Before Dak Prescott, there was Tom Brady. The mold that draft evaluators and scouts wanted to try and replicate each draft season. Who could identify the next late-round quarterback who would emerge as a star in the National Football League? But there’s another “Next” type out there, one that is harder to truly define, but I believe now has a true name to point to.
Every draft cycle, in the final weeks there is a quarterback or two who starts to rise. It’s a rather familiar formula. The “pro-style” signal-caller, who remains under the radar, but gets picked much earlier than people expect. This year, it was Iowa’s C.J. Beathard, who came off the board at the end of the third round after being selected by the San Francisco 49ers. Following the pick, some of the usual buzzwords were bandied about: Beathard read the field well, displayed good processing speed, came from a pro-style offense, and even had an NFL lineage, with his grandfather Bobby having spent years in the NFL as a general manager.
What if I told you there is a player in the upcoming class who fits that mold? Who comes from an NFL coaching line, who runs a pro-style offense, who is well under the radar right now as people turn to the 2018 crop of QBs? Because there is one.
Meet Matt Linehan, from the University of Idaho.
In doing my work to get ready for the next draft season, I was watching a few games of Linehan, and at some point during my viewing of Idaho’s victory over Colorado State it struck me: “They’re running New England’s offense.” So I stopped the tape and started to read. First, back through my notes, with a copy of the Patriots 2003 and 2004 playbooks at my side. Sure enough, many of the passing concepts were staring back at me in Xs and Os formats. Then, I did some biographical work, and it made sense. Idaho’s offensive coordinator, Kirk Cinovich, was both a teammate of and later a coach under Bobby Petrino. When Petrino was in the NFL with Jaguars, Jacksonville was using an Erhardt-Perkins-based scheme. Idaho’s head coach? Petrino’s younger brother, Paul. Oh, and Matt’s father? Dallas Cowboy’s offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Scott’s offensive philosophy was molded under Dennis Erickson, the creator of the one-back spread, and the Cowboys currently run a more Air Coryell scheme. But when watching Matt in Idaho’s offense, you can see the Erhardt-Perkins elements at work.
Here are some examples.
One of the staples of New England’s offense has been the Hoss concept. This is a two-man route combination that contains a hitch route (convertible to a vertical route against press) combined with a slant from a slot/inside receiver:
Now, here’s a look at Linehan running the same concept. Here, the Vandals face a 1st and 10 against the Georgia State Panthers, with the football on their own 27-yard line. They align using 11 offensive personnel, with a tight end and a receiver to the right in a pro alignment and slot formation backside. The Panthers put their 4-2-5 nickel defense into a Cover 2 look before the play:
Idaho uses the Hoss concept, with hitch routes from both outside receivers while the inside receivers (the slot receiver and the tight end) run seam routes:
Linehan takes the shotgun snap and executes a solid three-step drop. As he hits the third step, he hitches his footwork, bouncing forward before throwing the shorter route to his right:
He delivers this throw on time, with sufficient velocity and good placement. The receiver pulls in the pass and, because of the timing from the quarterback, he can pick up a few yards after the catch. On the replay angle, you get a look at Linehan as he scans both the seam route from the tight end and the hitch route, before he decides to throw the hitch. The quarterback sees the safety over the top of the seam route from the TE, so he moves his eyes outside to the shorter route.
Here’s another look at this concept in action, from Idaho’s game against Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potatoes Bowl. (Quick note, when you get to studying Linehan in this game, remember that it was played in some rather nasty conditions, with freezing rain playing a factor as the field slowly iced over as the game wore on. That makes Linehan’s line of 21-31 for 384 yards and four touchdowns look even more impressive).
The Vandals again use 11 personnel, with a slot formation to the left and a pro alignment to the right, against a 4-2-5 nickel package from Colorado State. This time the defense shows a Cover 6 look, with the cornerback in press alignment to the pro side of the offense while to the slot side, the CB is in off coverage across from the outside WR:
Once more, we get seam routes from the inside receivers, along with hitch routes to the outside. Linehan makes a very good throw here, hitting the outside hitch route along the left sideline:
He gets the ball out with some anticipation, as this still shows:
The throw is delivered with good velocity and placement, and the receiver quickly turns upfield for a first down.
So that’s just one concept taken from New England’s playbook, but here are a few more. First, the Patriots often call on a D-Go route combination, another two-man concept where the outside receiver releases vertically, while the slot or inside receiver runs a diagonal route, which looks like a reverse slant route:
Against Georgia State, the Vandals line up facing a 3rd and 4 on the Panthers’ 45-yard line. With 11 personnel, Idaho uses slot to the left, with a wing-pro look to the right, with the receiver on the line of scrimmage and the TE in a wing position:
To the slot side of the field, Idaho runs a D-Go concept, with the outside receiver releasing vertically while the slot receiver runs the diagonal route. Backside, the tight end helps in protection while the outside WR releases vertically:
Linehan takes the snap here and while the footwork is not great on the drop, he throws the route breaking to the outside with great accuracy. He drops the throw into his target right on the outside shoulder, and the receiver can easily turn upfield and secure the first down:
Again, the timing of the release coupled with sufficient velocity allows the play to succeed and the receiver to have room to create after the catch.
New England also uses a two man combination called Return. This is a pattern where the inside receiver runs the diagonal route to the flat, while the outside receiver cuts inside at the snap and shows a slant route, but then breaks back toward the sideline, similar to his cohort but a few yards deeper and a few steps behind:
The Patriots can pair this with a deeper corner route, and give the quarterback a three-level read to one side of the field. One such play is: 0 On Flank Fac – R-136 Bubble Return:
Returning now to the Vandals and their bowl game, Idaho faces a 3rd and 3 on the Rams’ 6-yard line here. Under a minute remains in the first half, and the Vandals have a six-point lead. They put Linehan in the shotgun and use trips to the right, and if you look at the route combination from the three receivers, you might see something familiar:
One wrinkle is that the Vandals sprint Linehan out to the right, getting him on the move and setting up an easier throw to the outside, and both shorter routes start inside first before breaking to the sideline. But the concept is very similar, and the corner route from the inside receiver gives the quarterback a deeper option over the top. Here, Linehan shows some patience before he throws to the slot receiver, putting the football low so the outside defender cannot make a play on the football:
We can end on this play. Many of New England’s passing plays incorporate two different two-man combinations into the play, using one to the left and another to the right. One prime example is “Ghost Tosser,” which has a vertical route on the outside and a deep out pattern from the inside (Ghost) to one side of the formation and double slant routes to the other side (Tosser). Here, we can see Linehan running something very similar to a concept known as Tout / Utah. Tout is a two-man combination where the outside receiver runs a quick out, while the inside receiver runs a deeper out pattern:
Utah incorporates two in cuts, a 3-yard shallow or under route from the outside receiver, with a deeper dig / in cut behind it:
Against the Rams, Linehan and the Vandals face a 3rd and 12 on the Colorado State 16-yard line. They use 11 personnel and put three receivers to the right, with the tight end alone to the left. The running back stands to the left of Linehan. Here’s the playart:
Two out patterns to the left, similar to Tout, and two in cuts from the right, very much like Utah.
The Rams blitz here, and one of the linebackers has a free run at the quarterback. Linehan recognizes the blitz and the coverage, and under duress makes a throw to the area vacated by the linebacker on the underneath shallow route:
The quarterback takes a shot, but he puts the throw right on target, and the receiver cuts upfield for six. This is great recognition, processing speed, and play speed from the quarterback. Linehan sees the blitz, verifies man coverage, knows right where to go with the football, and gets the ball out on time and on target for the score.
Now, we are light years away from the 2018 NFL Draft. As we know, development is not linear, and what we expect in June may not materialize for next November. But, that being said, Linehan and the Vandals have both steadily improved over the past few seasons, and the rising senior has shown great progress as a quarterback. Idaho is set to play their final season in the FBS this season before moving back down to FCS (a move Linehan has expressed some displeasure with). But signs point to one last solid year for the quarterback and his team, and the signs also point to Linehan being in line for that late-draft buzz before the first team is officially on the clock next May. He has the lineage, and as we have seen, he actually runs a pro-style offense. There are certainly aspects to his game that will need to improve, such as better play speed, less hesitation in the pocket, and getting through his reads quicker, but right now, I’m intrigued for sure. Linehan is definitely worth keeping an eye on this upcoming draft season.