Just that quickly, we’re now two weeks into college football season, seeing some of the best passers in the country get their feature wins in Stephen Morris and Devin Gardner. Morris certainly wowed with his natural talents, but still has some decision making issues he’ll need to address. And Gardner’s game against Notre Dame was a good indicator for what the Michigan offense should be along with just how talented Jeremy Gallon is. Finally, check out the 10 guys I feel are firmly in the Heisman race as of now.
Stephen Morris Balls Out vs. Florida and Gets His NFL Draft Signature Win
The slightly undersized but live-armed Stephen Morris has been an non-NFL scout favorite this off-season. Partially thanks to his similarities to Russell Wilson (size) and his electric arm strength (Jay Cutler-esque, including decision making), expectations were high for Morris coming into this year. And his first big game in 2013 leads to a win over the Top 15 ranked Florida Gators.
The Miami offense ran plenty of rollouts and mobile pockets, allowing Morris to utilize his quickness as a runner to evade the very talented Florida front four, and to some degree it worked better than expected. The Hurricanes offensive line did a relatively poor job in general against the Gators defensive ends, and the offensive game-planning could utilize vertical routes with success except on (well-executed and well-timed) play action passes.
Utilizing Morris on rollouts and outside the pocket is beneficial for more reasons than just his athleticism in space. He opens his hips very well, including on backside rollouts, to keep the ball over the top, not allowing his passes to sail and maintaining his high velocity on his throws. He’s still able to throw a tight ball across different foot platforms, but obviously prefers to reset his feet once he gets outside the pocket, preferring to set up and take a hit than throw on the run.
Also, on the move (and under pressure), Morris is able to be a purely arm thrower if he can readjust and reset his feet quickly enough. While his footwork and positioning can be improved, especially when switching fields in his reads though it’s better than 2012, Morris can throw 30-40 yards with ample velocity and better-than-expected velocity without setting his feet properly.
While only credited with one interception on the game, I counted 3 other passes that could have easily been intercepted by the talented Gators secondary if they were in better position and could have finished the play. Morris still takes too many chances, and I believe it’s for two key reasons. The first one is simply over-anticipating his second read and rushing through his progressions at times. In the play below (2nd down and 10), Morris was forced a bit out of the pocket, reset his feet (though maybe unnecessary because his extra re-set allowed the linebacker to get in better position for a step), and tried to force an out route to his receiver, missing the linebacker that had begun working back to the quarterbacks eyes.
The pass was tipped in the air by the linebacker and eventually fell to the ground harmlessly, but easily could have been a costly turnover.
The second play (below) was Morris simply forcing a throw down the field, trying to utilize (and show off) his big arm despite plenty of defenders in the area. On this 3rd and 25, with his receiver running a vertical route, Morris assumed he would continue vertically, while his receiver stopped at the 1st down (wisely considering how deep the safeties were), yet Morris threw it as a continued route, leading to an interception.
While 3rd and 25 is certainly a reason to test deep, it didn’t make sense in this situation for Morris to be this aggressive considering the depth of the defensive backs. With two safeties high and the cornerback following the vertical route-running receiver, it left PLENTY of running room for 10+ yards. Those ten yards would have put this team in ideal punting formation, likely keeping the Gators inside the 10 yard line and giving the Gators likely one shot to drive 85-90 yards to take the lead. Instead, the Gators started just after midfield in perfect scoring position (despite their inability to score).
Morris seems to have worked on his footwork (certainly an upgrade) and placement across the field this off-season, but he still possesses too much of a gunslinger mentality to be able to be trusted as of now. As I eluded to earlier, this easily could have been a 3-4 interception game for Morris. However, Morris certainly displayed the placement, arm talent, versatility from different situations, and reading pre-snap that he needs to show. He’s not an elite passer yet despite his elite tools, but he’ll have the rest of the season to improve his decision making.
Devin Gardner Shows off Mobility, Development, and the 2013 Michigan Offense
After playing 8 games in 2012 as Denard Robinson’s receiver, Gardner got a chance to gain game experience late in the season when Robinson went down with injury. And despite struggles in most of his starts, especially in the South Carolina bowl game, Gardner certainly flashed the skill set that left myself and likely many more evaluators excited for what 2013 would bring, and what his fit would be in this Al Borges offense. Tested early in the season by the Notre Dame defense, Gardner lived up to the high expectations, putting up 41 points.
Able to have success early in his quarterbacking career thanks to his athleticism as a runner, Gardner is a very efficient mover and runner, staying tight to his body and keeping control feet as he turns into a runner, gaining yards quickly and able to evade/work through tacklers. Running and moving in the pocket similarly to how Terrelle Pryor had surprising success for the Raiders a day later, Gardner’s athleticism should certainly be a key factor in the Michigan offense this year, already beginning to use him on designed rollouts and giving him easy-to-transition vertical, midfield, then run options as a passer.
As a passer, Gardner even moreso this year spins a tight ball when he’s set in the pocket and on designed rollouts. Keeps his release point high and using his whole body as a thrower, Gardner has developed his full body mechanics much better than his 2012 flashes. His placement, still a bit erratic and sailing passes when he’s asked to work from different foot platforms, is more consistent than expected, especially when working in the middle of the field and against 1v1 along the sidelines.
The Michigan offense with Gardner at the helm seems to be focused on simplified, half field reads that will allow Gardner to utilize his athletic ability on the move and still have options vertically. The rollout high-low-run options should be a staple of this offense, especially if the running game isn’t consistent game to game. His top receiver Jeremy Gallon was very impressive, optioning off his initial routes well, cutting across the field through traffic as a route runner, finishing catches with a strong base and controlled laterally, and finishing catches in traffic with good box-outs. Watching these two work together all year should make for one of the better duos in college football.
Top 10….Two Week Heisman Rankings
While this isn’t meant to be a firm prediction, it’s important to keep an open mind of who may be in the mix based on the high expectations for all of these passers. Their teams’ final record will also have a lot to do with their hopes of getting into the final Heisman voting standings.
1. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson
2. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
3. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
4. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
5. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
6. Stephen Morris, QB, Miami (FL)
7. Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
8. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama
9. Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
10a.Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford
10b. Blake Bortles, QB, UCF