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.
Perhaps no quarterback in recent memory is more a victim of recent success as the draft process unfolds than Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones. After his impressive run to the national championship in 2014, Jones was considered a possible a first-round selection. But the signal-caller returned to campus in 2015, despite not being certain he’d even be the number-one quarterback for the Buckeyes in the fall. With Braxton Miller moving to wide receiver, Jones won the job over J.T. Barrett, but failed to duplicate his exploits from the previous season. Now entering the draft with only 10 collegiate starts to his credit, he remains a raw talent at the position.
But when you look past some of the rawness, what you find can be impressive. One such notable trait is his play speed. Even with his modest level of experience, Jones can work through progressions and diagnose plays with tremendous quickness, and when you add his arm talent and physical abilities to this package, it makes for a very potent offensive weapon.
This trait was on full display in Ohio State’s win over Oregon in the 2015 National Championship Game. After a Jones fumble led to the Ducks cutting the Buckeyes’ lead to one with a touchdown, the QB responded with this impressive throw on the next drive. Facing 1st and 10 on his own 37-yard line, Jones is in the shotgun as OSU empties the backfield using 11 personnel. They employ trips formation to the right with running back Ezekiel Elliott (#15) as the inside receiver, and use slot formation to the left with tight end Nick Vannett (#81) inside. Oregon has its 4-2-5 nickel defense showing a single-high safety, and nickelback Khalil Oliver (#26) slides outside over the TE:
Jones will read Oliver and decide where to go with the football. Should the defensive back buzz to the outside in a zone coverage scheme, Jones will take the inside slant route to Vannett. But if the defender stays home on Vannett, then Jones has a nice throwing lane to squeeze in the slant route to Thomas on the outside. With the football on the right hashmark and Thomas split to the top of the numbers, Jones will need to pull the trigger quickly, and deliver the throw with some zip:
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Jones does just that. He executes a quick, fluid three-step drop and as he drives his right foot into the turf, he knows that Oliver is in man coverage on the tight end, so the ball is coming out to the sideline. The QB delivers a rocket that arrives well before cornerback Chris Seisay (#12) can break on the throw, and also well before Oliver can pull off the TE and break under the pass. The play-speed from the quarterback, as well as the arm talent and ball placement, put Thomas in perfect position to pick up yardage after the catch.
It is rare that I can watch a screen play and walk away impressed with how the QB executes the design, but Jones might be the exception to this – and many – rules. Against Penn State, in 2015, the Buckeyes face 3rd and 6 on their own 39-yard line as Jones stands in the shotgun alone with 11 personnel on the field. The offense has slot formation to the right with Vannett on the inside, and trips alignment to the left with Elliott again the inside receiver. Penn State’s 3-3-5 nickel defense shows straight man coverage, with the cornerback over the outside trips receiver in press alignment, while the weakside cornerback uses off man technique:
The first option is a swing screen to Elliott to the right side. The RB comes in deep motion behind the quarterback before running the swing route to the outside. The slot receivers both set up to block for the RB. But should the defense overcommit to this side of the field, the offense has a second option. The Buckeyes set up a tunnel screen to Thomas on the other side of the field, with the center and both guards releasing downfield to block for the WR.
As the play develops, Jones looks to the RB swing screen and eyes safety Malik Golden (#6) racing to the outside to cover Elliott on the screen. Seeing this, the QB pulls his head back to the left before he even finishes his drop, and throws the tunnel screen:
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The quick recognition and decision from Jones – as well as the velocity on the throw and the ball placement – play a big role in the yardage Thomas picks up after the catch. But what might be most impressive is the anticipation from Jones, an offshoot of the play speed here. Look at where each player is on the field when Jones starts to pull the trigger:
Some quarterbacks might wait here until the picture becomes clearer, but Jones does not. He leads Thomas into a crowded area, but in the process he throws the receiver open. By showing no hesitation, Jones pulls Thomas behind the trio of blockers, setting up the play perfectly. Where some QBs might double-clutch, Jones shows a great understanding of the play design, and no fear.
Jones needs some polish to his game. In addition to improving on ball placement and demonstrating better touch when the situation calls for it, there are moments when the QB needs to restrain himself a bit and dial down the aggression. But in a quarterback class filled with perhaps a few diamonds in the rough, with the right landing spot Jones might shine the brightest.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.