has never been consistent on deep throws, rarely hitting receivers downfield at all, much less in stride.

Without John Harris around and facing greater expectations, he regressed even further in confidence and simply doesn’t seem comfortable as the starting QB for the University of Texas. Where he does seem comfortable and confident is as a role player in the “18-wheeler” wildcat package where he can focus on simple run reads and using his superior physical ability to dominate people in short-yardage situations.

The smart money is on Swoopes focusing his practice time around the 18-wheeler package and possibly even moving to a new position.

Jerrod Heard:

My thinking at this point is that Jerrod Heard is actually a WR who has been able to get by at QB thanks to the possibilities of the spread-option.

The first alarms went off for me when watching his HS championship victories for a feature on him that we printed over a year ago. What really stood out was that he really won those games with his legs and not with his arm. In fact, when Georgetown was able to bottle up his running for a brief period in his junior year showdown with Jake Hubenak, Heard started to panic and wasn’t sure what to do until they adjusted the run game to get him going again.

Another alarm went off when it was reported that Denton Guyer’s head coach emphasized to Wickline and Watson that the key to his success in high school was simplicity on offense that simply allowed him to run wild. He’s now the “returning starter” for an offense that will ask him to do the exact opposite and regularly make reads and throws from the pocket.

If you look at the skill sets of history’s greatest wide receivers, you’ll often find similar traits that we see in Heard. Such as a front-running confidence that feeds off beating people with open field moves, great vision and instincts for running with the ball, and superior explosiveness in his movements.

While Heard’s ridiculous ability to dart laterally and forward with suddenness that most other athletes can’t match will occasionally find usage at QB, it’d be all that he’s ever asked to do as a WR. Assuming he has the hands for the position, I think his skills could translate into becoming a special player out wide, especially in this offense where special athletes at WR are set up to do extraordinary things.

If Gilbert doesn’t move Heard down the depth chart and eventually out wide to receiver, I’ll be concerned about the level of freedom the new coach has in regards to personnel decisions because quite frankly I can’t see Heard winning the job in this particular system.

The Watson additions

Kai Locksley. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Kai Locksley. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Watson’s QB recruiting was somewhat frustrating since he generally went after raw clay, even going out-of-state to get it, rather than selecting any of the numerous Texas HS QBs that had already been trained and developed to execute modern passing systems. Whether or not Texas makes it through 2016 may well depend on whether one of Watson’s two signings in the 2015 class are able to take the reigns.

Kai Locksley:

Because his father is a prominent offensive coach in the college ranks, it’s generally assumed that Locksley has a QB’s mindset and it’s simply waiting for the chance to come out. Unfortunately, there is little to no evidence on film that such is the case.

To begin with, Locksley has never executed an offense built around the passing game before and didn’t receive the valuable snaps and instruction as a young man that most college QBs today have already received. There’s a huge difference between a freshman who has already read and thrown something like a curl-flat hundreds of times in game situations and a freshman who’s done it a few times in a controlled setting. To think that he’s going to be ready as a RS freshman to lead this offense is not being realistic.

Secondly, Locksley has really struggled with accuracy and basic mechanics and is currently 4th on the depth chart. When you are running an RPO offense where the QB needs to stick the ball in the RB’s gut and then make a decision to pull it and throw open a receiver, whether they are running a short route or a deeper combination, accuracy is important and so is the ability to throw a football without a great deal of wind-up or effort.

Have you ever played a game of pick-up basketball where you notice the guy who had a long wind-up for his set shot and nailed all of his jumpers in pre-game shooting is easily silenced during the actual game? Why does that happen? Because the circumstances he requires to execute a shot never exist in an actual game where people are trying to stop him.

I’m afraid that’s Locksley as a passer, and maybe Swoopes and Heard to a lesser extent. If his feet are set properly he can throw a pretty impressive ball but a QB in this system needs to be able to deliver the ball almost subconsciously while being mindful of other factors on the field.

What’s more, Locksley has always shown a high aptitude for the receiver position and was a near-lock to end up at that position in Tallahassee had he remained there. There can be little doubt that Texas’ success in stealing him away from Jimbo Fisher was largely related to the Horns offered a better chance at getting developed at QB rather than quickly moved out wide. Now it’s time to pay the piper.

Matthew Merrick:

The veer ‘n’ shoot was designed to unleash guys like Merrick. As a high school player Merrick flashed a lot of the tools that you love to see in a QB including arm strength, the ability to keep plays alive and make something happen if things broke down, and confidence to throw the ball. Sometimes he seemed to have too much confidence and threw a lot of picks trying to buy time and get the ball out under duress or trying to rely on his arm to beat coverage.

However, this offense’s spacing is designed to clear up the reads and minimize the risk by isolating the receivers, allowing them to run into open grass, getting the ball out quickly or else offering max protection, and eliminating the likelihood of a safety being in position to pick off an errant or tipped pass.

Matt Merrick. (Justin Wells/IT_
Matt Merrick. (Justin Wells/IT)

On his senior tape, Merrick showed the ability to make the kinds of reads and throws that are a big part of this offense as well as the ability to run and allow a little bit of QB run-game to be a part of the offense.

His two most encouraging abilities are how he reads stretch concepts and how well he leads receivers on deep routes, particularly “7” routes that are basically post routes that go out towards the sideline rather than inside. He’s also capable of throwing comeback routes with anticipation, which is likely to come in handy in Gilbert’s vertical pass concepts.

He has no hesitation when firing a throw into a narrow window, even when throwing something like a curl route to the field as he does at 2:32 on his film. The ability to punish a defense with deep lobs off play-action and with throws outside on isolated coverage are what can make this offense come alive. Merrick is probably the best man for the job currently on campus.

Spring advent

There’s at least one option coming in for Texas in the spring and possibly another that could also prove competitive in a battle for starting QB that currently only has one major contender.

Shane Buechele:

Shane Buechele is the veer ’n’ shoot’s answer for Baker Mayfield. He has great lateral quickness that makes him hard to tackle in the backfield and very effective on zone read plays where he can take the edge or cut back inside if he faces over-pursuit. Those abilities are great, but Texas has plenty of guys at QB that can scoot and all of them (save maybe for Merrick) are probably better at it than Buechele, as talented a runner as he is.

Shane Buechele. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Shane Buechele. (Will Gallagher/IT)

What makes Shane special is his release and how easily he can throw a ball with velocity and placement without needing the perfect footwork or setting to throw a strike.I’m beginning to suspect that the QBs who also play baseball are perhaps best equipped to handle the rigors of throwing passes while large and violent people are trying to hurt them. Hot corner, imo.

Over and over again on his tape you’ll find Buechele seeing the defense lose leverage to open a window or give his WR a favorable matchup and then you’ll see him be able to deliver an accurate ball in a millisecond thanks to the ease and speed with which he winds up and throws. You can see what I’m talking about at 2:20 on his tape where he sees the boundary safety get sucked in and immediately throws a perfect go route to the boundary side receiver.

This is a skill that would get a lot of play in the veer ‘n’ shoot as he’ll regularly be looking to pick out weak spots and then make throws down the field, possibly while getting flushed out of the pocket. That exact ability won RG3 the Heisman in this system.

His ease in releasing the ball also makes him effective on traditional concepts, like curl-flat, which seems to have been his offense’s favorite passing concept. At 3:35 you see him read the flat defender and then throw a strike to the curl route in an instant.

Buechele curl-flat

As soon as the strong safety turned and chased the flat route, Buechele was zipping in the middle of the field a curl route to the Y receiver. This is a great concept for a QB in this system to be good at for the occasions in which opponents try to play man coverage outside but it’s also indicative of Buechele’s aptitude for reading defenders and then making them pay within the window of opportunity.

It’s easy to see Buechele mastering enough of the passing game to allow the 2016 Texas run-game to get going before eventually becoming an outstanding QB in this system.

What say you? Do you think one of these potential signal-callers could get Texas to eight or more wins and save Charlie’s job? Or is this a lost cause?

History major, football theorist.