HOT READSBy for WVUsports.com
August 02, 2010 04:09 PM
MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for MSNsportsNET.com. You can also read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s new web site http://thesignalcaller.com.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Velocity, accuracy and touch ... add timing to the mix and you have the biggest keys to mastering the physical part of throwing the football. West Virginia’s Geno Smith has demonstrated that he’s been blessed with all four. If you had a nickel for each time you heard the name Marc Bulger mentioned by those who’ve watched Smith chuck the rock, you’d have an awful lot of nickels. That in itself speaks volumes about Geno’s talents as a passer. In short, he can make all the throws.
With fall camp nearly upon us and Smith set to embark on his first season as a college starter, it's time in our early evaluation of his short career to move beyond the physical aspects of playing the position and into the cerebral.
“Geno has all the potential in the world, but he’s still young,” said WVU coach Bill Stewart. “I went back and forth on things since the end of the season and felt if we could get him to manage the clock and move the chains we would be in pretty good shape.”
But a chance encounter during the offseason reshaped at least part of Stewart’s views. At a golf function in May, the West Virginia coach ran into former Chicago Bears Super Bowl champion Jim McMahon and during that time Stewart had the opportunity to discuss his young signal caller with (cue the Super Bowl Shuffle music) ‘the funky QB known as McMahon.’
“McMahon told me, ‘Sophomore or not, ask him to get you sevens and not threes because you have to play on the edge a little when you’re a leader.’ That’s very true. We can’t keep Geno bridled up,” Stewart said. “It would be a waste of talent.”
Somewhere between turning threes into sevens, it’s been my experience that there are typically five steps involved in the maturation process of a successful quarterback. As such I thought this was as good a time as any to discuss where in fact Smith appears to be in each of these five phases:
1.) Learn where your guys line up
2.) Master your own scheme
3.) Learn your own personnel
4.) Master the defensive schemes you might (and will!) face
5.) Learn the defense’s personnel each week
|Geno Smith's dedication to film study could pay big dividends this fall.
Brent Kepner photo
Let’s explore them individually.
1.) LEARN WHERE YOUR GUYS LINE UP: It sounds simple, but this is the first step for a young quarterback: learning their formations, motions and shifts. You’d be surprised how many times a freshman QB calls a play and cheats a peak at his receivers as they break the huddle just to see who is going to line up where. Why? Because he just doesn’t know yet.
This most fundamental step is more of a true-freshman-in-camp issue and not something that Geno is tangling with. He’s well beyond this point in his development.
2.) MASTER YOUR OWN SCHEME: At the risk of prioritizing one of these five steps as more critical than the others, I do have to place an extra bit of emphasis on this one. It’s important beyond words for a quarterback to truly become a coach on the field and the only way to do so is by developing a masterful understanding of what all 11 guys on the offense are doing each time out. He needs to have a firm grasp of the blocking and protection schemes used by the o-line, the sight adjustments, blitz beaters and coverage recognition of the receivers, the footwork and blitz pick up among the backs, and the list goes on. By the very nature of the game an offensive coordinator is often forced into the prediction business, playing the odds of a certain situation to call a play he feels has the best chance of success against what the defense will most likely be doing. A good quarterback will develop into a bit of a security blanket for that coach, mastering the scheme to such a degree that if the offense looks like it’s in a bad play, he will make the appropriate check to put them into a better one. With the system in place at West Virginia, this often means consistently making proper reads on plays designed with a built-in run/pass option which is triggered by the look of the defense. Without getting too technical it’s like this: if the defense gives you one look, you throw it; if the defense gives you a different look, you run it. It sounds pretty simple until you consider the fact those decisions must be made at the speed of a bullet with crazed fans screaming and 300-pound roughnecks bent on reminding you of the ‘contact’ part of ‘contact sport.’
So where is Geno Smith in this particular part of the process?
“I feel very comfortable with where Geno is in the learning process right now,” said West Virginia offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. “But when the lights come on and 60,000 gold pom poms are shaking with someone bearing down on you to hit you in the mouth things are different.”
In other words, Mullen is hedging his bets. It’s easy to get caught up in the upside Smith showed in limited action last year, but that optimism has to be tempered by the scope of his playing time.
“With the limited reps he had last year, we were impressed by him as a freshman,” Mullen added. “We’ll be very anxious to see how much he grows as a sophomore.”
3.) LEARN YOUR OWN PERSONNEL: This involves an obvious understanding of all the various personnel groupings (“21” personnel – two backs/one tight end; “10” personnel – 1 back/4 wides, etc.) as well as a less than obvious grasp of the individual skills of the individual players on your own offense.
For instance, let’s say it’s third and 8 and you’re running a high-low read on the strong safety with Noel Devine as the underneath receiver. On the snap the safety bails out deep. At this point it’s good to have a full appreciation of Devine’s unique talents in the open field. Why? Because instead of forcing a throw into coverage or perhaps trying to scramble to buy more time you might be more inclined to simply dump it down to Noel and take your chances on him picking up the necessary yardage to move the sticks. If for some reason, however, Ryan Clarke or Shawne Alston are in the game and the situation is similar, your thought process as a quarterback is probably different. Open field shake-and-bake isn’t tops on the skills list of either of those bruisers, but it is with Devine – a guy who can plant a foot in the open field and be off to the races. You have to be conscious of this at all times and in all situations. Know what your guys can and can’t do.
Overall this is another area that Geno seems to be ahead of the curve. It didn’t appear to take him long at all last year to develop a rapport with certain receivers each time he got on the field, and that’s the product of understanding the tendencies of those players.
4.) MASTER THE DEFENSIVE SCHEMES YOU MIGHT (AND WILL!) FACE: This area is invariably a work in progress and it’s the one step of these five that a QB will never entirely master. There’s always room for improvement, for freshmen and for seniors and everything in between. It involves coverage recognition and a complete understanding of blitz tendencies, front, stunts, stems and whatever else you can stuff into the diabolical gray matter of a gifted defensive coach. This is where the ‘chess match’ element of the game comes into play. In a national playoff game my senior year in college I did a double-take when I faced a defense that started the game by setting up to drop 10 guys into coverage on the first snap. For the record, that might’ve been the only time in my career that I checked out of a pass play and into a run. A seasoned signal caller might reach a point when they think they’ve seen it all, then when they least expect it an innovative d-coordinator gives them a look that makes them hesitate in the heat of battle and just like that all bets are off. Anyone who has ever played the position has experienced this. It’s an incredibly helpless sensation and you can’t prepare for it or avoid it. It’s going to happen. Accept it and move on.
There are a lot of positive signs in this area of Geno Smith’s game. For instance, after getting picked off on the fifth throw of his college career (at Auburn) Smith was interception-free on his final 44 pass attempts of the season. That level of ball security from a true freshman is exceptional, and it stems at least in part from a solid understanding of defensive concepts.
Mullen agrees and sees a lot of upside in Smith’s ability to learn what the bad guys are throwing at him.
“Geno’s a sharp kid. He understands football,” Mullen said. “He was coached pretty well in high school (by former Mountaineer Damon Cogdell) and I think he’ll continue to do a good job picking those things up.”
Smith himself readily assumes the responsibility of diagnosing defenses and is more than willing to put in the necessary time in the film room to get it right.
“Every week it changes. Different defenses try to play us different ways,” said Smith.
“One of my jobs as a quarterback is to watch as much film as I can and see how our game plan matches up with that. It’s something you can never master because defenses are constantly changing.”
Smith recognizes the fact that, at the quarterback position, games are often won or lost in the dark solitude of a quiet room with a clicker in your hand, far away from the glitz and glamour of the playing field.
“It’s an important part of playing the position. Every defense has a strength and a weakness, and film can help show you that,” said Smith.
“It shows you how different defenses will line up to your formations or how they roll their coverage. Maybe they roll the coverage towards your best player, or maybe they give you a whole different kind of look. These are things that film study can help you see.”
5) LEARN THE DEFENSE’S PERSONNEL EACH WEEK: In short, a quarterback needs to know the particular strengths and weaknesses of the defensive players he faces week in and week out. How it works it pretty straightforward. There are a million examples. If a certain safety in a quarters coverage is incredibly active and regularly attacks downhill like a crazed dog in run support, a sharp quarterback will discern this in film study and realize that player could be a prime target for a good play action fake. You might pick up on the habit of a linebacker that betrays his blitz tendencies. Is he actually blitzing, or is he merely showing? Sometimes it’s as simple as noticing if the front toe of his plant foot is pointed toward the ball or away from it, putting him into position to kick back into coverage on the snap. Sometimes it’s trickier to see. How good is a particular cornerback’s straight-line speed? How good is his recovery speed? Do any of the big bodies with a hand on the ground offer pre-snap hints as to whether the defense is going to slant the front or play a two-gap? Does cut blocking a defensive end on a 3-step package force his hands down or is he still a threat to tip a quick throw? These are the kinds of things a quarterback learns to look for. Intense film study can reveal these finer points and more.
Defensive personnel tendencies are often integrated into the game plan each week and this is the area that Geno’s reputation as a film rat could really help to separate him from the pack. History suggests this will turn out to be a cornerstone of his game. You don’t rack up the kind of numbers Smith had in high school without recognizing the weak links in a defensive line-up.
Now that we’ve hashed through these five steps, you might be wondering: where does this put Smith in the process of becoming a top flight college quarterback?
The answer: stay tuned.
“Geno’s basically still a freshman. He needs a full season under his belt before we can really look at where he is,” said Mullen.
“It’s one thing to do it in the film room, it’s another thing to do it on the practice field and it’s certainly another thing altogether to do it in a game,” he added. “None of our quarterbacks have really done it in a game enough to determine where they are in the learning process.”
We like what we’ve seen so far but in the end, time will tell.
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