Bobby Bowden has said several times over the last couple years that we have been one player away—a difference-maker like a Peter Warrick, Anquan Boldin, Charlie Ward, or Chris Weinke. The question now is whether Xavier Lee might be that guy. Everyone has known about his talent since he stepped on campus, but his performance in the Alabama game has certainly caused a great amount of excitement among fans that FSU might be finally turning the corner. It is simply unreasonable to expect a new quarterback in a new system to fix every area in which the offense has been struggling. Along that vein, it is worth asking what kind of difference a reasonable fan should expect from the FSU offense with Xavier Lee as the starter.
The most obvious difference between Lee and previous starter Drew Weatherford is Lee's mobility. It is obvious that a more mobile quarterback will typically be more difficult for the opposing defense to sack, but a mobile quarterback can have a more far-reaching impact than many might anticipate. (It should be noted before we continue that Xavier is not a "running" quarterback so much as a classic drop-back quarterback with mobility. He is not a Vince Young clone, despite rumors to the contrary.)
Lee's impact on the running game has the potential to be substantial. First of all, designed quarterback runs (as has been demonstrated recently by Wake Forest, West Virginia, and UF, among others) will allow FSU to effectively attack eight-man fronts in the running game. Presuming a base two back, one tight end formation, hen the quarterback hands the ball to a running back, the five offensive linemen, fullback, and tight end (seven in all) have the responsibility of blocking eight defenders (the front seven plus a safety responsible for a gap).
Running the ball despite the defense being at a one-man advantage is the primary problem for teams attempting to keep balanced in the modern game. Designed quarterback runs provide a way to account for every defender (to "get a hat on a hat" as it were) and forcing the defense to play 11-on-11 rather than 11-on-10 in the running game. This was easily observable against Alabama, as Lee finished the game as the leading rusher.
Another option that Xavier will provide is built off of this concept is the zone-read play run so effectively in recent years by West Virginia and Vince Young-led Texas (that OL coach Rick Trickett is so familiar with this scheme is an added benefit). The zone-read operates by leaving one of the defensive front seven (generally the defensive end) unblocked, allowing the offense to get a hat on each of the other defenders. It is then the quarterback's job to "read" the unblocked perimeter player and either (if the defender commits to the quarterback) hand the ball off or (if the end commits to the tailback) take the ball and run himself.
This again allows the offense to get the entire defensive front blocked, allowing the runner (either QB or RB) more space than would otherwise be the case. As a result, even when Lee does not have the football, he is accounting for a defensive player and giving playmakers like Antone Smith more chances to make big plays. (I for one am excited to see Smith get more seams and more opportunities to display his speed in the open field.)
These two examples are fairly well understood by more educated fans, but there is yet a third place that Xavier should help our running game—namely, in reducing the number of run blitzes and stunts our offensive line will have to deal with. The last few years, we have had to deal with a large number of "run blitzes" on first and second down in which a team sends linebackers into gaps to "stop the run on the way to the quarterback."
There are a few ways of dealing with these blitzes, the most obvious of which is to throw the ball well enough that these blitzers are needed in coverage. The problem with this is that it requires that these blitzes be picked up well enough that the quarterback has enough time to burn the defense downfield—something we also have struggled with the last few years. Xavier's presence offers another alternative; the threat of a quarterback run in which the blitz is picked up and sealed inside while the quarterback is able to run outside with little second-level pursuit (the result of being able to block everyone) effectively reduces the types of blitzes defensive coordinators will be willing to call.
That has the effect of making it easier on the conventional running game, which will have to deal with far fewer run blitzes and stunts, simplifying the process and opening more seams for the running backs. As can be observed, the impact of Xavier Lee's running ability should be observable even when he does not have the ball, ultimately making it easier even for our conventional running game.
Tomorrow: Lee's probable impact on the passing game.