Coaches Breakdown: Scouting Quarterbacks

In an ongoing series, takes a look through each position, talking to college position coaches about what they look for in recruits at that spot. This installment covers quarterbacks, one of the most important positions, but also one that is becoming increasingly difficult to evaluate.

For this series on scouting each position, I began with quarterbacks, because they’re a natural place to start. They are scrutinized as much as any position on the field, and yet, they were the position I had the most questions about as far as what the process is.

I had been to several spring workouts and was watching coaches base offer-decisions seemingly off of seeing kids throw in a basketball gym with no pass rush and no defense. I also wondered how you grade off of a highlight tape when that is simply all of their best throws.

For awhile now, I’ve maintained that I could put together a great highlight video of mediocre NFL quarterbacks and put it side by side with a highlight tape of Tom Brady’s and you might not know the difference if you didn’t know the two. How do you judge the things that set the Mannings and Bradys of the world apart – intelligence, consistency, cool under pressure, etc. – if you’re watching a highlight tape that only shows the best throws and doesn’t let you know down, distance and game situation?

That’s why I went to the experts.

What’s the first thing they look for on film?

  “From a watching film standpoint on a kid, I look at a kid’s release and look at his feet. Is he able to put his foot in the ground and get the throws out, or does he always have to hitch forward? In other words, when he decides to throw, how quick does he get it out? For me, that’s one of the first things I notice.”  
  “The things I think are important are accuracy and arm strength. It’s sometimes hard to tell on film on both of those, but overall, I also want to know, does he ever get to a second or third read? Which, again, gets hard because some of the coaches aren’t coaching guys to get to their second or third read. Will they check it down or are they always throwing the ball deep?”  

  “I think the first thing in general is, something has got to jump out to get your attention, and usually, you’d simply say ability to throw the football, and guys that are mechanically sound. They might make the list there.”  

So when a kid puts together a highlight tape, what should they remember?

  “I will tell you this: when a kid puts a video together, I don’t care how many fades or deep balls you complete. Do I want to see a couple? Sure. But for whatever reason, kids think dropping back and throwing the ball as high and far as they can is what I want to see and that is way down the checklist. I want to see a kid throw a comeback or a curl on time. I want to see a kid step up in the pocket and throw a dig. Whatever reason, kids think it’s all about throwing the deep ball. If we throw it 20 times, three or four are deep balls and rest are slants, hitches and that stuff.”  

One issue now is the early nature of recruiting forces coaches to evaluate players earlier and earlier, and at quarterback, that can be very hard to do. In speaking with several coaches and personnel directors, they believe that is the reason for the number of quarterbacks who slip through the cracks. The MAC for instance, always seems to have great quarterback play. Part of that is they are able to wait a little longer on evaluating kids, but even at this stage today, most MAC schools already have their commitment for 2015.

  “The hard part now is, teams offer, then do you have to offer to get in? But really, do you know how good he is yet? You want to be right because you only take one.”  
  “It’s not just us… everybody is like this now, but quarterback is different than every position we’re recruiting because kids make decisions before we can evaluate them in the spring. How many kids are committed now before April 15? The hard part is, how do we get to know these kids when we can’t go see throw personally during their junior year? How much different are they six months from now? Now we’re looking at sophomores.”  

Those early bloomers may have experience and polish, but that does not always translate to long term success.

  “We try to get to know the kids and look at who has had success at quarterback. Someone showed me a chart of the Elite 11 quarterbacks through the years and their success, and it was not a real high batting percentage.”  
  “We have a commitment from a kid, so now we’re looking at 2016. But you look at our commit, he didn’t play until his junior year, so we wouldn’t have known about him right now. We’re all infatuated with 2016 kids but the only ones are the ones who played. There are a bunch of kids who haven’t played yet. The ones who played are maybe more mature and ahead of curve, but the thing too is we want quarterbacks that win. What do they have? Generally, they’re high character kids, good leaders, intangible things that are hard to define. When we can’t get to know kids through the process, the only way is to have them visit campus or they call and you develop a relationship.”  

Yes, intangibles, by definition, something that is tough or impossible to quantify. So how do you find out if the town hot-shot quarterback is all brawn and no brains or if he’s the next great one?

  “Whenever I talk to a recruit I’m excited about, one of first questions I ask is, tell me what pass play you’re going to run on 3rd and 5 and describe it to me and if I can, I have them get up on the board and talk to me about it. Some kids are able to. You learn a lot as to how they describe the play, how much they describe different looks a defense can give them or do they say ‘I just dropback and look for this guy and if he’s not open then I throw it to this guy.’ Or does he say well, defense A, I go here, defense B go there, if they blitz, go here, how much knowledge do they have of the game? No question that is big time important.”
  “I always ask about is leadership. I love to hear that a kid’s a gym rat. Is he a kid that’s going to live in the film room? I don’t want a kid that loves video games. I’d rather have a kid that doesn’t play video games. And certainly, a kid has a 3.5 GPA and another kid has a 2.5 GPA and the rest is equal, I’m going to take the 3.5 kid.”  

Ok, so you go see a kid throw live, but he’s in a gym or on his team’s field, but it’s on air. How much stock can you put into those workouts?

  “You’ve got to put all of it together. You need to see film, factual information of him throwing the football, anticipating breaks, making decision, but how do you gauge decision making on a highlight film when it’s all completions? You need to see game film and see him throw live.”  
  “One of the two needs to be good; either film or the workout. Like [BCS QB commit], his film is good, but it’s not [that school] good. But he throws the ball extremely well in person now. I think a good example of that is Teddy Bridgewater. Teddy, people were talking about him for the Heisman, but his pro day was awful, but he’s still a multi-millionaire because his film is good enough. For the most part, I still want to see, whether it’s junior year or going into senior year, I want to see them throw in person if I can cause it’s something about in person watching a ball come out of a kid’s hand that’s important that you can’t always see on film. How easy does he throw it with velocity?”  

When looking at sophomores and juniors, coaches are seeing an unfinished product by and large, so one of my questions was, how do they balance what they can coach and change with a kid’s motion in the case that a talented kid is raw or do they want more finished products?

  “Obviously the less coaching I have to do on mechanics, the better, but that’s not always the case. I think the more athletic a kid is, the more apt he’s going to be able to change his release. I want a guy who’s going to be able to beat a defensive end and carry the ball a little and more athletic kids are generally going to have better feet. The whole release thing is hard because they’re not all classic, but can I get them to maybe carry the ball a little bit higher or follow through over the top or you can tinker a little bit, but it’s like buying a house, if you have to fix the whole thing up – I’m not a fixer upper guy – I’d rather buy a cheaper house that I have to do less on.”  
  “Sometimes, you’re scared of fixing someone mechanically because of how it’s all tied together and certain things with ball placement and first mechanics of movement as far as delivering the throw. Some guys wind it up and it’s hard to get the wind up out of there. Is he multi-sport guy? So it’s nice to have ak kid live in camp so you can see them throw for real, but they’re still very young. In terms of sophomores, and that’s sort of the reality, the kids at our camps became 2016 kids, they’re young as throwers and in terms of arm strength. But you like guys who are somewhat fine tuned. You don’t want to have to overhaul mechanics.”  

More and more schools are going to offenses that require the quarterback to, if no run with the ball, at least be able to move. That makes trying to evaluate a kid in a camp setting tough too because you’re taking those dual guys out of their element. But is there still room for the traditional dropback quarterback?

  “There is, within certain offenses, but there’s a greater importance -- even us, many tab us as pro-style offensively, but we want guys with the ability to extend play and are athletic enough to get out of trouble, and move their feet. It’s hard to take a quarterback who’s not a good athlete nowadays beause defenses emphasize pressure and speed on defense.”  

Then there is the question of fit. There are kids who simply find schools that fit them well and vice-versa. Jordan Lynch is an example I brought up of a kid who was wildly successful in the right offense for him.

  “Guys fit what you do offensively in a sense, but you also fit your strengths around him. Does NIU do that exact stuff with the guy they have this year? If he doesn’t have the same strengths running, maybe they don’t run the same things. You can fit what you do to a kid’s strengths too.”  

When it comes to quarterbacks, it may seem easy. They have the ball every play and in a camp setting, you can really see how a kid throws the ball. But development and projection can be tough, and as the coaches have made clear, the changing timeline of recruiting has rushed evaluation.

Yet, with such an important position, you can bet quarterbacks will continue to be poked, prodded, and carefully scouted, but you can also bet that a few will find their way through the cracks and have fans, media and coaches alike wondering where they came from.

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