It is a tradition as tried and true as any during the draft cycle: Quarterbacks are built up, torn down, and built up anew. Running backs are broken down to the nth degree, receivers are scrutinized for every route they have run, and edge defenders are analyzed down to the flexion in their ankles. But another tradition of draft season, enjoyed by scouts, evaluators, and the denizens of #DraftTwitter alike is trying to find that diamond in the rough. Perhaps that player has been found early this season in quarterback Antonio Pipkin, from NCAA Division II Tiffin University. Not only has the senior signal-caller been listed by Mel Kiper as one of his top 10 draft QBs, but Pipkin recently announced a Senior Bowl invitation. Is he indeed that diamond many seek?
Looking through his tape, there are a few things that stand out. He will have some questions to answer as he goes through the draft process, and two in particular are processing speed and arm talent. On tape he has the velocity and arm strength to succeed against his current level of competition, but will he be able to challenge tighter throwing windows against more talented and quicker defenders? In addition, as with any quarterback making the move to the next level, the ability to read and react to defenses at a faster pace is a prerequisite for success at the position. For Pipkin, that learning curve will be steeper coming from a Division II program. The chance to compete in Mobile for a week against other draft prospects, many from a higher level of competition, will certainly go a long way toward answering those questions.
But there is a part of his game film that does stand out in a much more positive manner, and it is an aspect of playing quarterback that is almost instinctual, and can be honed after years of work: feel – for the pocket and the ability to maintain composure. As my friend and colleague Dan Hatman describes it: “Is he a fighter in the pocket?” Watching Pipkin, you certainly see that trait, and he might even be at his best when forced to move around in the pocket and create.
On this first play against Ferris State from 2015, Pipkin (#2) stands in the shotgun. The Dragons use 10 offensive personnel, with matching slot formations on either side of the field. The Bulldogs have their 4-2-5 nickel defense on the field. Tiffin runs a matching go / curl concept to each side of the field, while the defense drops into a Cover 6 look, with the Cover 2 side of the coverage toward the short side of the field, the right side of the offense:
As he drops, Pipkin first reads this play to the wide side of the field, peeking at the vertical route. With the cornerback playing off and giving a big cushion, that route is covered, so the QB then checks the curl to that side, which is covered as well. Pipkin then works to the right side of the offense, checking the other curl. But the linebacker has dropped under that route. By this time, the pocket is starting to break down:
Pipkin could tuck and go here, but he simply tries to find some space in the pocket, sliding a bit to his right and using his left arm to protect himself and the ball from the edge defender. He then quickly resets and makes a throw to the fourth read in the progression, the vertical route along the right sideline, that comes from an awkward platform:
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This play shows good feel for the pocket, as well as a great understanding of the route structure and the coverage. Pipkin knows that the outside along the sideline is the weak spot in the coverage, so he trusts that he’ll have a shot putting the football out to that receiver. This is the kind of play you would expect from a player with 44 collegiate games’ worth of experience, regardless of the level of competition.
Sometimes, feel for the pocket can be the difference between a big play, and a shot to the back that you never see coming. Pipkin displays that almost Tom Brady-esque ability to feel defenders behind him, and spin or slide away from trouble before the rush gets home on the blind side. Now, feel for that rush can be aided by a knowledge of the pass protection scheme, and knowing which defenders are unblocked.
On this play against the Bulldogs, Tiffin empties the backfield with three receivers to the left, and slot formation to the right. Ferris State’s 4-2-5 nickel defense shows Cover 0, with the defensive backs using off man technique:
With the backfield empty, the offense has only five linemen to protect the QB on this play. Against a six-man defensive front, if both linebackers blitz, the offense will have to leave someone unaccounted for. That defender is then the quarterback’s responsibility. Here, the Dragons slide the protection to the right, meaning if both linebackers blitz, the defensive end on Pipkin’s blind side will be untouched:
That’s exactly what happens. But knowing the protection scheme allows Pipkin to make an informed decision, and at the last minute he spins out of trouble before uncorking a very good throw on a vertical route:
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The pass is just out of the receiver’s hands, but from the pre-snap phase to the release, Pipkin shows feel and command of the play structure, the pocket, and the situation.
Part of fighting in the pocket requires the quarterback to show some patience while everything collapses around him and the play design turns on its head. As a quarterback you might feel the urge to simply get the football out of your hands as quickly as possible, but that might play right into the defensive structure. It’s imperative to maintain as clear a head as you can, and exploit the opportunities that arise downfield. On this 2015 play against Hillsdale College, we see that at work. This game was an interesting evaluation, given the context of the conditions. It was played in the rain, so we can see Pipkin battle not just the defense, but the elements. On a fourth down situation, he lines up in the pistol in a 2X2 formation, with the football on the left hashmark. The Chargers have their base 4-3 defense on the field. The Dragons use a shallow cross concept between the two slot receivers, while the outside receivers run vertical routes. The defense plays Cover 2:
Pipkin takes the snap and executes a solid three-step drop, and looks to throw. He initially wants to throw the dig route coming from the right slot, but he doesn’t pull the trigger (this is another area he’ll need to address, which is throwing with anticipation, as this route looks to be open). At this point he slides in the pocket to his left, and looks for another target. But as he starts to throw to the checkdown, the protection breaks down on the edge:
So he exits out the back of the pocket, and then angles toward his right. As he does, his receivers start to adjust their routes in the scramble drill. Pipkin has a chance to hit one of the receivers who breaks vertically, but rather than rush a difficult throw in tough conditions, he shows patience, waiting for a better option:
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At the last moment, he makes a throw along the sideline that goes for a first down and moves the chains. From the end zone angle, you can see how the play unfolds, from his initial work in the pocket, to his escape, to the vertical route he could have thrown in the scramble drill, down to the throw along the sidelines that comes late, but works:
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Finally, something I always look for when evaluating a quarterback is the willingness to climb the pocket. I’ve stated before how it’s one of the more counter-intuitive things to do in sports, much like playing goalie in hockey or taking a charge in basketball. When you climb the pocket you’re fighting the natural urge to run away from danger, and instead taking yourself toward where the danger is – or at least – where it launched from. Here against Ferris State, the Dragons empty the backfield once more, and use a four verticals concept against the Cover 2 defense:
Pipkin does a good job on this play from snap to finish. As he takes the ball from center he executes a good five-step drop, and opens his field of vision to the left. He is attempting to influence the strong-side half-field safety toward that route, so he can throw the vertical route coming from the middle trips receiver. That defender bites. But as the pressure mounts off the edge, the QB needs to climb the pocket. Which he does, before delivering a strike on the seam route:
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The view behind the pocket gives us a good insight into Pipkin’s process on this play. Using the vertical stripe on his helmet as a reference, we can see him take the snap and look at that strong-side safety to confirm the coverage. Then, he takes a look at the weak-side vertical route, to see if he has a chance to squeeze that ball in between the weak-side cornerback and safety. Then, he comes to the crossing vertical route, which influences the strong-side safety, before finally getting to his target, that seam route. All of this is done in the matter of seconds, and while climbing the pocket to boot:
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It is rare that a quarterback enters the draft process without any questions to answer. For a player coming from Division II, there will be more questions to address than most of his peers will face. But the Senior Bowl is a great opportunity for a player like Pipkin to demonstrate that he can compete at a higher level of competition, against faster defenders and facing tougher throwing windows. However, as these plays illustrate, there are aspects of the position that Pipkin has shown command over, and those aspects might be some of the tougher parts of playing QB.