Many aspects of quarterback evaluation is quantified, but one trait that still defies quantification in its impact is pocket presence. Mark Schofield breaks down how Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph exhibits good pocket presence by remaining calm and adeptly working the pocket while under pressure.
Pocket presence, unlike some quarterback traits, cannot be quantified in the way accuracy or ball placement can, making this aspect of player evaluation a bit difficult to evaluate. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, with respect to pocket presence (That is to say, this piece, not Justice Stewart.): You know it when you see it. Does the QB remain calm in the cauldron as bodies are flying around him, or does he unnecessarily – and undesirably – speed up his process in the face of pressure or a blitz? Does he slid around the pocket fluidly or is he statuesque, leaving himself vulnerable to the pass rush? These are all pieces to the puzzle of presence.
Through early 2016, Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph has shown he has all the pieces to this particular puzzle.
On this first play, Rudolph (#2) and the Oklahoma State Cowboys open their game against the Central Michigan Chippewas with the football on their own 25-yard line. Rudolph stands in the shotgun with 20 offensive personnel on the field in a split-back design, with slot formation to the right and a single receiver to the left. The Chippewas have their base 4-3 defense on the field and they show Cover 6, with the weakside cornerback in press alignment:
At the snap, however, Central Michigan rolls their coverage to a Cover 3 Buzz, while the offense runs a Y-Over concept. A staple of Air Raid offenses, this calls for the quarterback to first check the vertical route on the weakside before working over to the strongside, check the over route from the slot receiver, and finally the curl on the outside to the right:
Rudolph executes this play – and his progression reads – perfectly. He takes the snap and, while carrying out a show run fake / RPO design in the backfield, he peeks at that vertical route to his left. But he immediately ascertains that route is not open, so he peels his eyes to the over route. The linebacker to that side, Alex Briones (#30), has carried that route for a bit, which prevents Rudolph from throwing to the primary target. But that also means that the LB is well out of position and cannot sink under the strongside curl route. With the cornerback to that side having to prevent against the deep ball, the route comes wide open:
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Watching this play, you see a calm, decisive quarterback in the pocket. Rudolph carries out the fake and snaps right through his reads, bouncing from the vertical route, to the over, and then immediately to the curl. There is no hesitation in his mind, and his feet are fluid.
On the previous play, Rudolph enjoyed the comforts of a clean pocket and an open receiver. But what happens when either the protection breaks down or he needs to improvise – or both? Can he maintain that same calm, decisive mind and fluid footwork? On this play, the Cowboys face a 1st and 10 on their own 47-yard line. Rudolph stands in the shotgun as the offenses puts their 10 personnel into dual slot formations. Central Michigan uses their 4-2-5 nickel defense, and they show a two-high safety look before the play:
The slot receiver on the left, freshman Dillon Stoner (#80) comes in motion – first toward the quarterback, and then deep behind him. Oklahoma State runs a vertical concept, while the defense rolls again to a Cover 3 look:
Similar to the previous example, Rudolph first checks the backside vertical route, before the over route from the right slot receiver, and finally the strongside vertical route on the outside. But with the defense dropping eight defenders into coverage, no open receiver presents himself for Rudolph. But the QB does not panic or accelerate his internal clock. Rather, he bounces well on his feet in the pocket, working through his progressions and maintain a solid throwing base as he moves from WR to WR. But a crease presents itself, so the QB climbs the pocket and buys a bit more time. Then, he spots Stoner on a swing route in the flat:
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Rudolph shows a pump fake first, which is a nice, instinctive move to slow down the charging defender. As the QB shows the ball, that defender breaks down and gets ready to try and deflect any pass. This gives Rudolph a few more precious seconds to release the throw, which hits Stoner right between the 8 and the 0 on his jersey – and is dropped. Despite the play going in the box score as an incompletion, this is a poised and well-executed play by the QB.
Here is another example of Rudolph showing these traits in the pocket. Facing a 3rd and 10 in the 4th quarter and holding onto a three-point lead, the Cowboys put their QB in the shotgun with 10 offensive personnel in a trips to the left and a single receiver to the right. The Chippewas counter with a 3-2-6 dime package, and they utilize a Green Cover 2 Prevent coverage:
Oklahoma State sets up a sail concept to the strongside, with a dig route from the single receiver split to the left:
Given the coverage, this is a tough play to execute. Rudolph, showing good poise in the pocket and a good understanding of the situation, bounces through his progressions and then doesn’t force a throw, choosing to check the football down to his running back:
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It is not a sexy play by any means, but we see the quarterback staying calm in the pocket and sliding his feet while working his reads. Rather than forcing a throw in this situation, he takes what the defense gives him and hopes his running back makes a play.
These traits matter for a quarterback because at some point in a game or in a season, he will face pressure – not only from the defense but from the situation as well. In those moments, the player needs to maintain the same level of composure showed at any other time during the contest.
The player needs to remain the same player on 4th and 4 in the final minutes that he was on 1st and 10 in the first quarter.
With under ten minutes remaining, the Cowboys have the football back but find themselves trailing, 24-20. Facing 1st and 10 they line up with 20 offensive personnel and Rudolph in the pistol formation. Oklahoma State has a slot formation to the right and a single receiver split to the left. The Chippewas align with their 4-2-5 nickel, but the free safety walks down into the box, showing blitz:
He does indeed blitz. Now we get to see the QB under a bit of pressure. The first three plays Rudolph enjoyed a clean pocket. He will not have this luxury here. The Cowboys have a slant route called from the backside, off an RPO look:
Now here, Rudolph knows the blitz is coming. This is the first time all game that safety has been down in the box, and chances are if he’s there in this situation, he’s coming. Given this, you might expect the QB to rush his process, and maybe even cut his drop or his run action short.
But not Rudolph:
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The QB carries through the run fake, and then, at the last possible moment, throws the slant with the blitzing safety crashing down on him. He delivers a perfectly-placed pass as well. This is a great example of a QB remaining the same player from the first quarter to the fourth, staying calm in the face of both forms of pressure. This is a quietly impressive play from the quarterback.
There are some flaws to Rudolph’s game, to be sure, and those will be discussed and picked over in due time. But pocket presence is one of the bigger boxes for a quarterback to check during the evaluation process. Because not must a QB stay the same, even-keeled player whether it’s the first quarter or the fourth, QBs need to maintain that level of poise when they transition to the next level. It is a tough concept to evaluate, but even tougher to try to learn when the level of competition is tougher. The fact that Rudolph displays this level of poise and discipline in the pocket now bodes well for his future.
Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, such as how Alabama passes to attack the flat, or Tennessee’s use of the double post concept, or how how Carson Wentz performed in his NFL debut.
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All film courtesy of Draft Breakdown.