After the consensus top two quarterbacks, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, there is no sure thing. As teams prepare for the NFL Draft they will be reviewing the film on prospects like Old Dominion QB Taylor Heinicke.
When Old Dominion’s new football stadium is completed, it may become known as the “House that Heinicke Built.” The school’s football program disbanded in 1941 and did not re-emerge until 2009. The Monarchs played as an independent at the FCS level until 2011, when they joined the Colonial Athletic Association. That year freshman quarterback Taylor Heinicke completed 68.7 percent of his passes for 2,385 yards and 25 touchdowns with only one interception, as the Monarchs earned a berth in the FCS playoffs. In 2012 Heinicke won the Walter Payton Award as the top player in FCS, again completing 68.7 percent of his throws. His 5,076 yards, 44 TDs and 14 INTs became new benchmarks and his play helped Old Dominion advance to the FCS Quarterfinals, where they lost to Georgia Southern.
In July 2012, ODU accepted an invitation to join Conference USA in all sports. This signaled a move up for football to the Division I FBS level, beginning as an independent in 2013. That year Heinicke completed 70 percent of his passes for 4,022 yards and 33 touchdowns. The Monarchs began C-USA play the following season, Heinicke’s senior campaign, and finished 6-6 with victories over Eastern Michigan and Rice (a bowl participant). Once again the QB posted impressive offensive numbers, completing 289 of 457 passes (63%) for 3,476 yards and 30 touchdowns with 16 interceptions.
Tale of the Tape
Heinicke is listed at 6’1” and 213 pounds. He was not invited to the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine but participated in the East-West Shrine Game. According to scouts, he was the most impressive quarterback the week of practices leading up to the game. During the contest, however, he struggled, completing only 2 of 9 passes for 14 yards with one interception.
What He Does Well
A Veteran Presence
Because of the number of games under his belt, Heinicke displays the ability to work through progressions and read defenses like… well, a four-year starter. In addition, the QB has solid footwork and mechanics when given a clean pocket. He displays the ability to work through his progressions from the pocket until he finds the open receiver.
On this play against Vanderbilt, Old Dominion has a slot formation to each side of the field: on the right, the slot receiver runs a seam route while the outside receiver runs a quick out; on the left, the outside receiver runs a slant while the inside receiver executes a quick out. Heinicke scans through all four receivers before making his decision:
The quarterback checks both play-side reads to his right, determines that they are covered, and then works through his two back-side reads. He finally delivers a good throw, late in the play on the slant route, which the receiver drops.
Heinicke also knows how to anticipate a route and “throw a receiver open,” delivering a slant route to the inside slot receiver on the left:
The Vanderbilt defense is in zone with the underneath defender lurking between Heinicke and his target. But rather than wait for the receiver to break open, the quarterback anticipates the route and throws before the receiver clears the defender. This leads the WR into an open area with a chance to make a play on the ball – “throwing him open.” Heinicke exhibits great timing as he works within the play structure and is confident in his ability and his teammate.
The veteran quarterback also has the ability to move defenders with his eyes, freeing receivers in the process. This play finds Heinicke in the shotgun with trips to his right and one receiver split wide to the left (out of the picture). The defense runs Cover 3 on this play, and watch how the quarterback manipulates the free safety by staring down the receiver to the left:
Heinicke’s eyes move the safety a few steps, which is enough space for the inside trips receiver on a seam route. The quarterback delivers a strong, accurate throw for a completion.
Finally, Heinicke exhibits good footwork in the pocket and climbs the pocket well:
The quarterback is always on the balls of his feet and executes short, quick steps in the pocket. This keeps him in sound throwing position and, once his receiver breaks open, he sets and throws very quickly.
Young quarterbacks sometimes panic in these situations: they stop looking downfield and begin to break the pocket with bigger steps. Instead, using short, quick steps to remain in passer mode, Heinicke manages to unleash a good throw late in the play.
Mechanics and Accuracy
Heinicke’s sound mechanics begin with his footwork and continue all the way up. The quarterback uses his lower body and his left, lead arm to generate power through each throw, and most of his passes hit their targets.
From the end zone angle (shown in the next clip below), you can see how his mechanics enable him to generate power on the pass. He uses a very short lead step with his left foot, and uses his left hand to pull him through the release point, creating torque on the pass.
Heinicke drives through his front foot very well, generating a last little bit of power on the throw with a final push off left foot at the release point. He follows through on each pass in sound fashion, through the target and down towards his left thigh:
Here are a few more examples of his mechanics – and accuracy. First, watch the ball placement on this slant route:
This pass is right to the top of the receiver’s numbers and toward the middle of the field. Mechanically, Heinicke is perfect on this throw. He uses that short lead step, flashes his left arm and hand up, pulls the right arm forward using that off-hand, and then drives through his front foot at the moment of release.
Another slant route, this time on the goal line against Cover 0:
You could use that clip to teach young quarterbacks proper throwing mechanics. He again uses the short lead step, and drives through his front foot on the throw. Heinicke delivers a strong and accurate pass here and the defender is helpless to prevent the touchdown.
On the deep out route, watch his footwork as he climbs the pocket – again using quick, short steps to come forward and driving through the front foot. Heinicke delivers a tight spiral, placing it perfectly along the sideline:
Finally, Heinicke also has sound mechanics while on the move. This play is a designed rollout to the right:
Watch his left shoulder: the quarterback keeps it pinned towards the target until he begins the throw, which allows him to generate torque on the pass with a strong turn of the shoulder prior to the release. Again, these nearly flawless mechanics lead to a perfectly thrown pass.
The Crowded Pocket
Heinicke lacks arm strength and, while his mechanics allow him to generate strong throws, he also operates best from a clean pocket. When in traffic or with defenders at his feet, he cannot use his mechanics to generate strength in his throws. At those times, his passes lack zip and the timing of throws and routes is off.
Additionally, bodies around him can affect his accuracy. Several times in the Vanderbilt game Heinicke missed throws because of traffic in the pocket. He needs to demonstrate to NFL scouts and coaches that he can make strong, accurate throws in the face of incoming rushers.
Protect the Football
Heinicke struggled at times in 2014 with interceptions. He set a career high with sixteen picks, and turned in several multiple-INT games: two against Hampton, three against Middle Tennessee, two against Western Kentucky and four against Louisiana Tech. On some occasions Heinicke forced passes into coverage, but often pressure in the pocket prevented him from delivering strong throws, giving defenders chances to make plays on underthrown balls.
Here, Heinicke’s receiver has a step on his defender on a go route, but pressure in the interior gets to the QB:
Heinicke’s throw is behind the receiver and to the inside of the field, allowing the defender to recover on the football and snare it.
This next play shows the interception Heinicke threw in the East-West Shrine Game. Slight pressure from the interior prevents the quarterback from getting enough steam on the football, resulting in a late throw and allowing the cornerback to cut under the receiver for the pickoff:
Heinicke lacks the physical stature of other quarterbacks in this draft class, and does not fit the prototypical NFL quarterback mold. While there have been successful NFL quarterbacks with similar size (Drew Brees stands 6’0” and weighs 209 pounds) Heinicke needs to find a system that fits his physical traits and abilities as a quarterback to stay in the NFL.
Colt McCoy, the same height as Heinicke, has had trouble securing a starting job, though injuries have played a role. However, McCoy can be productive in the right system and ranks as one of the better backup QBs in the NFL.
Heinicke is a Day 3 prospect. Having not been invited to the scouting combine, he needs to turn in an impressive display at his Pro Day (scheduled for March 19th) to improve his draft stock. Because of the lack of depth in this quarterback class, he is likely to be selected late in the draft, but he faces a tough road to a starting job in the NFL.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.