Although evaluators and fans alike obsess over combine results and other measurables, football games almost always come down to split-second decisions and proper reads. Placing your team in the best position to succeed before the play begins is an important part of being a successful quarterback. Ted Nguyen looks at Carson Wentz and the pre snap mental process to see how one of this year’s top prospects handles this part of the game.
The Carson Wentz Debate is buzzing after his pro-day, which former Dallas Cowboys Vice President Gil Brandt described as, “One of the best pro days I’ve ever witnessed.” Projections of the North Dakota State quarterback’s game, however, remain polarizing: While some view Wentz as a prospect similar to Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, there are concerns about Wentz playing at a small college.
Obviously, coaches and scouts will each have their own different traits they prefer over others. There is one trait, though, that is undeniably essential to quarterback success, and that is mental processing. Mental processing is difficult to evaluate because no one truly knows what is going on in a player’s head; the film doesn’t tell the full story and not everyone has access to private interviews.
One way that evaluators can assess this trait is to look at what a prospect’s responsibilities are pre-snap and what type of freedom the player has within the system. Wentz’s offensive coordinator, Tim Polasek, revealed in an interview with Bleacher Report’s Brent Sobleski that Wentz shouldered much of the tactical load at the line of scrimmage to ensure the offense was in the best position to succeed.
From the interview, I interpreted Wentz’s pre-snap responsibility as comprising four elements:
- Multiple Run Game Combo: Polasek called two run plays in one and Wentz was responsible for choosing the correct run based on defensive technique or safety roll.
- Pass to Run or Run to Pass: NDSU’s pass concepts are coupled with runs and run concepts are coupled with passes that Wentz had the option to switch to depending on the situation, box count (how many defenders are in the box), or blitz/non-blitz read.
- Protection: Usually, the center is responsible for making these calls, but Wentz was responsible for identifying the Mike linebacker, sliding the protection, identifying the pressures, and adding or subtracting a man from the protection (e.g. 5-man to a 6-man protection).
- Five to Seven Favorite Concepts: Wentz also had the freedom to completely change the play to one of five to seven predetermined concepts or plays that he liked.
Wentz’s pre-snap responsibility impresses with his extensive knowledge of defensive fronts, coverages, and how to counter them required, all applied while having to be aware of the situation. College quarterbacks – and even some NFL quarterbacks – aren’t usually given this much responsibility pre-snap.This doesn’t mean that Wentz is automatically going to do well in the NFL, but it is a sign that he has the kind of immense mental processing capacity the job requires.
After learning about Wentz’s uncommon pre-snap acumen, I had the occasion on Twitter to ask Polasek what he considered Wentz’s most impressive audible of the season, and he was gracious enough to answer:
@RaidersAnalysis game winner vs UNI. Completed a inside fade to winning, following an impressive 2 min drive!
— Tim Polasek (@CoachTimNDSU) March 24, 2016
The game winner that Polasek describes occurred during a back and forth game with the University of Northern Iowa in which NDSU was down by four points with 45 seconds left. Wentz capped off an impressive two minute drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to the back corner of the end zone. Mark Schofield wrote a detailed breakdown of the final drive, but the game-winning play is even more impressive in realizing that Wentz had the presence of mind to check to the perfect protection and audible to a better concept with the game on the line.
This play illustrates the third and fourth element that Polasek listed as part of Wentz’s pre-snap responsibility and freedom: The third element is the protection. After being in a five-man protection scheme for the entire drive, it seems that Wentz is tipped off to a possible blitz, so he alerts the back to stay in to protect, putting the offense into its 60 or six-man protection. He also calls a half-slide to the left away from the 1 technique defensive tackle, which means every lineman except for the right tackle will be responsible for the gap to their left; the right tackle is responsible for blocking the end on his side.
Sure enough, the defense blitzes, sending the middle linebacker on a twist with the defensive tackle. The offensive line does a good job with passing off and picking up the blitz. The right guard, however, is left in a one-on-one situation with a tough block to make on the 1 technique defensive lineman and gets beat by the defensive tackle. The running back whom Wentz kept in to protect is there, though, and just manages to get in the defender’s way long enough to allow Wentz enough time to throw the ball.
The Coverage and the Audible
After playing a soft Cover 2 or quarters defense for most of the game and most of the drive, it appeared that the UNI defense switched to a Cover 1. Defenses typically get more aggressive as their opponents get into the red zone, so this is not an unusual change in strategy. It is hard to see from the camera angle if the free safety rotated over to the middle of the field, but every other defender on the field was locked on to their man.
What is difficult to comprehend is how Wentz knew so early in the pre-snap that it was man coverage.
Here, Wentz displays the fourth element of his pre-snap freedom in switching over to a concept that he preferred against Cover 1. This audible is impressive because not only did he recognize the defense, he showed awareness of the situation and personnel and instantly knew a good coverage beater: a slot fade.
It was 1st and 10 and the offense had just entered the red zone, which is an excellent time to take a shot into the end zone. Against man coverage, quarterbacks want to find their best matchup. Wentz saw that he had his second leading receiver, Darrius Shepherd (#20), matched up against linebacker D’Shawn Dexter (#30), so he put Shepherd on a fade from the slot. This is an extremely hard route for any defensive player to defend man-to-man, let alone a linebacker, because the fade is coming from the slot which doesn’t allow the defensive player to use the sideline.
(you can see Wentz give a hand signal to the receivers at the bottom of the screen)
Once the ball is snapped, Wentz takes a quick drop and throws the fade by placing the ball in the back corner, even with pressure in his face. It is a bit underthrown, but Shepherd beats the linebacker so badly that he is able to turn around and make a beautiful catch for the game-winning touchdown.
Even though the defense did not offer many tells, Wentz displays great mental capacity by recognizing the situation, personnel, and the coverage change. He audibled the concept very early in the pre-snap, which shows he used great processing speed. Then, he executed the play even with pressure in his face. Wentz put all these skills and traits on display when the game was on the line, which explains why scouts are so high on him.