The Mobile Quarterback
Dwight Wallace, once the head coach at Ball State and later offensive coordinator at West Virginia when Major Harris was quarterbacking the Mountaineers in the late 1980s, said he used to like to sit in the defensive meeting room on Sundays to get a feel for how the defensive coaches began the week preparing for offenses.
He wanted to try and get inside their heads to learn how he could make his offenses more effective. The more Wallace did this the more he noticed the two most pressing questions defensive coaches always seemed to ask were, No. 1, can the quarterback run and, No. 2, do they run option?
A mobile quarterback – one who can beat you with his arm, his feet and his brain - is a defensive coach’s worst nightmare. When Steve Dunlap was running Don Nehlen’s defense in the late 1990s, he used to pull his hair out trying to come up with game plans to stop guys like Syracuse’s Donovan McNabb and Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick.
And even when Dunlap dialed up the perfect defense – as he did late in the fourth quarter against Virginia Tech in 1999 – it sometimes didn’t matter anyway.
If you recall, the Mountaineers were about to upset the third-ranked Hokies here in Morgantown until Michael Vick became Michael Vick.
On a second down play, Vick dropped back to pass and Dunlap had every Virginia Tech player accounted for, so Vick took off to his right up the far sideline. It looked like he was going to run out of bounds about 10 yards down the field but, instead, he kept running for another 20 yards or so to put Virginia Tech in position to kick a game-winning field goal.
There is not much a defensive coach can do about that.
“Sometimes our best plays were when Pat White dropped back to throw the ball and didn’t,” recalled former Mountaineer defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.
South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels was a guy who used to give Casteel fits back when he was running West Virginia’s defense for Rich Rodriguez.
“(Running quarterbacks) are wild cards,” said Casteel. “We would chart all of the plays and see which direction they liked to run – see which way they threw the ball best – and tried to force them the other way. But, because they could run with the football, they didn’t always run the play that was called coming out of the huddle.”
For years, West Virginia thrived with dual-threat quarterbacks – guys like Mike Sherwood, Oliver Luck, Jeff Hostetler, Major Harris, Jake Kelchner, Rasheed Marshall, Pat White, Jarrett Brown and Geno Smith who could beat you with their arms, their brains and, yes, their feet.
Sometimes, such as in the case with Luck, Hostetler and Smith, they had the measurables that pro scouts coveted. But many other times West Virginia’s quarterbacks didn’t, and yet the Mountaineers were just as successful.
Sherwood, Harris, Marshall and White were right around 6-feet tall – too short to run NFL offenses back when they played – but they were great college quarterbacks because they were great athletes. Even Sherwood, who couldn’t run with the football nearly as well as Harris or White, was still a tremendous natural athlete.
West Virginia coaches from Jim Carlen to Bobby Bowden to Don Nehlen to Rich Rodriguez understood immediately the value of having the football in the hands of their best athlete. It was a tactic that helped put Mountaineer football back on the map when Nehlen had Harris in the late 1980s, and then later when Rodriguez used White like an old school single-wing player from 2005-07.
“My deal was sometimes, even when I felt a little pressure, I would run or get flushed out of the pocket,” Major Harris, a 1988 and 1989 Heisman Trophy finalist, recalled recently. “I always looked at it as the game within the game. With the defensive ends that were rushing up the field, if I step up in the pocket earlier, or if I jump out of the pocket earlier, now they can’t just lock in on rushing toward a spot. Now they get wobbly legs, so to speak.”
There were times when Nehlen broke the game down into its simplest form by running option just to take away most of the things that the defenses could try and do to them.
“When I was in school, and what people don’t realize or talk about, is the reason why coach Nehlen implemented the option was because a team had to play you straight up,” Harris explained. “What I mean by that is if a team is overloading to one side, we could option to the weak side. They would have to play you honestly, so that kind of took away some of the complicated blitzes they might want to run.”
Two decades later, Marshall said Rodriguez would instruct him to take off if he saw a running lane, even if they had a specific pass play called.
“He would say, ‘Hey, if you see something you keep the ball in your hands and you run,’” Marshall said. “You can waste a down if you throw it and he drops it, but if you keep the ball and you take off and run you are going to pick up a lot more yards than you think because you’re faster than a lot of other people - and there is less likelihood of a mistake happening.”
Of course, there is a downside to having dual-threat quarterbacks, too.
“You’ve got to have at least two,” explained Dunlap. “J.B. (Jarrett Brown) saved them (in 2006). He won the Rutgers game for them. Running quarterbacks get beat up.”
They do, but more and more college teams are using them these days anyway. Did you realize that of the 12 quarterbacks to win the Heisman Trophy since 2000, seven of them were considered dual-threat players, including the last four?
The pros are beginning to draft more of them, too. Successful quarterbacks like 5-foot-10-inch Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton have much different skill sets than Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, relying on their improvisational skills and playmaking abilities rather than just standing tall in the pocket and going through their progressions.
That’s why a 5-foot-11 ¾, 205-pound quarterback like Johnny Manziel can now go in the first round of this year’s NFL draft to the Cleveland Browns. Ten years ago, Manziel would have been lucky to be drafted at all.
“Football through the years has gone through cycles,” said Bowden in 2011 when he was in Morgantown for a WVU team reunion. “Right now, we are in an offensive cycle. There is one thing that has happened in offensive football in the last 10 years and West Virginia has played a very big role in this … the running quarterback.
“Defenses know how to defend a thrower, but they’re not used to defending a thrower who can run. Now, you flank five people out and you say there’s nobody left back there. Oh yeah, that quarterback can run, too, and defenses haven’t figured it out yet but one day they will figure it out. Everybody wants a quarterback like a (Pat) White.”
“I think the game is changing where quarterbacks are running a lot more,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said earlier this spring. “They’re more athletic and they’re running more, which means they are in harm’s way more. If you want to win a championship and have a successful season and go to a great bowl game, the playoff or whatever it is, then your second-team quarterback has got to be able to go in there and be able to win games.”
Holgorsen predominantly used drop-back passers with great success when he was at Houston and Oklahoma State, but he is starting to modify his approach a little bit.
“It’s something that we’re tinkering with to be able to put some more pressure on the defense,” Holgorsen said.
The No. 1 quarterback on West Virginia’s recruiting board last winter was Baltimore’s William Crest, a four-star, dual-threat guy. Whether or not he is capable of stepping in and running the Mountaineer offense right away won’t be known until the team gets back out on the practice field in August, but offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson says athletic quarterbacks are becoming a product of the way the game is being played these days.
“Everybody is getting more athletic,” he said. “D-linemen and linebackers are getting more athletic. Everybody is running faster so it’s only natural for that position to become a little more athletic. It just makes sense.”
It also makes sense for offenses to give defensive coordinators more things to prepare for.
“Even if you have a guy shadowing (a running quarterback) that means you are taking away from the other assignments within your defense,” Marshall points out. “It always creates havoc within a defensive coordinator’s mind and it gives them a little something extra to think about.”
Harris mentions, too, that a mobile quarterback can make up for some of the deficiencies that a team might have along the offensive line or at certain skill positions that are necessary in making a pure drop-back passing game productive.
“A drop-back passer can be very successful,” Harris pointed out. “You take Tom Brady, for instance, but the thing that a drop-back passer needs is a receiver who can draw double coverage to kind of shift the field or shift the defense. If you play them straight up then it’s going to be tough on them because now you can blitz.”
If you recall, that is exactly what the Seattle Seahawks were able to do to future hall of fame quarterback Peyton Manning in last year’s Super Bowl. Seattle locked down on Denver’s skill guys and turned Manning into a stationary target. Then they went after him, and after him and after him, blitzing him all the way to the post-game press conference.
“If defensive coaches aren’t worried about a quarterback running the football, they are going to bring pressure,” noted Wallace.
Therefore, adding a running element to West Virginia’s quarterback play could be something worth keeping an eye on down the road.
“You’ve still got to be able to throw the ball,” Dawson noted. “We’re not going to get too far away from that because that’s what we do, but there is going to be a balance in recruiting.
“If I was sitting there looking at a guy who was extremely stationary and I was looking at a guy who could throw it about the same but can move, I am going to go with the guy who can move. It’s going to tip that way for that guy.”
It’s probably a good idea to have more than one of them, just in case.
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