Studying and evaluating football players is a continual exercise in uncovering actions, methods, and processes in the players themselves that are repeatable and bear out well for their future development and advancement at their position of choice. Scout the process, and not the results. Often times you may find that even though a play or a group of plays lead to poor results on the field, the process that the player in question takes to meet that result is one that speaks well to how they will continue their development, and is illustrative of continued success at that position in college – and beyond.
There is obviously a parallel to this notion: That plays that end in good results on the field might still be illustrative of a process that needs work and refinement from the quarterback. Often when I am studying a QB my first exposure to a play might elicit positive thoughts about the player and some excitement about their potential. For example, when a quarterback threads the needle through multiple defenders, and the ensuing catch and run results in a big gain, my first inclination is to view the play as a positive. But many times, further review of the play in question and additional scrutiny unveils a flawed – but fixable – process that yields the result.
I think back to my time as an attorney, and the many trials that I won when simply put, I should not have emerged victorious. Often, my process was flawed. There were missteps along the way, whether in discovery, in motions practice, in witness preparation, or in any of the many steps along the way from the beginning of the case to the final result.
That lengthy process is similar to the process a quarterback faces over the course of a single play. Only it does not play out over the course or weeks – or months – but rather in the time it took you to read this sentence. But that is the beauty, and the curse, of the position. A quarterback’s process begins from the moment he gets the play-call, and continues until the whistle. It is more than a “snap-to-finish” mentality, it is a never-ending quest for the perfect process.
That leads us to these two plays from Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke against Northwestern University. Lewerke is one of many fascinating studies available to us in the upcoming group of quarterback classes. An athletic, dual-threat quarterback operating in what many consider a more conventional, “pro-style” offense, Lewerke has many tools and traits that position him well for the NFL. Only a rising junior, he still has time to develop and season, but the future does look bright.
However, there is always room for improvement, and I’ll be watching his process in the games to come.
Let’s watch the first example, and then return to break it down:
At first blush, this looks like an impressive play. Lewerke slides to his left and threads the needle between two defenders while on the move. Ball-placement, pocket movement and poise might seem like positives on this snap. If, however, we dive in deeper on the play we can identify some areas in his process that need to be refined.
Michigan State faces a 3rd and 7 deep in their own territory early in the third quarter, with the score knotted at 10. They put Lewerke (#14) in the shotgun with running back Gerald Holmes (#24) in the backfield beside him. The Spartans use a 2×2 alignment presnap as well. Northwestern counters with a 4-2-5 defensive look. But before the play, Holmes motions out to the left side of the formation, emptying the backfield. In response the Wildcats simply slide their defenders. With no one trailing Holmes, Lewerke has a pretty good idea that Northwestern is using some kind of zone coverage:
Michigan State runs a tosser concept to the right, with two slant routes. To the three-receiver side, the outside receiver runs a post while the inside receiver runs a curl. Holmes releases to the flat.
At the beginning of the play, Lewerke opens to the right to check the Tosser combination, but with three defenders in position over the two receivers, he quickly comes to the three receiver side of the formation:
Lewerke can throw this now to Holmes in the flat and rely on his running back to put a move on the flat defender to that side after the reception, who is outside the view of the above image but giving the RB a good bit of cushion. But instead he clutches, starts to slide left, and clutches again. Holmes runs out of real estate near the boundary and does the smart thing, turning vertically in what has become a scramble drill situation. Lewerke sees an opportunity, and pulls the trigger. Holmes somehow comes down with the ball between two defenders, and the Spartans have a first down.
This worked on Saturday against the Wildcats at Ryan Field. Would it work on Sundays at nearby Soldier Field? Consistently? The play ends with a solid result, but the process, including the hesitation and indecisiveness, is something to watch going forward.
Here is another example, also from the Northwestern game. As with the previous play we will watch the play first, and then revisit:
Again, this is an impressive play, and even with the things I’ll highlight in a moment, it is a great display of throwing downfield while on the move and keeping your eyes trained for targets in the scramble drill situation.
This play comes on a 3rd and 18 early in the fourth quarter, with the Spartans trailing by seven on the road. Lewerke takes the shotgun snap and retreats into the pocket. Northwestern rush only three on the play, allowing the running back to release in the pattern while still giving the offense five linemen to block three.
That results in a pocket that looks like this:
Lewerke needs to climb the pocket in this situation. I understand – believe me – the inclination for an athletic, dual-threat quarterback to escape and use his legs. But that is both a blessing and a curse for young quarterbacks. Looking at this pocket, if Lewerke climbs he takes the two edge defenders out of the play, and helps his tackles maintain their blocks. Plus, he has a double-team setting up on the interior defender, and the left guard is peeling off to help the left tackle.
Instead, Lewerke vacates the pocket to his right, which allows the edge rusher to peel off the right tackle and start chasing him. Lewerke outruns the defender and makes a very impressive throw for a big gain, but again the question to ask is: Will this work on Sundays? If not, then the follow-up is: Will Lewerke start to refine his process?
Lewerke is one of the passers I am most excited to watch over the next season – or two – at Michigan State. On the plus side of the ledger he moves well in the pocket, throws very well on the move, displays good timing and rhythm on a number of concepts and can also shine on those plays when the post-snap look does not match up with his pre-snap expectations. But as is the case with many quarterbacks, there are areas to refine. This pattern of process over results is one I’ll be watching.