The top tier of this year’s class of draft-eligible quarterbacks has crystallized over the past few months: Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky and Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer all have a strong case for first-round consideration, and barring a disaster all four will be off the board by the middle of the draft’s second night. But as analysts pick apart each player’s game and project what he could be at his best, it’s important to remember no quarterback is immune from the occasional off day.
Watson tossed three interceptions in his only loss of a national championship season. Mahomes completed only 50% of his passes in a blowout loss to an Iowa State team that finished ninth in the Big 12. After throwing just four interceptions all year, Trubisky threw two against Stanford in the Sun Bowl. And Kizer’s breakout season cooled off when Boston College dealt him the first and only three-pick game of his career.
So what exactly did these defenses do to stump the QBs who will dominate the draft discussion at the end of April? We picked the brains of the coaches and defensive coordinators on the opposite sidelines for a firsthand explanation of each signal-caller’s sub-par performance.
More than four months later, Pat Narduzzi still can’t believe it.
The Pittsburgh coach had long thought his Panthers forced Watson to throw the ball 50 times in their 43-42 upset win over Clemson in November.
“I think they threw it over 50 times, which is not good for any offense, especially in college,” Narduzzi said. “When you throw it 50 times, something bad is going to happen.”
Actually, Coach, Watson threw the ball 70 times.
“He threw 70 times?!”
The Panthers forced the two-time Heisman finalist into the worst day of his spectacular junior season. Watson completed 52 of those 70 pass attempts but tossed three interceptions — including two costly ones in the red zone — in Clemson’s only loss of the year.
Narduzzi’s defense had played some top quarterbacks leading up to the Clemson game: Trubisky, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and Miami’s Brad Kaaya. Pittsburgh had combined to give up 133 points and 1,349 passing yards in those three games, all road losses. Something had to change.
Pittsburgh had struggled at the cornerback position all season, and even though Narduzzi likes to play press coverage, he knew it wouldn’t be in his team’s best interest to do it against Clemson. The Tigers boasted several athletic receivers, most notably Mike Williams, and a couple of deep shots could sink the upset bid.
“We fell victim to so many great quarterbacks this year that it wasn’t necessarily the coverage or the players, it was more of … I say a fade ball is 50/50 but really it’s 80/20 [in favor of the offense],” Narduzzi said. “And through my stats as a defensive coordinator at Michigan State, it’s more like 90/10. We faced a lot of great quarterbacks and we were kind of scared with Deshaun where it was like, ‘Hey, let’s not do it again.’ We had enough of them.”
The Panthers gave up a lot of yards to Clemson. Watson threw for 580 yards, which set an ACC single-game record, but he got there without many deep passes — his longest completion was just 31 yards. Playing mostly Cover-4 throughout the game, Pittsburgh let Watson have the underneath throws as long as he didn’t blow open the top of the secondary.
The visitors’ first break came early in the game when Ryan Lewis intercepted a Watson pass thrown into double coverage in the end zone, preserving an early 7-0 lead. Midway through the second quarter, Watson threw his second interception on a pass that glanced off Deon Cain’s fingertips and was corralled by Avante Maddox at the Clemson 14. Pittsburgh turned that into a 10-play possession that ended in a touchdown to go back up 27-21.
Some of the biggest mistakes came on Clemson’s final two possessions. The Tigers led 42-34 with just more than five minutes left in the game and had the ball at the Pittsburgh 3-yard line. Watson used a play-action fake and threw into the end zone between two Tiger receivers — but there were three Panther defenders waiting. Linebacker Saleem Brightwell picked off Watson and returned the ball 70 yards to Clemson’s 30. Pitt would score a touchdown three plays later to cut the deficit to just two.
“You watch NFL guys throw picks and they’re sitting in the pocket and you have five linemen protecting for you and four guys rushing and there are nine people and they get in those windows where you can’t really see,” Narduzzi said. “I think [Brightwell] was just covered up by a guy to the point where he wasn’t in Deshaun’s vision.”
The Panthers trusted their front four to be able to stop the run like it had all season — they finished ninth in the nation allowing 108.9 rushing yards per game. They didn’t just bottle up Watson for just 8 yards on five rushes (a 1.6 yard/carry average that marked his career worst as a starter); they also allowed just 50 rushing yards on 25 attempts in total, and they stood tall twice against short-yardage runs at their own 35-yard line to get the ball back in the final minute and set up Chris Blewitt’s game-winning 48-yard field goal.
Watson put up more modest numbers on several occasions throughout his career, including hard-fought wins over No. 6 Notre Dame in 2015 and No. 3 Louisville in ’16, but the Pittsburgh loss revealed a flash of the turnover-prone side of his game that may give NFL teams pause. Two of his three interceptions were end-zone throws into coverage that took critical points off the board.
“I just wanted to win,” Watson said after the game when asked about his new conference passing record. “I could have went 0-for-30 and zero passing yards and get the W. That’s all that matters.”
— Jonathan Jones
The plan for Jon Heacock and his Iowa State defense was the same as it always is. Pressure the quarterback. Get him off his spot and force him out of the pocket. Make him uncomfortable. Change schemes, disguise coverages and alternate fronts, constantly giving him something new to think about.
It’s a simple, two-pronged system: affect the quarterback physically, affect the quarterback mentally. But on Nov. 19, as Iowa State faced off against Mahomes and the prodigious Texas Tech offense, it was even more important than usual.
“We just felt that we couldn’t allow him to throw the way he had been throwing,” Heacock says. “We didn’t want to give him the same look twice or he’d kill you. So we knew we had to get him doing something different. If you didn’t, you were going to be the end result of what everyone else was. And that’s not a lot of fun.”
Mahomes led the Red Raiders into Ames piloting an offense that had averaged 46 points per game, good for second in the nation. He had thrown for 4,247 yards over the first 10 games of his junior season, 637 more than the next closest passer. His 34 passing touchdowns ranked third in the nation (his 46 total touchdowns were good for second), and his 4,540 total yards led the country. And while not a burner in the open field, Mahomes was still a threat with his feet — his 12 rushing touchdowns (fourth among QBs) were proof positive for any potentially skeptical Cyclone defender.
“He had great command of their offense, and he can make all the throws,” Heacock says. “Plus his demeanor on the field, his savvy, he’s awfully, awfully talented. So we tried to do everything we could to not be one-dimensional. If you start doing the same thing on defense a bunch [against him], it will be a bad day for you.”
The Iowa State defense was no juggernaut, entering the day allowing 31.7 points per game, 91st in the country. Already that season it had allowed 42 to Iowa, 41 to TCU and 45 to Baylor. And yet…
By the second drive of the game, Mahomes was already under constant duress. Heacock’s plan was to force the quarterback out to his left, which would make it more difficult for Mahomes, a righty thrower, to effectively see the field.
“We did not want him to set his feet,” Heacock says. “He’s a dangerous dude sitting back there in the pocket. He will wear you out. So we felt like we had to get him off his spot, and if we were going to do that we wanted him going away from his real sight of vision.”
The Cyclones’ most effective blitz is not really a blitz at all. Heacock often establishes one defender to sit back as a “quarterback spy,” and as the play develops, if the defender sees an opening to get to the QB, he has the freedom to rush. Against Mahomes, Heacock often tabbed sophomore linebacker Willie Harvey for the job. And on the Red Raiders’ second offensive drive, as Mahomes dropped back and surveyed the field, he found his receivers swarmed. After the running back split out into the flat, Harvey saw his opening and pummeled the unprotected QB. It would be the first of only two sacks for Iowa State on the day, but it was a harbinger of the constant pressure Mahomes would have to contend with.
Later in the drive Mahomes took off on a designed QB run. He managed 7 yards but finished the play by lowering his non-throwing shoulder into a defender. He stayed in for the remaining five plays of the series — which ended in a field goal — and the first play of the next series before crumpling to the ground in pain. Mahomes would be taken to the locker room and miss a little more than four minutes of game time. By the time he got back on the field, Texas Tech was already trailing 21-3.
The Cyclones would get more help, still. On the second play after Mahomes returned, a botched handoff resulted in a fumble. 28-3, Iowa State. Then, with desperation setting in among the Red Raiders, a fourth-down attempt came up empty. 35-3, Iowa State.
Mahomes, now frantic for points, constantly under pressure, not comfortable mentally or physically, had to start heaving the ball downfield. Midway through the second quarter, he threw off his back foot and into double coverage over the middle on a third-and-10. The resulting interception went back 48 yards for a touchdown: 42-3, Iowa State, before the halftime whistle even sounded.
The game would end 66-10. Mahomes would throw another interception, in the fourth quarter, which tied for the second highest total of his collegiate career. His 50.0% completion rate and 217 total yards were his worst numbers of the season. Clearly laboring with the injury, Mahomes stayed in for the entire the game, despite the blowout.
“My respect went up for him after that, even more than it was before,” Heacock says. “He was obviously trying to do everything he could to help his team.”
As for Mahomes’ NFL future? The usual knock against him is Texas Tech’s Air Raid scheme, which carries a stigma in NFL circles. It’s a pass-first (and pass-second, and pass-third) offensive system, predicated on predetermined reads and quick strikes, and it lets the quarterback operate solely out of shotgun.
Heacock, for one, is not too worried about all of that noise. Regardless of what system a college team runs, Heacock believes that playing quarterback in college is vastly different than playing quarterback in the pros. Rarely do you see any college quarterbacks running pro style offenses these days.
“I would have to think drafting a quarterback this day and age would be somewhere near a nightmare,” Heacock explains. “It’s like trying to say that a guy will be a great defensive player [in the NFL] but he plays offense [in college].
“But [Mahomes] sure seems like he’s a talented dude. I certainly would have to think a guy with his stature and his experience running an offense, he’d have to be a pretty high [draft] choice.”
— Ben Baskin
Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson acknowledges that when he started studying Trubisky before the Sun Bowl, he didn’t see first-round talent. He wondered, This guy is really going to be the top quarterback in the draft?
But Anderson kept watching. Once he moved past Trubisky’s zero-touchdown opener against Georgia and on to his five-score outing against Pittsburgh and the nine TDs the junior tallied over his final three games of the regular season, the 20-year coach began to see it: the elite mobility, the pro arm.
“The biggest area of improvement was, as the year went on, his decision making got better and better,” Anderson says of Trubisky, who threw four interceptions in all of 2016. “That’s really impressive for a guy in his first year starting.”
During his first drive at the Sun Bowl, Trubisky evaded linebacker Peter Kalambayi in the backfield on one play and threaded passes around defenders on two other occasions, including a 19-yard touchdown strike to Ryan Switzer that capped a 10-play, 71-yard opening statement. The QB looked to be headed for an impressive game to cap his UNC career.
But that changed quickly. Over the rest of the first half — nearly 25 minutes of game time — Stanford held UNC to 37 total yards of offense over five possessions. A simple formula was bearing fruit. First, the Cardinal moved defensive end Solomon Thomas around to attack Carolina’s protection, and although Trubisky made several plays with his feet, the consistent pressure affected his timing. The second element was something of a Stanford specialty.
“We have so many guys that are students of the game; they like to pick up on tendencies and find ways we could attack something or disguise a coverage a certain way,” Anderson says. “We have a lot of fun with that, and with the benefit of having extra time to prepare, we thought we could go back and make a lot of things we do coverage-wise look like something else.”
Fifth-year senior safety Dallas Lloyd was one of those students of the game Anderson was talking about. In a normal week, Lloyd would watch four full games from an opponent on top of the traditional reps against the scout team, and with the luxury of extra time during bowl season he was able to watch seven UNC games. Cardinal players are taught to treat opponents as nameless and faceless, so Lloyd just knew Trubisky as “10”, but from the tape alone he figured this would be the best QB he would see all season — and that was after facing Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, Washington’s Jake Browning, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, and (in limited duty) USC’s Sam Darnold). The first drive of the Sun Bowl confirmed that belief, as Trubisky found Switzer for the opening score before Lloyd could reach the receiver in the seam.
Lloyd recognized that Trubisky’s arm strength was worth respecting, but he stuck to Stanford’s plan of disguising every coverage the defense could, starting close to the line of scrimmage before sprinting back when the D ran schemes with two high safeties and doing the opposite at the beginning of single-high calls. He even held the false looks for a beat longer than he might normally have.
Three minutes into the second quarter, the technique paid off. Trubisky assumed Lloyd was on the other side of the field when the QB, faced with a defender at his legs (remember: pressure) threw over the middle — except that’s exactly where Lloyd had drifted to, following Trubisky’s eyes to the spot. Lloyd snagged the interception and ran it back 45 yards.
Early in the fourth quarter, Stanford set up the same trap, with Lloyd staying back in a two-high look pre-snap before moving to the flat to cover a back Trubisky likely figured had been left open by a blitzing linebacker. This time, Lloyd finished the job, picking off the pass and returning it for a go-ahead touchdown.
Uncertainty with coverages and staring down targets is typical of inexperienced young quarterbacks, Anderson says, which is why they rarely go early in the NFL draft. But three drives later, Trubisky showed why he still could be the first signal-caller taken.
Starting at his own 3-yard line with 1:30 left and needing a touchdown, Trubisky completed three straight passes, including a 44-yard beauty down the sideline. Then he found Switzer just outside of Lloyd’s grasp again, this time at Stanford’s 1-yard line. Two plays later, Trubisky turned a sure sack into a touchdown, shaking Kalambayi and throwing across the field — a unique ability Lloyd had identified in game prep — to Bug Howard in the back of the end zone, bringing the Tar Heels within two with 25 seconds left.
“It was what we were scared of the whole game,” Anderson says. “He gets a hot hand. We would have loved to end it right there with a sack, but it was just a great display of his athleticism and poise.”
The Cardinal did end it on the ensuing two-point conversion, though. On the snap, Thomas busted through the offensive line. This time Trubisky trusted his legs a little too much, opting to spin and extend the play rather than hitting his check-down option. As the QB looked to make a second straight cross-field pass, Thomas — with the help of several other defenders — brought him down for good.
Trubisky’s natural ability has gotten him far, but in El Paso, pressure, disguise and inexperience ultimately sealed the Tar Heels’ fate in his final college game.
— Jacob Feldman
Greg M. Cooper
The first interception Kizer threw against Boston College was ill-advised. Rolling to his right, he tried to squeeze a shoulda-been throwaway into the end zone, only to hit Eagles safety John Johnson instead. But it was Kizer’s second pick that he later called “completely idiotic.”
The man partly responsible for the least consistent performance of Kizer’s breakout 2015 season — 21 of 39 through the air for a season-high 324 yards but three interceptions in a 19-16 victory that the QB called “very humbling” in the aftermath — was BC head coach Steve Addazio, who game plans slightly differently when he’s preparing for a pro-caliber quarterback. Normally, “You want to see what a team’s strengths are and do whatever you can to take that strength away or limit it,” Addazio says. Simple enough. But often times, a top quarterback doesn’t present obvious flaws. A guy like Kizer — or a dude, as Addazio might say — can methodically pick you apart, burn you on big plays, or make you look silly with his legs, even when you defend him soundly. In response to that type of challenge, many coaches would preach discipline in conservative schemes. “That’s a slow death,” Addazio says. He prefers havoc.
So in the week leading up to the primetime game at Fenway Park, Addazio installed a new scheme against the zone read (Kizer had scored two TDs on the ground against Wake Forest the previous week) and also added a new all-out pressure to the playbook. “We weren’t bashful,” he says. “We were just going to throw caution to the wind and create as much pressure as we could, create as much confusion as possible.” Addazio wanted chaos, and he got it, forcing four Notre Dame turnovers during the first seven possessions.
Then, with a minute remaining in the first half and the Irish nearing midfield, he forced Kizer into that “idiotic” decision after sending linebacker Steven Daniels up the middle on a surprise third-and-10 blitz. Kizer reacted by taking one hop backward and then, off his back foot, lofting a ball over the middle of the field. Given the all-out pressures he had seen throughout the half, he likely figured there wouldn’t be over-the-top help on tight end Alizé Jones, who had beaten his man up the seam. Only after he’d thrown the ball did Kizer see safety Justin Simmons (now with the Broncos) enter the picture in time to make a diving interception. That led to an exclamation of frustration, a head-hanging walk to the sideline, and a lecture from Brian Kelly while on the bench.
It was followed by interception No. 3 on the first drive of the second half. Kizer had opened with back-to-back completions for a combined 51 yards to reach the red zone, but three plays later he misread BC’s defense while facing oncoming rushers, flipping a pass in the direction of Eagles tackle Truman Gutapfel, who batted the ball into the air. Simmons came down with it for his second pick of the night.
Of course, Addazio understood his aggressive strategy was as risky as it was rewarding. So while he and BC did hold Kizer to his second-lowest completion percentage in college and forced a career-high three interceptions, Kizer also threw five passes for more than 25 yards, amassed 324 total yards through the air, and helped Notre Dame escape with a victory. Still, the Eagles’ performance showed that the right amount of havoc, particularly on an unfamiliar stage like Fenway, could force him off his game.