Why travel nearly two hours to an NCAA Division III football game? To see Matt Pawlowski ‒ the best college quarterback you’ve never heard of.
The town of Winchester, Virginia, about 75 miles northwest of the nation’s capital, is best known for its rich Civil War history, and as the birthplace of country music legend Patsy Cline. But on this recent October Saturday, it’s where Pawlowski plied his craft. Just off Interstate 81 sits Sprint Field at Shentel Stadium, home to the Shenandoah University Hornets of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference.
Pawlowski’s team, the Guilford College Quakers, arrived in Winchester sporting a 4-0 record, and his achievements throwing the ball were a big reason for their early success. The junior signal caller, a third-year starter, entered the game having completed 98 of 136 passes for 1,403 yards and 19 touchdowns with no interceptions. In those four contests Guilford ripped off three double-digit victories, with their closest contest an eight-point victory over Southern Virginia.
Before getting the chance to speak with Matt, I was able to review some of his game film and a few things stood out immediately. Pawlowski’s arm and athleticism are apparent throughout his footage. Listed at 6’2” and 190 pounds, he throws very effectively while on the run and can keep many plays alive using his feet in the pocket. Matt also displayed a very strong arm on a variety of throws and routes. But what stood out foremost was the apparent complexity of the Quaker offense. Guilford utilizes a spread no-huddle scheme that throws a number of looks at a defense. Some plays have Pawlowski in the shotgun with 3 or 4 receivers, while on other snaps Pawlowski may be under center with 21 personnel on the field.
An Unlikely Day One Starter
A hometown kid from Greensboro, North Carolina, when Pawlowski was deciding on schools during the recruiting process, he opted to stay local and attend Guilford. As a youth he had attended summer camp at the college, and the ability to play in front of family was one major factor in the decision. “I now had the opportunity for my parents to come to every game,” he said. The chance to stay in an area he likes was another factor. “I do love Greensboro,” he added, “so it was a perfect fit.”
A third element in his choice was, of course, the ability to play college football. While some schools offered Pawlowski “preferred walk-on” status, Guilford gave the quarterback an opportunity to play right away.
Becoming a freshman starter, however, was a big hurdle. Making the transition from high school to the college game is difficult enough for an incoming student-athlete, but learning an entirely new offensive scheme made this an especially challenging case. “We ran the wing-T in high school,” Pawlowski said. “There were games when I would only throw the ball three to five times a game.”
Adjusting to the differences between the wing-T and the spread no-huddle employed at Guilford is akin to learning a completely different sport. Developed over 60 years ago, the wing-T offense typically uses the quarterback as a fourth running back and relies heavily on the running game to move the ball. Misdirection is the key concept in the scheme: While the offensive line is tasked with pulling or trapping on nearly every play, the running backs and quarterback execute elaborate fakes and deceptive movements in the backfield. These combine to generate confusion in a defense and catch their players out of position.
In stark contrast lies the spread no-huddle, which relies on the passing game and puts multiple wide receivers on the field for each play. While the running game is still an aspect of the spread offense, particularly the read-option (which Guilford uses on occasion), the aerial attack is the focus. Adapting from throwing three or four passes a game to slinging it 30 times or more was, in Pawlowski’s words, a “huge transition.”
So it might come as no surprise to learn that when Pawlowski showed up on campus as a freshman he was listed fifth on the quarterback depth chart. Further, he was one of four incoming freshman quarterbacks. But he was able to win the job and has started every day since arriving on campus. “Picking up the offense was tough but I put it on myself [to] learn the playbook,” he said. “I wanted to come in and play as a freshman.”
The Learning Curve
Despite winning the starting job, his début season was not without its bumps in the road. Guilford finished Pawlowski’s freshman year with a 5-5 record, as the first-year starter completed just under 60% of his passes for 2,443 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. “The game is obviously faster than it was in high school,” he said. “Actually seeing defenses on the field and having to read and react to defenses was another huge transition.”
Pawlowski credits his coaches and supportive upperclassmen for aiding his success as a new arrival. “Senior leadership on that team helped me with the transition,” he said. “The coaches had a lot of trust in me, they kind of simplified the game plan [and] gave me easy reads.”
With a focus on film review and mechanics, Pawlowski has improved every year while on campus. The Quakers finished with a 6-4 record his sophomore year, but Matt put together an impressive offensive display during his second year as a starter. He completed nearly 62% of his passes and,most importantly, took better care of the football. Pawlowski finished the 2013 season with 24 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions to his name.
Matt indicated that there are two quarterbacks whose film he watches because of their command over their offenses. “I love watching Tom Brady and Peyton Manning,” he said. “It seems like … they have complete control, and that’s something I want to emulate in my game.”
Now in his third year, Pawlowski is no longer the green signal-caller he once was, but a savvy veteran presence on the field. When asked how defenses were attacking him now in his junior year, Pawlowski was happy to expand on the topic. “Every team is different, some teams disguise it better than others,” he said. “Being a three-year starter now I’ve kind of seen everything, especially in our conference, that teams will kind of throw at you. I think that’s helped a lot. But teams definitely try to disguise things a lot [now]. Teams kind of blitz a freshman quarterback to try and get him rattled so I saw that a lot. But we still had pretty good success against it.”
Pawlowski’s words convey his growth and maturity. Defenses often blitz inexperienced passers in an attempt to disrupt them and force poor decisions. As a quarterback becomes more proficient and knowledgeable, blitzes lose their effectiveness. Teams then try and disguise coverages to gain an advantage over a more polished student of the game.
Mechanically, Matt is a very sound technical quarterback, which is something he works on with the Guilford staff. “Our offensive coordinator (Chris Barnette) is also our quarterbacks coach,” Pawlowski said. “He really works on lower body mechanics, getting your feet in the right position.”
Footwork is crucial, especially for a quarterback like Pawlowski who is proficient at both executing and explaining the movements: “Make sure you move your back foot first when moving in the pocket, not clicking your heels moving up, making sure you keep a good base, stepping towards the target and follow through to the target, not bringing that back foot around.”
Pawlowski is also mindful of the importance of upper-body positioning and balance. He works with his coach on keeping that “off-arm tight,” which leads to good accuracy.
Proficiency is another focus when Matt gets to talking about route concepts, particularly his favorite one to throw on. “I’d probably say the corner route. There are so many ways you can throw it,” Pawlowski said. “If the defender is over the top you can throw it to the sideline or bring it [and the receiver] back down. It’s pretty hard to stop.”
Turning to the game tape, the first thing that stands out is Pawlowski’s athletic ability. On this first play, the Quakers face 1st and 10 and have their 20 personnel on the field with Pawlowski under center. Southern Virginia brings a nickel package, showing Cover 3 in the secondary. The Quakers execute a run fake and Pawlowski looks to go deep. His protection breaks down quickly, but the quarterback is able to keep this play alive using his footwork, executing a nifty spin move on a defender at his heels. He then delivers an accurate throw on the run that travels over 30 yards, indicative of his arm strength:
Yes, this was a “whoa” moment.
Next, Pawlowski not only uses his feet to buy additional time to deliver an accurate throw while on the run, he also demonstrates the patience to let a play develop. The Quakers are inside the Knights’ 5-yard line and put Pawlowski in the shotgun using 20 personnel. The offense again utilizes play-action and puts the quarterback on the move to his left. Southern Virginia blitzes in the interior and look to have the out route covered, but Pawlowski hangs in there and waits for his receiver to break vertically on the scramble drill:
Illustrating his familiarity and experience, as noted during our conversation, Pawlowski displays poise and awareness on this next sequence. The Quakers face a 3rd and 7 near midfield with 10 personnel and the Knights respond with their nickel package. First, Pawlowski uses a hard count to get an idea of what the defense is going to do on this play. When he sees the blitz indicators the offense adjusts the play call. The defense shifts as well, and now shows an A-gap blitz as well as a blitz on the edge. Off the snap, however, the Knights drop into a Cover 4 scheme with man underneath:
The quarterback wins the cat-and-mouse game. He identifies both the coverage and the fact that the middle linebacker is slow to recognize the swing route from the running back. Pawlowski delivers a quick throw to his outlet receiver and the running back picks up the first down.
Finally, sometimes a quarterback simply has to rely on pure arm strength and sling it, which Pawlowski exhibited on the very next play from scrimmage. The defense decides to blitz him, bringing the nickel back from just off the edge:
The blitzer and an interior defender break the pocket immediately and Pawlowski is forced to make a quick throw off his back foot. He does just that, delivering a strong ball to his running back on the vertical route, and the play goes for a 34-yard touchdown.
(All video in this section courtesy of Guilford College Athletics)
Given what I had seen on film and our phone conversation about playing the quarterback position, I was very excited to make the trip with a photographer to see Pawlowski in person. The quarterback exhibited many of the qualities that we discussed or that showed up on film. A good wide base in the pocket was evident on most throws:
Keeping a tight off-arm for accuracy? Check.
Here is another shot that shows good form, footwork and ball security:
Pawlowski also showed his athleticism and arm strength on this Saturday. Here he delivers a strong throw on an out route for a nice gain and a first down:
The quarterback also demonstrated the scope of his mechanics on this quick hitch route. Pawlowski knows the corner blitz is coming and makes the correct read, throwing to the receiver on the hot route and it nearly goes the distance:
Finally, the quarterback shows both his athleticism and arm strength on this play. As the pocket breaks down he is able to escape pressure with his feet and deliver a strong throw on the run. Aided by a great catch from his receiver, Guilford looks to pick up a big gain:
Unfortunately for Pawlowski and his teammates the play is called back due to a holding penalty, and is a microcosm of Guilford’s day. Shenandoah put the Quakers in an early hole and, while Guilford kept fighting, they could not complete the comeback. After the Hornets raced out to a 22-0 lead, the Quakers cut the deficit to 10 with just over 2:00 to play thanks to three touchdown passes from Pawlowski. However, the quarterback threw an interception on the final play of the game, his third of the afternoon and the second “Pick Six” of the day, making the final score 47-31, Shenandoah.
Pawlowski’s 460 yards through the air were a career high, but were not enough to carry the afternoon for his team. The Hornets threw a mix of coverages at the quarterback including some dime packages. Defenses at every level are always scheming, and even the most seasoned of quarterbacks are shown a new concept or coverage at times. As he has demonstrated throughout his college career, Pawlowski will learn from the experience and be just that much more attuned the next time he takes the field.
Dave Walters, Guilford’s sports information director, tipped his cap to their opponents. “Credit Shenandoah for coming out and showing Matt something unfamiliar,” Walters said. “It resulted in one of his toughest games, despite the career passing yardage.”
Following the loss to the Hornets, Guilford rebounded with a win over the Bridgewater (Va.) College Eagles. The Quakers now sit at 5-1 on the season and 2-1 in the conference, their best start in a number of years. With Pawlowski at the helm the Quakers still have a chance to win a conference title and secure a spot in the NCAA Division III playoff bracket.
As for the future? “I’d love to play football as long as I can,” Pawlowski said. “You only get one shot at it, and I’m gonna take that as far as I can. If that doesn’t work out I’d love to go to graduate school and maybe get a job as an assistant and try and get into coaching that way.”
Out of all his traits on and off the field, the determination and work ethic he demonstrated in earning a starting position while transitioning to college and learning a new offense is what will set Matt apart most in life. Whatever the future holds for him in or outside of football, what he has learned as an athlete and a competitor will pay dividends. The rest of Pawlowski’s career should be interesting to follow, however long it lasts.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.
Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.