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Evaluating Mac Jones, a loaded WR draft class and more idle college football thoughts

Part of the draw of college football is the endless supply of interesting topics to discuss. In an offseason that has seen sports come to a total stop due to the coronavirus, now’s the time to prove it. The world is full of uncertainty, but we’re going to distract and entertain ourselves with sports all the same. And here are four topics that are particularly intriguing to me at the moment.

Exactly how good is Mac Jones?

I was surprised when my SP+ projections placed Alabama atop the 2020 preseason pile; I assumed it would be either Ohio State or Clemson. But the main reason for the favorable projection was that, while the Crimson Tide technically don’t return their starting quarterback, they sort of do.

Jones started four games for an injured Tua Tagovailoa last season and looked awfully good. Granted, his biggest mistakes were enormous — two pick-sixes against Auburn basically knocked the Tide out of College Football Playoff contention — but he produced a better passer rating against Auburn than LSU’s Joe Burrow and a better rating against Michigan than Ohio State’s Justin Fields. Jones completed 69% of his passes with a 186.8 passer rating, numbers that would blow out of the water just about any quarterback not named Tagovailoa.

Comparing Jones’ abbreviated 2019 production with Tagovailoa’s from 2018, when Tagovailoa was a first-time starter, reinforces this point: Both completed 69% of their passes, and Jones’ 91.1 Total QBR nearly equaled Tagovailoa’s 93.1. (Tagovailoa raised those numbers to 71% and 94.8, respectively, last fall.) So the bar is pretty dang high for what Jones might be able to accomplish if there’s a 2020 season.

I thought it might be worthwhile to dive a little deeper: How did Jones’ production differ from Tagovailoa’s? Where was he better or worse?

Let’s compare their production (Jones’ from 2019, Tagovailoa’s from 2018 and 2019) in different areas of the field with data from Sports Info Solutions.

Passes behind the line of scrimmage:

  • Tagovailoa: 131-for-145 (90% completion rate), 1,091 yards, 8 TD, 0 INT, 7.5 yards per attempt, 8.6 adjusted yards per attempt* (AY/A), 81.6 QBR

  • Jones: 42-for-46 (91%), 345 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT, 7.5 yds/att, 9.2 AY/A, 87.9 QBR

* Adjusted yards per attempt starts with a passer’s per-pass yardage but adds 20 yards for every touchdown and subtracts 45 for every INT.

These quick, easy strikes were a staple of Alabama’s offense, and they should be a staple of any offense that has a deep set of receivers who can block. The quarterbacks’ performances were about the same, though there is one potentially important difference: They made up about 34% of Jones’ passes to 24% of Tagovailoa’s. Either Jones was settling for easy throws more frequently or offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was giving him easier throws to make. (That wouldn’t be unheard of with your backup QB in the game.)

0 to 10 yards downfield:

  • Tagovailoa: 165-for-231 (71%), 2,147 yards, 26 TD, 3 INT, 9.3 yds/att, 11.0 AY/A, 94.0 QBR

  • Jones: 26-for-44 (59%), 308 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT, 7.0 yds/att, 5.9 AY/A, 26.1 QBR

The difference here is jarring. Tagovailoa threw a higher percentage of his passes within this range (39% vs. Jones’ 32%) and thrived, while Jones was somewhere between mediocre and downright bad. We’ll come back to this.

11 to 20 yards downfield:

  • Tagovailoa: 84-for-138 (61%), 1,775 yards, 19 TD, 4 INT, 12.9 yds/att, 14.3 AY/A, 96.0 QBR

  • Jones: 21-for-29 (72%), 533 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT, 18.4 yds/att, 19.6 AY/A, 99.5 QBR

This is an even smaller sample than the categories above, but in said small sample, Jones shined. A former blue-chipper himself, he has plenty of arm strength, and his timing on these intermediate routes was potentially even better than Tagovailoa’s. Jones threw these passes as frequently as Tagovailoa, as well: They made up 21% of his passes to Tagovailoa’s 23%.

21-plus yards downfield:

  • Tagovailoa: 45-for-82 (55%), 1,793 yards, 23 TD, 2 INT, 21.9 yds/att, 26.4 AY/A, 99.9 QBR

  • Jones: 7-for-17 (41%), 309 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT, 18.2 yds/att, 22.9 AY/A, 90.7 QBR

Jones pales in comparison to Tagovailoa in this category, but considering Jones still had a QBR over 90, we’re going to say he was inferior because Tagovailoa was one of the greatest deep ball passers we’ve ever seen. (Yes, it helps to have Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle at your disposal for these deep balls. Still … 99.9 QBR!)

So Jones was mostly throwing the same passes as Tagovailoa, and he was between good and brilliant in every range but one. But to remain one of the most effective offenses in the country, Alabama is going to need Jones to perform better on short, quick efficiency passes.

So what the heck happened on those shorter passes?

You can home in on Jones’ struggles in this range pretty easily: He was 6-for-14 for 51 yards, a touchdown and a pick-six against Auburn and Tennessee (AY/A: 1.9) and 20-for-30 for 257 yards, a TD and an interception against everyone else (AY/A: 7.7).

I went back and looked at the 14 passes he threw against Auburn and Tennessee — defenses that finished the year ranked fifth and 19th in defensive SP+, respectively — to see if there were any trends to the struggles. Of the eight incompletions he threw …

  • Two were well-defended by Auburn — one was batted down at the line, and one was a slant swallowed up by a defensive back.

  • Two were terribly underthrown, either because of miscommunication or simply poor footwork/execution.

  • Two were well-thrown but dropped. A factor of small samples — Bama pass-catchers weren’t exactly prone to drops overall.

  • One would have been completed had the receiver not slipped.

  • One was the panic throw that flipped the Auburn game. Throwing from near the Auburn goal line in the third quarter, Jones was pressured the moment he got the snap. He threw at running back Najee Harris before Harris had turned to look for the ball, and Zakoby McClain collected it off Harris’ back and took it 100 yards for a go-ahead score. Instead of going up by eight points, Alabama was suddenly down by six.

It’s possible that Harris was supposed to look back for the ball sooner, but visually, this played out like some of the panicked basketball passes I made when full-court pressed in junior high.

Jones was far from blameless in this set of passes. There were footwork issues with a couple of throws, and he certainly needs more reps to get a better feel for pressure. But it bears mentioning that he threw a gorgeous red zone touchdown in the face of immediate pressure against Auburn too.

To the extent that Jones’ poor numbers in this range were on him, they are far from unfixable. He’ll begin the season with far less hype than either Ohio State’s Fields or Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, but with Smith, Waddle, Harris and a veteran line all returning, there’s no reason to think the Tide will have anything besides another top-five offense. And if incoming blue-chip freshman Bryce Young can beat out Jones, as some initially predicted when Young signed, then … well … Young is really, really good.

Jeudy vs. a loaded draft class (and man defenses)

It’s hard to fathom just how good Bama’s receiving corps was last year, but try this on as a descriptor: Mel Kiper Jr. currently ranks Jeudy and Ruggs Nos. 1 and 3 in an absolutely loaded class of wide receiver prospects — one that Kiper thinks might feature seven first-round picks — but they were the second- and third-best receivers Alabama had. Smith was the most dangerous of the bunch in 2019, serving as both the best behind-the-line catch-and-run guy and the best deep threat.

Jeudy and Ruggs were still awesome, though. And it’s not hard to see why Jeudy in particular would start out atop the pile. He won the 2018 Biletnikoff Award, and among Kiper’s top 10 receivers, he was by far the most well-rounded: third in career yards, fourth in career catch rate, fourth in career yards per catch, fourth in career success rate, and so on. Jeudy was about as consistent as you could ever ask a college receiver to be: He wasn’t a one-year standout like LSU’s Justin Jefferson (Jefferson went from extremely boom or bust in 2018 to all boom in 2019), and he faced primarily No. 1 corners for multiple years, unlike Ruggs or Clemson’s Tee Higgins.

Most notably, though, Jeudy raised his game in volatile moments: He was third in red zone catch rate (67%, behind Laviska Shenault Jr.‘s 71% and Jefferson’s 68%), and he was far and away No. 1 in blitz downs yards per target. I define blitz downs as second-and-super long (18 yards to go or more) or third-and-5 or more. These are dangerous situations for offenses, but they’re also supreme big-play opportunities. Kiper’s top-10 WR prospects averaged a 63% catch rate and 16.9 yards per catch on blitz downs; if the QB had time to get the pass off to these guys, good things happened. But Jeudy was next-level good: 71% catch rate and 20.9 yards per catch. He averaged 14.8 yards per target for his career, and no one else was higher than 12.8.

There’s one confusing quirk in Jeudy’s statistical body of work, though.

For the first two-thirds or so of the 2018 season, Alabama’s passing game might have been the best in the history of college football to date. The Tide averaged 54 points per game in their first eight contests, and in this span, Jeudy was devastating against both man and zone defense — as he caught 16 of 22 balls for 443 yards against man (20.1 per target) and 11 of 19 for 259 yards against zone (13.6).

Beginning with that year’s LSU game, however, something changed, likely because of shifts in defensive strategies (and improvement in the quality of opposition). The Tide continued to put up big numbers, but they weren’t quite as big, and Jeudy became a zone-only guy. Over his final 20 collegiate games, he grew even more prolific against zone defenses (13.8 yards per target) but did minimal damage against man (7.1). And against his top-prospect peers, his 2019 numbers stand out in a less-than-positive way:

Kiper’s top 10 receiver prospects vs. man and zone in 2019:

Jeudy: 5.5 yards per target vs. man, 12.1 vs. zone
CeeDee Lamb (Oklahoma): 6.4 vs. man, 16.6 vs. zone
Ruggs: 12.4 vs. man, 13.9 vs. zone
Higgins (Clemson): 12.7 vs. man, 12.9 vs. zone
Jefferson (LSU): 11.9 vs. man, 11.1 vs. zone
Denzel Mims (Baylor): 9.4 vs. man, 8.5 vs. zone
Michael Pittman Jr. (USC): 11.9 vs. man, 8.5 vs. zone
Shenault (Colorado): 12.9 vs. man, 8.4 vs. zone
Brandon Aiyuk (Arizona State): 7.3 vs. man, 13.0 vs. zone
Chase Claypool (Notre Dame): 8.1 vs. man, 10.1 vs. zone

(Aiyuk was the discount-brand Jeudy, not only in his man/zone splits but also in his key-downs prowess: While Aiyuk was mostly a one-year hit, he averaged 16.1 yards per target on blitz downs.)

Jeudy was primarily a safe, quick, bailout option against man in 2019, while his batterymates did most of the heavy damage. Was this simply a strategic adjustment, almost using Jeudy as a decoy? Was he struggling to beat better corners? The answer will determine his level of effectiveness in the more man-heavy NFL.

Tempo, and why Northwestern is interesting for once

During any cycle of offensive evolution, defenses adjust. And while they’re still scrambling to adjust to the way the best offenses use run-pass options (and they never did adjust to the things LSU was doing last season), one thing is certain: They’ve figured out tempo. Defenses’ signals are faster and their adjustments and substitutions are more organized; and for the most part, offenses have come to use tempo as a timely weapon instead of a full identity.

To illustrate this point, we’ll look at a measure I call adjusted tempo. The idea behind it is to consider two things: seconds per play and run-pass ratio. The latter informs the former in a lot of ways — the more pass-heavy offenses are, the more incompletions and clock-stoppages are involved, and the more snaps you end up accumulating in a certain amount of time. I use a team’s run-pass ratio to create an expected seconds-per-play average, then I compare the team’s actual tempo to the expectation.

In 2019, Josh Heupel’s UCF squad ran the fastest offense in the country by this measure: The Knights’ expected time of possession per play was 26.1 seconds based on a 55% run rate. Their actual tempo was 20.1 seconds per play, six seconds faster. Stanford came in at the slowest tempo, averaging 4.6 seconds per play more than expected.

It makes sense that a Heupel offense would move so quickly and find advantage in doing so, but these offenses are a rarer breed. In 2012, seven teams had a tempo at least five seconds faster than the expectation, and 18 had a tempo three or more seconds faster. In 2019, there were only three teams beyond five seconds and 10 beyond three seconds.

2019 adjusted tempo rankings:

UCF (6.0 seconds faster than expected)
Utah State (5.1)
Boston College (5.1)
Kent State (4.2)
Ole Miss (4.1)
SMU (3.9)
Wake Forest (3.7)
Florida State (3.2)
Georgia State (3.2)
Arizona (3.1)
Texas Tech (3.0)
UMass (2.9)
Nebraska (2.9)
Syracuse (2.9)
Florida Atlantic (2.7)

A majority of these offenses were led by guys with old-school air-raid or spread influences, but the No. 3 team on this list intrigues me. Boston College’s offense was led by head coach Steve Addazio and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian last season, and the Eagles had one of the most unique identities in the country, combining this high-level tempo with a heavy dose of not only rushing, but rushing with big dudes: 250-pound AJ Dillon, 240-pound David Bailey and 220-pound quarterbacks Dennis Grosel and Anthony Brown. We always hear about how offenses like Wisconsin’s will lean on foes with a heavy dose of rushing and physicality, wearing down defenses in the fourth quarter. But there’s a definitive difference between letting opponents rest for 30-plus seconds between snaps (as Wisconsin does) and the 22.5 seconds that BC allotted to its rivals. Which do you think will exhaust defenses more?

Now identity alone is only part of the battle. BC was inconsistent, especially after Brown got hurt, and averaged only 29 points per game (66th in FBS) with a No. 44 ranking in offensive SP+. But if you couldn’t knock the Eagles off-schedule, you were going to pay for it. The better defenses did this just fine: BC scored a total of 20 points against Clemson, Notre Dame and Cincinnati. But mortal defenses suffered: BC tallied 58 points against Syracuse, 45 against NC State, 39 against Louisville, 35 against Virginia Tech, and so on. BC was primarily a one-trick pony, especially after Brown went down, but that trick was pretty effective.

That makes Bajakian’s new employer intriguing. Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern was a zero-trick pony last season. The Wildcats again fielded a solid defense but ranked a ghastly 123rd in offensive SP+ in falling from 9-5 to 3-9. Against 10 Power 5 conference opponents, they averaged 12 points per game and 3.9 yards per play. Horrid.

There’s nothing saying NU will have the pieces Bajakian needs to build something particularly effective. Bajakian convinced Indiana grad transfer Peyton Ramsey to join him and quarterback in Evanston, Illinois. And the rest of the offense has loads of experience: The top four running backs and top six receivers all return, as do six offensive linemen with 78 career starts. That includes tackle Rashawn Slater, who was good enough to earn honorable mention all-conference kudos despite the lackluster play surrounding him. Experience matters less if the requisite amount of talent isn’t also involved, but step one in improving a destitute offense is establishing an identity. BC and Bajakian most certainly had that last year.

In 2000, Northwestern unveiled a powerful new strain of spread offense, marrying the old-school power concepts head coach Randy Walker and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson were raised on with the no-huddle concepts with which Clemson offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez was thriving. The results were staggering: The Wildcats improved from 110th in scoring offense to 10th, and Damien Anderson rushed for 2,063 yards.

Twenty years later, Fitzgerald will attempt a program rebound by basically doing the same thing. He even has an Anderson: Drake is Damien’s son, and he led the Wildcats in rushing last year.

What makes Louisiana’s run game so good?

My weekly 2020 division previews continue apace. We have worked through the MAC East and West and Conference USA East and West and will move on to the Sun Belt West this Friday. While we’re on the topic of fun, burly running attacks, let’s talk about one of 2019’s most interesting offenses: that of Billy Napier’s Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns.

UL wasn’t up-tempo like BC, but Napier and offensive coordinator Rob Sale crafted an attack not unlike what Kirk Ciarrocca put together at Minnesota. (Ciarrocca moved on to Penn State this offseason.) Both offenses relied on a straight-forward run attack — lots of inside-zone rushing, lots of pummeling between the tackles — but tagged run-pass options onto a large portion of the runs. They would grind you up until you put an eighth man in the box, then hit you with quick RPO passes. We talk a lot about how, when defenses adapt to offensive changes by getting smaller and faster, offenses tend to respond by getting bigger and stronger (and vice versa). What Minnesota and UL did in 2019 might serve as a blueprint for merging that principle with the concepts of the modern college offense.

I talked to Sale last week for a quick Q&A on the Ragin’ Cajuns’ run-heavy philosophy and how this offense came together.

–On establishing the run:

“We have a really good, talented offensive line, we have a really good tight end room, we’ve had some guys step up in that department. Our best players, as a group, it’s probably the depth at the running back position. They’re just really talented, either getting the ball handed to them or getting it out in space on the perimeter. The first guy’s not gonna bring them down, and they’re really smart, tough football players. [Indeed, UL backs Elijah Mitchell, Raymond Calais and Trey Ragas all averaged more than 3.2 yards after contact per carry, which is phenomenal.]

“But yes, we try to first establish the run, and play-action shots off of all the runs that we have. And we have RPO tags — if the quarterback likes it, he can rip it up there; and if not we have parameters set for him where he’s gonna hand the ball off.”

–On whether this offense came together because of Napier and Sale’s philosophy or because it was the best way to utilize the talent they inherited:

“I think it’s a best-of-both-worlds scenario. Me and Coach Napier’s backgrounds, we like to establish the run first, going all the way back to our days at Alabama [Sale was an analyst and assistant strength coach for the Crimson Tide from 2007 to 2011, and Napier was an analyst in 2011 then a position coach from 2013 to 2016], and then what we did for three-quarters of the [2017] season at Arizona State — we kinda found out the identity, who we were. But we inherited that football team here. The guys before us did a really good job when it came to recruiting O-line and running backs. A lot of those guys were horses that we already had.

“We pride ourselves on [having] very few negative plays in the run game. The line knows what to do, knows who to block, and versus multiple fronts. They know how to tell you their roles and their assignments. It doesn’t matter what a defense comes out in, we feel we’re still gonna be productive. We don’t want the running back to have to make somebody miss in the backfield; we want it to be a second-level defender.”

–On whether they’ve unlocked some sort of secret to running well in crowded spaces between the tackle (they were second in between-the-tackles rushing success rate and fifth in explosive play rate last season):

“I mean, there’s a formula to it. Coach Napier’s very smart, and we’re on the same page that it all starts with the run game and game plan. I’ll say that first. We’ve got talented players, yes, but we don’t just dial up run plays and just throw a ball out there.

“In Coach Napier’s verbiage, we want to know where the checkers are. You know what I mean? We like to get in formations where we know where the cats are gonna be, and we wanna get really, really good at them. And it’s not just the O-line that’s involved in the running game. It’s the tight ends. We put a lot on our tight ends, we play with multiple tight ends; if you wanna be in this system, you wanna come here and play tight end. They catch gimme passes in the naked [bootleg] game off the stretch [plays] that we do too. But our receivers’ buy-in, as well, blocking on the perimeter, was fantastic.”

–On Napier:

“Coach Napier, you look up Pro Football Focus — which is a game-changer for the football junkies of the world — and it might as well show his face. He’s always using those numbers, he’s always trying to find another way to do things, he’s not letting coaches get passive. How are they doing in professional development? How are they getting better? His ability to lay out a year-round program and a detailed plan, not only for the players and coaches, it’s pretty special. And he understands both sides of the ball. So I continue to this day to learn a lot from him.”

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