Like any good researcher, Mark Schofield despises a small sample size. Unfortunately, prospect evaluation is almost always too early, or without all the information necessary. Thus, we have our series: On Two, in which Inside The Pylon examines two plays from a quarterback that address traits that scouts are talking about.
Success in the vertical passing game is crucial to many NFL offenses. But for these schemes to work, the quarterback must be able to drive the football downfield into narrow throwing lanes, and push the ball down the field vertically, applying touch and precision when necessary. While timing and anticipation can play an element here, what is necessary is arm talent from the passer.
However, one of the question marks surrounding North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz has been his accuracy on the deep ball. The quarterback missed some throws in the vertical passing game last season, and in the Bison’s season-opening loss against Montana, Wentz also failed to connect on a handful of deep passes. This is an aspect of his playing style that the quarterback worked on with his coaching staff until suffering a season-ending wrist injury. But in the games before his injury, Wentz showed improvement in this area, which has many evaluators even more hopeful about his transition to the professional game.
In the third quarter of their game against the University of North Dakota, the Bison have the football and a commanding 27-3 lead. On this 1st and 10 play at the North Dakota 38-yard line, Wentz is under center with 22 offensive personnel on the field. Behind the QB stands running back King Frazier (#22) and tight end Connor Wentz (#87) ‒ Carson’s cousin ‒ in an i-formation. The offense has three receivers to the right of the formation, with sophomore wide receiver R.J. Urzendowski (#16) split wide to the right, fullback Andrew Bonnet (#46) in a wing alignment and TE Luke Albers (#88) on the end of the line.
With Albers and Urzendowski on the line of scrimmage, the TE is “covered” in this formation and is not eligible for a pass route. The formation and personnel may indicate to the defense that a running play is coming. Given the 4-3 defense shown here from North Dakota, along with the eight defenders stacked in the box, with both an outside linebacker and the strong safety lining up on the line of scrimmage, they show that they expected a running play. The defense shows Cover 1 in the secondary leaving sophomore Deion Harris (#19) isolated on Urzendowski on the right:
Instead of running, the Bison are taking to the sky on this play off of play action. After the snap Wentz fakes a halfback lead play to the right, while Urzendowski runs a straight go route:
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The defense blitzes all three linebackers and the strong safety, and the interior of the pocket breaks down. Wentz knows he’ll take a shot on this play ‒ and he does ‒ but he hangs in the pocket and delivers a perfectly placed pass to Urzendowski. What makes the throw impressive is the touch on display, with pressure at his feet. The sophomore WR runs under the football right at the goal-line for the score:
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The Bison rolled to a 34-9 victory over North Dakota, with Wentz finishing the day 18-27 for 262 yards and four touchdowns. While the numbers are impressive, it is his traits as a passer ‒ and the continued refinement of his game ‒ that have scouts taking a long look at him right now.
In NDSU’s comeback victory over Northern Iowa Panthers, Wentz put on a very impressive display in the game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. The QB made a number of NFL-level throws during that sequence of plays, including two that do not even show up on the stat sheet.
Earlier in the contest, however, Wentz delivered an impressive deep throw that shows the refinement in his downfield passing abilities. Midway through the fourth quarter, with the Bison trailing the Panthers 21-17, and facing 3rd and 13 at their own 33-yard line. Wentz lines up in the shotgun with the backfield empty, and NDSU lines up with a 3X2 alignment, with trips to the right and an inverted slot formation to the left. The Panthers line up with 3-4 personnel, and put linebacker D’Shawn Dexter (#30) well to the outside over the trips formation, and put another linebacker, Ronelle McNeil (#47) in the slot to the right in press alignment. The secondary shows Cover 6:
The Bison have 11 personnel on the field. On the slot side of the field, Albers runs a short hitch while wide receiver Zach Vraa (#82) runs a corner route, giving Wentz a smash concept to that side of the field. To the right side, Darrius Shepard (#2) lines up in the inside, with Urzendowski and Bonnett to the outside of the freshman WR. Shepard releases up the seam, while the other two receiving options run in routes of different depths:
At the snap, the Panthers drop into a soft Cover 4 shell:
The linebackers all drop into intermediate underneath zones. This eliminates the smash route to the left side, which Wentz checks first in his progression. He then pivots his head to the trips side of the field, and spots Shepard releasing up the seam. Wentz uses a very quick hitch step to gather himself, and then unleashes his deep throw:
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Shepard has managed to get a step on both the underneath linebacker as well as safety Makinton Dorleant (#2). Wentz’s throw still needs to carry over these two defenders, but drop into that small window before the WR goes out of bounds. The throw drops into the bucket perfectly, and from this angle you can see the rotation on the pass, as well as how the football turns over perfectly at the last moment, dropping down into the arms of the receiver:
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As the ball reaches its apex, it then turns over and drops downward to Shepard, who cradles the football to his chest a few feet before the end line. The safety tries to shove the receiver out of bounds, but Shepard gets not one, but both, of his feet down to secure the touchdown.
Also worth highlighting is Wentz’s field of vision on this play. NDSU likes to run the smash concept, giving the quarterback a two-receiver, high-low read on one side of the field. While this is not a full field read that he may be tasked with making as he transitions to the NFL, it requires the quarterback to read the coverage and work through a few progressions. On this play, Wentz opens to his left to read the smash route. As the Panthers drop into this soft Cover 4, with the linebacker rolling to the outside to take away the curl and the cornerback dropping to eliminate the corner route, Wentz needs to come off this quickly, as it is well defended by the Panthers.
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Wentz takes the snap, makes the turn of his head to the left, sees the coverage and immediately works to the other side of the field. Once he sees the smash concept taken away, he immediately works to the other side, picks up the vertical route, and uncorks a beautiful throw. This is a very impressive bit of processing information and execution from the Wentz.
Both the improved ability on the deep ball, as well as the decision-making ability on display here, speak to Wentz’s potential to have a successful transition to the NFL. With the senior heading to Mobile for the Senior Bowl, these traits will be on display for NFL coaches and scouts, and should enable him to impress his future employer.
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.
Illinois State video courtesy of DraftBreakdowns. Northern Iowa video courtesy of GoBison.com