An initial footnote: One might ask why I evaluated Tommy only as a QB. Well, that's what NU is recruiting him as, that's why he is interested in NU at all, so it made more sense to me to cover that since the fans are obviously interested in just that aspect. Tommy is a great player on both sides of the ball and if this were a Notre Dame site, I would be evaluating him as a DB instead of a QB. As it isn't though, this evaluation being solely to that position seemed appropriate.
First thing is first. Whenever you do film review, there are two very important factors to take into account if you can. How good is Tommy's team, i.e., the O-line, receiving core and backfield and of course, how good is the team he's facing. Some kids can look like all-stars and you might very well call them that if you don't have a good idea of just how good the team they are facing really is.
In this particular review, that's a no-brainer as the team Buffalo Grove is facing is Prospect, the only team to beat Buffalo last year and this year's eventual state champ. With that being said, let's get into this review.
When you are talking about a QB that fits the mold of an NU QB for the last forty years, you first have to start with athleticism. The bare physical ability this player has to be elusive, strong, fast, quick and durable.
Strength - Perhaps one of Tommy's best assets and at times, one of his worst. I say the worst simply because it impacts the way he runs. At the high school level, he does that little stutter step, leans down in full gallop, throws a shoulder in someone and they actually bounce off. In college, that's a separated shoulder waiting to happen.
It's not to say that NU quarterbacks don't do that, but judging from this film, Tommy doesn't hit people just to gain yards, he hits them with a purpose. That's ok if you have no other place to go, but at the collegiate level, I would doubt coaches would go for such a physical approach. Lean into a guy, even try to gain a few yards by going through a guy, but don't just abandon your body for the sake of putting a hurt on the defender. With the size of some of the defenders in Division 1-A, you might just end up more than just on your back.
It's a fine line between aggressive and too aggressive from that position, but as everything begins and ends with the QB, physical is good, but without abandon is just a little better.
On the very bright side here, Tommy's strength allows him to break tackles. He's good at keeping his legs moving, trying to get those extra yards, but he lunges more than he runs once contact is initiated, especially from behind.
You can't arm tackle Tommy with any great success and I would imagine that with the expected weight increase, thus the increase in overall muscle mass, even those stud linebackers are going to have problems bringing Tommy down if they can't get a good hold on him initially. Tommy is physical, but he's also slippery and combined with this strength, that makes him a hard kid to bring down.
Quickness - For me, there's two aspects to physical quickness, one being from a dead stop and the other, on the run.
Stop to Go - With the recent memory of Eric Crouch still fresh in people's minds, you can use him as a good reference for what a REALLY quick burst looks like. Very, very few signal callers you will EVER see have the kind of 0-10 quickness that Crouch did. It was just that rare.
With that being said, Tommy is quick, but his quickness is better illustrated by the use of his feet rather than how fast he makes it to top speed. Eric's quickness was rare and honestly, you just don't need to be that quick to be elusive. Tommy managed to be elusive and slippery back in the pocket by being able to move his feet. From a dead stop, he's still going to get away from most, but Eric could get away from most even if most were in a dead sprint trying to get to him in the first place. For anyone's needs, Tommy's quickness is fine and there's no doubt once he gets into a good program that will develop his quick-twitch muscles a little further, his quickness will even be better.
On the run - In this dept., Tommy was able to use good side-to-side movement to make people miss, but you had to see his feet work to figure out just how he was able to make that happen. Tommy jukes like most anyone would. His advantage comes from not being overly big.
Like Eric, Tommy could commit more to a feint than most, selling the deception even more. The problem with most people is that they can commit the lower body, but that upper body has to stay pretty much in place, so that they can pull off the feint, put the weight on their back foot and pull themselves in a different direction if needed while pushing off with the lead foot. That's why guys like Barry Sanders could do what they could, being so low to the ground. Having trunks for legs didn't hurt and that's another area where Tommy is at an advantage.
You can thank some of his boxing for that as if you don't have legs, you can't box. Much of a boxer's power is generated from the legs, just as a quarterback's throwing strength isn't generated from arm strength so much as it is from the hips on down. Tommy's leg strength allows him to be elusive on the run and his slimmer profile in the upper body allows him to have a little more control as well.
Tommy was consistently able to make that first guy miss, with his feet if not his body. From his cornerback background, you would expect him to have good hips and that was well illustrated in how he was able to move his body around to avoid tackles and run between tacklers as well. All of this adds up to of course, being elusive.
Speed - There's a lot to be said for a guy that can have a defender coming up behind him with a slight angle, sitting darn near on the target's left shoulder and still not being able to stop him from turning the corner up-field. That's speed. Tommy has that.
One of the trademark plays was an option play, but it was a running play designed to take it to the outside and more often than not, Tommy kept the ball. In this instance with the way the blocking is designed, there's always the danger for backside pursuit. At this level of play though and with Tommy's speed, that was almost completely negated. For anyone to catch Tommy coming from the backside, they would have needed literally a half-step head start before the snap just to have a shot and that's if it was a CB or Safety blitz. Tommy was just way too fast at getting to the corner and then, turning it up-field.
The translation of this speed to the next level is simple in basic terms. What I mean by that is a 4.3/40 is a 4.3/40 at any level and you know darn well, that's just fast. Tommy's initial burst has a great effect on how quickly he can utilize that flat-out speed, but he's going to be hard to catch for anyone.
Durability - When you are one of the better athletes on your team, you are probably going to see both sides of the ball. When you are the best athlete on your team, you are definitely going to see both sides of the ball. Tommy Z held merit both at QB and at Safety/DB, so his stamina is of little question. The biggest question though isn't stamina, it's durability.
Because of Tommy's background with boxing, he's accustomed to taking a lot of physical punishment and still going. With his rather illustrious record in boxing though (63-7 I think it was), it's obvious he's not taking too much punishment. With that being said though, the rigors of doing both with each posing significant physical stresses, what a body does to simply stay in the game as it were is significant.
What you have with Tommy is a chiseled 6'0" frame that is significantly muscular. That's a big plus, as muscles can prevent injuries. A player loses weight or doesn't have that kind of musculature on their body, there's little to protect everything else from being stressed to the point of pulling, ripping, tearing or breaking. It's not a full-proof way to avoid injuries of course, but at the high school level, it's a huge help.
Tommy will have to add to that though if he is going to be capable of sustaining the constant physical pounding a division 1-A quarterback takes, especially running the option. In that system, the QB is required to take hits to sell the option, giving his pitch man a better opportunity to make it downfield. The ideal QB in a system like that is pretty densely packed, is probably a little larger than Zbikowski is and if he's not, has a propensity to avoid the big hit.
While Tommy has the capability to avoid the big hit most of the time, his mentality forces him to initiate the contact, rather than shy away, hence the bigger importance for being durable over a long duration.
I wouldn't foresee any major problems in this area for him as long as he puts on 7-12 more lbs. of lean muscle mass. With his physical style of running, he's a shoulder injury waiting to happen, so the more muscle the merrier.
In the option, this isn't exactly what you call a prioritized facet of the quarterback's game. The system's success is predicated on efficiency rather than gross stats. And, quarterbacks that come out of systems like this are notoriously very run oriented with rough passing skills. Tommy would fit that description to a tee.
He's a great runner, but we'll get to that in the next segment, what we want to concentrate on is his throwing.
If you are a rhythm type of passer, the option isn't for you. It's very much opportunity rather than orchestration. However the running game develops dictates how much the passing game is utilized. With that being taken into account, a QB can literally be "cold" in their passing game throughout the entirety of the contest. That's not easy for even the most prototypical drop-back passer, so you can see the added stress it is for a QB that is used to throwing it 10 to 15 times in a game.
Much of what you look for in a QB in this type of system is Arm strength, throwing on the run, ability to look down the field while on the run and of course, some of the usuals, poise in the pocket, feet work, judgement and mechanics.
Arm Strength - Decent. Tommy can probably throw a rope for 25-30 yards. I believe it was his second pass of this game, he had a toss right that actually got to his guy, but Tommy had to get enough air under it that it came in a little late and was almost intercepted. Tommy did get good leverage on the throw and made a nice delivery, but it didn't appear that he was able to put quite enough on the ball to get it there as quick as was really needed for that kind of pattern.
The first pass of the game from Zbikowski was actually a "fly" route from the wide receiver split out to the left. The receiver got a step on his guy and Tommy hit him square, on the run and really, you couldn't have thrown it much better than that. Tommy is pretty aware of how strong his arm is it would seem and elevates the ball accordingly. The only issue I have with this stems from his initial mechanics.
Typical to quarterbacks NU recruits, Tommy's motion in throwing isn't that fluid over the top motion like you see in the QB films, based on pure passing type throwers. Rather than start back over his shoulder and bringing his arm out in a full extension after release and across his body in a downward motion, he's got a little over the shoulder action, but in a much more abbreviated fashion. It's not a full extension and though he does get his body into the throw, It wouldn't appear that he's getting full extended after the release. It's kind of like the rest of that golf swing after you hit the ball. The follow through.
The bright side to this is that means Tommy could have a much stronger arm than it initially indicated. A little more efficiency in his delivery and those balls that he's putting some air under could end up being ropes. Within 25 yards, he can really zing it in there, so the speculated improvements could end being a major plus for him and of course, for the team.
Throwing on the run - There was only one instance here where I got to see him in a flat run and throwing a pass, so I will have that to go off of for now. For technical purposes, it was a pass out of bounds, apprx. 3 yards ahead of his intended receiver.
One thing I did like about the throw was the delivery. Tommy was very deliberate in getting that ball in there with a purpose. I thought that he didn't push the ball in there, rather he threw the ball in there. In this case, he simply missed the target.
Another thing I liked about Tommy's potential on the run was his vision studying the field first. Though there's a few moments throughout this game that you would have to wonder what he was looking at, I look at those situations not as a vision problem, but one more sided to the "I can make this throw" mentality.
Tommy seemed able to look down field and run laterally fairly adeptly. Though the pattern indicated one receiver, Tommy was at least doing his best to sell the play, either checking off a DB or trying to make the secondary bite on the option, possibly freeing up his intended target. This area of passing will fall into line with most every other area of passing for Tommy in that he's simply going to need some time, practice and good coaching to get the kinks worked out to be effective at the next level.
Feet work - The feet for an option QB are vastly different from that of your typical passing QB. It's not just about being able to drop back without tripping over yourself, it's about running in a crowd and still delivering a pass or running laterally, pitching out at the last second, you the QB doing your best to sell the keeper with your body language and that includes your feet.
There was one thing Tommy did do in situations when he was running the option and a linebacker was able to shoot up off the tackle and get a fairly good break on him. He shuffled his feet side to side, looked and then, pitched. It wasn't a juke type shuffle either as each time he did this, he pitched the ball. Tommy seems to have a very different body language when he actually is making the conscious choice to either keep or pitch from the times he is simply the decoy guy or doesn't seen any other option. That little shuffle step then becomes a telegraph of sorts as to what is about to happen.
At the high school level, a linebacker might not pick up on that, but at the division 1-A level, there are a lot of linebackers that will pick that up and shoot straight for his pitch hand if he thinks that's what is coming.
Overall though, Tommy has very good feet. I like the way he moves back off of center as he doesn't seem to criss-cross his feet to any great degree. I like the way he pulls off center to make the move either left or right for the option. At times, he's just a little deliberate in some of his movements, but this plus much of the other stuff mentioned simply comes with time. As you are not likely to see any QB come out of high school, passing the ball perfect every time, the same can be said for doing the things Tommy has to do which can be quite a bit more difficult based on the situation.
Poise in the pocket - As anyone will tell you, "happy feet" is not a good thing. It means that the QB isn't comfortable back there and when it does come time to step into that throw, rather than a simple motion of using your body to lean into the motion and release, depending on where your feet are, you might be giving yourself an extra step in trying to get the ball off before a defender reaches you.
For option quarterbacks, this is an even worse problem, because they are used to using those feet as a weapon for running the offense down the field. This is something I thought Tommy was particularly good at, as he was able to sit back there and look down field for the receiver even with an on-coming rush. The first pass he made for about a forty yard gain was with two-guys bearing down on him pretty good. Just the sight of those two guys breaking protection would send a lot running, but Tommy hung in there, made the pass and turned a 3rd and long into a 1st and 10 situation.
I really shouldn't be surprised though as this attitude is very reflective of the cool and comfortable confidence he seems to exude, so in the areas where confidence and poise are concerned, you would expect him to excel. And, he does, but where confidence in concerned, the game illustrated quite well that, that wasn't always a good thing.
I refer back to the aforementioned "I can make that throw" mentality or as most have gotten used to hearing it called, the Brett Favre mind set. It basically means that if there is a pass, he can make it and it doesn't matter who's covering his guy or how many. Tommy had that a few times and still threw the ball. The first one, Tommy simply got too much air on the ball, making it look like double-coverage when the ball arrived, but it was single coverage when he threw it.
Basically though, I think that Tommy is very sure of his ability and perhaps, sometimes, too sure. With his propensity (in this game anyway) to throw into situations you simply have to close your eyes and pray, judgement is probably something he's going to need to work on, but again, this is just another issue that most people have to work on at every level, regardless of what position they play.
You can't have the option with the run and you can't have an option QB that can't run or at the very least, can't run well enough to keep defenses honest. Well, no worries with Tommy Z, because the young man can do that and then some.
As we have already analyzed a lot of what makes Tommy the kind of runner he is, I won't reiterate that, rather emphasize it with the good and bad.
He's tough - Physical, punishing and fast enough that it will make defensive backs thing twice about trying him from the front. He can always take a hell of a licking and keep on ticking.
He's smart - When Tommy is running, he's very aware of where he is at and what he is doing. It's more instinctive I would guess, but you can see he's not just reacting, he's thinking as he looks down the field. Great runners are almost always smart runners as well. Only a very few gifted ones in the history of this game could simply react and excel. One former Oklahoma State football player comes to mind. Either way, Tommy takes his physical ability and makes it work that much more because he's able to use his mind along with his feet.
He's fast - Tommy's speed just allows him the luxury of being able to make things happen, get out of situations most can't and perhaps give him some time that most people couldn't. Speed always kills. It's no different here.
He's intense - When you need that extra yard, he gives it to you. When you need that extra push, he wants to be the guy with his hands on the bumper. Tommy takes the most out of a situation and takes charge and he's a guy that gives that proverbial 110%.
He's mature - This equals poise and this usually equals good decisions in tight spots. We have covered the passing issues, but again, I think that's more a confidence thing than any other aspect. I think that Tommy thinks he can make all those throws. His maturity though serves a double purpose. It lets him learn faster and as the QB, he's a much easier person to follow. Someone with a good but evenly keeled grasp of a situation generally leads to more confidence from his fellow players.
He's tough - Yep, that's good and bad. Sometimes, you should just duck. Tommy admits that he's the type that will take on those guys and he even went so far as to say that at first, he might just end up on his back the first few times or so. Bigger, faster and stronger defenders could make impulsiveness hurt and sometimes, injure. You never want to be too cautious, but running headlong into walls all day can have it's effect.
Decision making - Again, this could be a confidence issue rather than a decision making process, but on film, it looks like he simply made a bad choice, throwing into a crowd, once, twice and so on. Tommy is a playmaker type and those types are going to do what they can to do just that and sometimes, it just doesn't always work out. You have to trade to the good with the bad sometimes, but right now, most of the bad is localized to his passing game.
Size - Ok, not much you can do at least height-wise and with that, it's not always a draw back, but with the ever increasing size of the offensive line in front of the QB and the ever increasing size of the defenders looking to squash the QB into a little bug, usually, the bigger the better. Eric Crouch certainly proved that you didn't have to be that 6'2" and 215 lbs. guy to have success, but Eric was also hampered by Injuries. Additional muscle will help though and it wouldn't hurt to have a better grasp of caution over abandon. (See "He's tough" above)
What Tommy Zbikowski gives you is potential. Within that stout frame of his lies the potential to do just about anything he wants and with his heart, he's got the wherewithal to see it to it's conclusion. He's athletic, versatile, intelligent and instinctive, plus he can sometimes be flat out mean.
In the tenacity dept., he's just not the type of kid that will ever fold no matter how bad it gets. He's a fighter in more than the usual criteria.
His speed and strength give you the physical tools to build on and his eagerness to learn along with capacity to learn the system quickly allows you a certain comfort level in knowing that he may not immediately "get it", but he will get it to be sure.
What needs to be accentuated here as far as what he will have to improve on is first and foremost, his passing. Well, that has been the typical arrangement with just about every single QB that has came into NU in the last ten or twenty years. Heck, Frost and Lord had to re-learn how to throw from scratch and I think Tommy is fundamentally sound enough, that's not going to be necessary.
Over time as he learns how to best use what he can do, he will be able to interpret situations a little more accurately along with knowing his limitations for each of those situations. Throwing into double coverage consistently in high school is bad, but in college, it's a quick way to digging a hole that your team can't get out of. That kind of development simply comes with time.
For a system like NU, Zbikowski is ideal. Though you may look at his height with some reservations, based on the criteria NU uses to pick their future signal callers, that pales in comparison to that potential he brings to the table. He's a fighter, he's a great runner and he has the capability to learn anything he doesn't know now. Plus, he simply makes plays. He makes something out of nothing and out of something, he puts points on the board.
The future looks bright for Tommy no matter what he decides to do, but as a QB in a system like NU's, his up-side is huge. With good coaching and some time, the sky really is the limit.
Steve Ryan can be reached at email@example.com or 402-730-5619