Like any good researcher, Mark Schofield despises a small sample size. Unfortunately, prospect evaluation is almost always too early, or without all the information necessary. Thus, we have our series: On Two, in which Inside The Pylon examines two plays from a quarterback that address traits that scouts are talking about.
Cody Kessler entered the 2015 season with a chance to build on his gaudy numbers from 2014, and demonstrate improved traits on film to boost his draft stock. But the Trojans have suffered some unrest and turmoil off the field this year, and USC sits at 5-3, trailing both Utah and cross-town rival UCLA in the Pac-12 South.
The quarterback’s draft prospects have taken a hit as well. Average size and arm strength require Kessler to win from the pocket with above-average decision-making and anticipation. But through the first eight games of the year the quarterback has been inconsistent in these areas. Placing him under the microscope for two identical plays illustrates the differences between Good Kessler, and Bad Kessler.
On this play against Arkansas State, USC has Kessler in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field. The Trojans have two wide receivers in an inverted slot formation on the right, and another inverted slot left with tight end Taylor McNamara (#48) on the inside and WR Darreus Rogers (#1) outside. Fullback Soma Vainuku (#31) stands to the right of the quarterback.
The Red Wolves deploy a nickel package showing Cover 6. The defense puts the Cover 2 side of this scheme to the right side of the offense, placing the cornerback in press alignment over the outside receiver. Nickelback Charleston Girley (#13) lines up in a linebacker’s alignment, just to the outside of the left tackle:
The Trojans employ a spot concept to the left. The fullback runs a swing route, while the tight end executes a corner route. Rodgers runs the quick hitch, starting to the inside on a slant then hitting the breaks and finding a soft area in the coverage:
The progression on this play asks the quarterback to first look to the swing route in the flat, then to the snag route, and finally to the corner route. Kessler first looks to the running back on the swing in the flat. But as you can see from the image above, Girley has identified the deep motion and is breaking on the fullback before the snap. So the quarterback abandons the swing route and moves to his second read, Rogers on the snag route:
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This is Good Kessler. Moving from his first read to his second quickly and showing great ball-placement and timing. The throw is coming out just as Rogers is settling into the underneath zone. The timing and placement of the pass put the WR in position to secure the football and turn upfield after the catch, before defenders can close on him. When Kessler is in rhythm he can use anticipation and timing to mitigate his arm strength, and puts receivers in position to pick up yardage after the catch.
Now, Bad Kessler. Against Washington the Trojans face 1st and 19 early in the first quarter. This will be Kessler’s third pass attempt of the game: His first attempt resulted in a sack, the second was intercepted on a deep sideline route after bird dogging his receiver.
The set up here is largely the same: USC lines up with an 11 package, using slot formation left and TE Tyler Petite (#82) inside of WR Steven Mitchell Jr. (#7). Kessler is in the shotgun with running back Justin Davis (#22) on his right and all-purpose athlete Adoree’ Jackson (#2) to his left. The defense is similar: Washington has five defensive backs in the game, showing Cover 2, with the corners in press man technique on the outside and nickelback Kevin King (#20) lined up just inside of the tight end:
Jackson, his first read, is technically open, without a defender within 11 yards of him. But look at Mitchell and King. The nickelback is to the outside of the snag route, breaking forward on Jackson’s swing route. Mitchell is open on his snag route, with a linebacker inside of him but no threat to break up any throw in his direction. King is also no threat to Mitchell on the snag route, as the nickelback is screaming forward on the swing route to Jackson.
This is the same exact look as the previous example.
With the NB breaking forward on the swing route Kessler can take the easy throw to Mitchell on the snag route, like he has done before. Or, he can do this:
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The QB swings the ball toward the sideline on the swing route, but Kessler’s throw hangs in the air, behind Jackson, forcing the receiver to stop and turn. This allows King to close, and he blows this play up for an eight-yard loss.
This angles shows Kessler working through his reads. You can see him flash his helmet inside before deciding to throw to Jackson on the swing route:
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The context is crucial to trying to understand Kessler’s decision making here, given the sack and interception on his previous two pass attempts. So when he drops to throw on this play, in light of the recent history, he makes a very risk-averse decision which costs him – and Jackson.
It is also a decision that flies in the face of what Kessler has done previously. Against Arkansas State the QB saw the same exact look from the defense, but was confident in himself and the scheme to work through his reads. He trusted what he saw from the defense, and showed patience in waiting for the nickelback to clear the throwing lane before throwing the snag route. Once he processed the information available and made the decision to throw to his second read, he delivered a well-timed and accurate throw that put his receiver in position to pick up additional yardage.
But facing the same exact situation weeks later, after some adversity, he makes a much different decision. Even though this route concept asks Kessler to choose between two short pass patterns, his decision on the second play is a very conservative, risk averse decision. One that is confounding given his previous decisiveness on the same design. As a quarterback you are going to make mistakes, but you cannot let previous errors alter your decision-making or question what your eyes are seeing. Kessler lets that happen on the second play, and it costs his team. .
When in rhythm, Kessler can be a very effective quarterback who relies on timing and anticipation to puts his receivers in position to excel after the catch. He can also flash arm strength from time to time, when throwing from a clean pocket and given time to generate upper body torque. But given his physical limitations, he needs to consistently excel in areas such as decision-making in order to make it in the NFL. These two plays demonstrate inconsistency and he needs to improve for scouts and evaluators to think his potential might translate to an NFL offense.
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Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.
All video and images courtesy ESPN.