Remember last August? It was a much simpler time. Rogue One was yet to be released, Ken Bone was not a household name, and George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds still walked among us. In college football, the Tennessee Volunteers entered the 2016 season the belle of the preseason balls. Ranked ninth in the country and picked by some to even win the Southeastern Conference, they opened their season with a home tilt against the Appalachian State Mountaineers. Seven years to the date that the Mountaineers knocked off Michigan on the road, they nearly pulled off another monumental upset – forcing overtime before falling to the Volunteers 20-13. While Tennessee survived, senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs was less than impressive in his 2016 debut. He completed 16 of 29 passes for 192 yards and one touchdown, with one interception. These numbers were good for a dismal 26.3 QBR as calculated by ESPN. While some of Dobbs’ throws were impressive, some of his decisions were not. Now that Dobbs is heading to the Senior Bowl, we can look back at those plays as part of his evaluation, both good and bad.
Timing and Anticipation
Two of his better throws on the night came very early in the contest. During Tennessee’s opening drive, the Volunteers face a 2nd and 4 on their own 42-yard line with the football on the left hashmark. The offense lines up with 12 personnel in a shotgun Ace formation and a 2X2 alignment with a wide receiver and tight end on either side of the field. The Mountaineers are in their base 3-4 defense showing two high safeties:
However, focus on the depth of the two safeties. One is staggered deeper than the other, with the strong safety cheated down two yards closer to the line of scrimmage. This is a presnap indicator to the quarterback that the defense might be rolling their coverage.
Tennessee runs a mirrored double-out concept, with each receiver running a five-yard out:
Meanwhile the Mountaineers do roll their coverage, shifting to a Cover 3 Buzz look:
With the offense running a mirrored concept, Dobbs reads this to the short-side of the field all the way. This is standard on mirrored designs, where the QB is instructed to take the easiest throw or the best matchup. Here, Dobbs takes the snap and peels his field of vision to the left, where Preston Williams (#7) runs the quick out. The QB executes a three-step drop back with a “hit and throw” technique, and the football coming out right after the final step:
The footwork is shoddy, but the timing is excellent. Dobbs gets the coverage he wants as well as the easy throw on the quick out, and the ball is coming out of his hands before Williams even turns his head to find the quarterback:
Able to throw from a clean pocket, Dobbs delivers a strong, accurate throw:
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This one play shows solid understanding of timing, anticipation, and coverage as well as route concepts. It goes for a simple five-yard gain, but it moves the chains and keeps the offense on schedule.
Two plays later, Dobbs and Williams connected again.
Facing a 2nd and 10 on their own 47-yard line, the Mountaineers line up using 11 personnel, with a pro look to the left and slot alignment on the right. Dobbs again stands in the shotgun with Jalen Hurd (#1) to his right. Appalachian State’s 3-4 defense remains in the game, only this time they are more clear with their secondary alignment presnap, showing a Cover 3 look with a single high safety:
The Volunteers run the smash concept to the right, with WIlliams running the quick hitch route while Josh Smith (#25) runs the corner route from the slot:
Dobbs will read the playside cornerback, Clifton Duck (#22). If Duck drops deep to cover the corner route, he’ll throw the hitch. If Duck squats on the hitch route, Dobbs will throw the deeper route over his head. This concept is known as “throwing the corner,” and the QB executes it perfectly. At the snap he immediately opens to the right to read Duck. Once more Dobbs uses a three-step drop, and by the time he finishes his first step he knows where’s he’s going with the football:
Dobbs sees that Duck has opened his hips to the middle of the field, and will be dropping deep into that outside zone, taking away the corner route. The strong safety has yet to rotate outside to the flat, so he won’t be in the throwing lane between Dobbs and Williams’ hitch route. Dobbs immediately sets his feet to fire:
You can see the ball about to come out, and Williams still running vertically, yet to hit the breaks and make himself ready on the hitch route. Because of the timing and anticipation from Dobbs, as well as the quick diagnosis of the defense, the ball arrives just as Williams peels his head back to his quarterback:
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This puts Williams in perfect position to pick up yardage after the catch, and that is exactly what happened. He is able to make Duck miss and pick up 12 yards – and a first down – on a quick six-yard throw.
But this was the beginning of a long night for the Tennessee offense.
A Tale of Two Plays
With under two minutes remaining in the first half, out of timeouts and trailing by 10, the Volunteers face 2nd and 10 on the Mountaineers’ 35-yard line. Using 11 personnel, they put three receivers to the right and Williams is a single receiver split to the left. Appalachian State stays in their base 3-4 defense, and they walk outside linebacker Devan Stringer (#28) to the outside over the three receivers:
Looking at the defense before the snap, Dobbs first looks at the defenders in the box. WIth six defenders and only five to block he’ll take to the air on this play. He has the bubble screen to his right, but look at the secondary:
Similar to a previous play, the safeties are staggered. In addition, Duck is giving Williams nearly 10 yards of cushion before the play. At this point Dobbs knows that the coverage might roll to Cover 3 – as it did previously – and he also has a receiver with free access off the line of scrimmage. Seeing this, Dobbs completely forgoes carrying out the run fake on the RPO, and as soon as he gets the ball in his hand, it’s coming out on the hitch route:
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Because of the timing of the throw, Williams catches the football, again, in position to pick up yardage after the catch. Duck breaks on the route and tries to wrap up the WR, but he can’t get Williams to the turf before the receiver spins out of bounds, stopping the clock. Again, this is a short route but it shows good awareness from the quarterback, and good timing as well. Now the Volunteers face a 3rd and 3, with the clock stopped at 1:34 remaining in the half.
Then the next play happened.
One of the base concepts we have is called “spot.” It is a completion play. The spot pattern is a five yard stick pattern. It is part of a triangle read for the quarterback and we are able to run it from all our formations. If you asked me to name one play we own, it is this one. It was our number one sprint out pass and we can throw it from the drop back scheme.
It is a five-yard play with a five-yard mentality. The triangle read versus zone coverage is from the five-yard spot [snag] pattern, to the flat pattern, to the corner pattern. That is the triangle the quarterback reads. If the quarterback is in the shotgun, he takes a three step drop with a hitch. If he is under the center, he takes what we call a quick five-step drop and delivers the ball with no hitch.
We can run this pattern and it does not matter if the defense plays Man or Zone. [Against man] we have a built in rub route in the flat pattern. The corner is taking a high angle on the corner, which gets to 25 yards deep. That will change when we get to the red zone. If none of that is open, the quarterback can work back down to the spot pattern.
The backside pattern is a five-yard hitch. If the defense gives us the bunch, we will take it. As they say “You will never go broke taking a profit.” If the receiver has free access, we take the hitch.
That’s the general idea behind how Tennessee runs this design, and what they want to accomplish. Unfortunately for Dobbs, everything goes south in a hurry:
Facing 3rd and 3 on the Mountaineers’ 28-yard line, the Volunteers align with 11 offensive personnel, using a stack-slot look to the right and a wing-slot look to the left, with tight end Ethan Wolf (#82) in the wing. Appalachian State stays with their 3-4 base defense, and they walk Stringer toward the stack-slot. But notice the depth of the defensive backs. In contrast with the previously highlighted plays, they’re crowded toward the line of scrimmage. In fact, some of the safeties are closer to the line of scrimmage than the umpire. This is a sign to Dobbs that something is afoot.
Before the play the Mountaineers defense shows a zero blitz, with the two inside linebackers as well as Stringer cheating toward the line of scrimmage. It’s unclear if Dobbs sees it, but junior WR Josh Malone (#3) certainly does, as he points it out before the play:
The defense does blitz, sending six rushers after the QB and running straight Cover 0 behind the blitz:
With man coverage, Dobbs will look to the flat, then the corner, and finally the spot route, as outlined by Jones in his presentation. But against this blitz, he doesn’t have a chance to make those reads:
Dobbs takes the snap and looks to the left, but before the routes can even start to develop, there is an interior threat in the form of inside linebacker John Law (#88). He’s knifing through the A Gap, so Dobbs pulls the football down and looks to the backside:
As he does, Williams throttles down on the hitch route to the backside. The receiver has free access (or a cushion) and is open. But Dobbs, influenced by the pressure, doesn’t pull the trigger. Instead he bails the pocket toward his right, and toward the backside of the play and away from the spot concept. As he does, Williams reads the QB and breaks to the outside on the scramble drill:
At this point, Dobbs’ decision making process is questionable, but not necessarily inexcusable. He really did not have time to make a throw on any of the spot concept routes because of the pressure. He did have a window to find Williams on the hitch to the backside, and given the way Tennessee runs the spot concept (a “five-yard mentality” and “take a profit”) you might question why Dobbs doesn’t throw to Williams right away. But here we are, with the QB rolling from pressure and a receiver mirroring him in the scramble drill. Given the situation, it’s time for Dobbs to either hit Williams in the flat, or throw this away. Let’s not forget the game situation. The Volunteers trail by 10, it’s late in the first half, and a field goal here cuts this to a one-score game before the half. So Dobbs can either throw to the flat and even if he’s stopped short, the Volunteers have enough time to get lined up for the field goal try. Or, put the ball into the hands of one of the sorority sisters sitting in the front row, and live to fight another down:
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That’s not the course of action Dobbs chooses. He tries a very ill-advised throw downfield, against his body, to Smith near the goalline. The pass is severely underthrown, and intercepted.
Dobbs makes an aggressive decision here, but I think we’ve shown it as an example of what not to do.
To end on a positive note, I want to highlight what I consider to be Dobbs’ most decisive and impressive throw of the game, with a bit of resiliency to it. After starting on Tennessee’s own 8-yard line, the offense now faces a 3rd and 10 at their 19. Dobbs is in the shotgun with 11 offensive personnel in the game, using dual slot formations. The tight end aligns in the slot to the left. Choosing to stay in base, the Mountaineers align in their 3-4 defense showing two high safeties. Again, one safety is a few yards deeper than the other, an indication of a potential rolled coverage:
Tennessee runs a curl / flat concept to either side of the field. On the right, the slot receiver releases to the outside and sits in the flat, while the outside receiver runs a deeper curl route. To the left, Wolf runs a quick out from the slot, while Malone runs a deep curl route:
Again, Appalachian State rolls their secondary into a Cover 3 Buzz on their fire zone. They loop one of the inside linebackers to the outside to try and get after Dobbs:
Dobbs first checks the safeties, and once he confirms that the coverage is rolling to a single-high scheme, he whips his head to the left to pickup Malone. The receiver is able to gain separation on his break thanks to the fact that Duck needs to respect the vertical threat in this coverage. From there, the QB fires a strike just over the outstretched arm of Stringer, the flat defender:
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This is the QB’s best throw of the night, and it comes in a very clean spot. He is able to deliver it from a clean pocket, allowing him to step into the throw, generate torque, and put the football exactly where it needed to be. (One of the drawbacks to his night was a number of inaccurate throws coming off platform, which is something to watch as you continue your study of Dobbs). The throw moved the chains, and on the very next play, Dobbs and Malone would connect on a 67-yard play to tie the game.
Again, the Volunteers survived, but their up-and-down night was mirrored in the performance of their quarterback. There were some good reads and decisions, but one poor choice before halftime virtually erased all of the positives. At this point, it is much too early to harbor a definitive opinion on Dobbs’ draft status, but it is clear that work remains for him to be seen as more than a later round, developmental project.