So, we're all familiar with the scouting report from Pro Football Weekly's Nolan Nawrocki, in which West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith is said to be "a gimmick, overhyped product of the system lacking the football savvy, work habits and focus to cement a starting job," who "could drain energy from a QB room." If you're not, you can read more about it, and the responses of those who know Smith, here. Safe to say that none of the people who have actually talked and worked with the man thought to be the consensus number-one quarterback in the upcoming NFL draft would agree with Nawrocki's slam-job.
Smith recently put himself under the microscope of a more experienced and respected evaluator when he agreed to participate in "Gruden's QB Camp," the show in which former NFL head coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden goes one-on-one with draft prospects. It's a fascinating series, because you get to see Gruden ask a lot of the same types of questions you might see if you were in a team interview -- especially when the player is asked to go to the whiteboard and detail the schemes and structures he used to get him to this point (You can view a programming schedule here).
"I want to see how much substance is behind these statistics," Gruden said in the show's opener. "I want to find out how they pull this off. How they practice it, and how many concepts they have in their offense. I want to find out how he reads patterns, and some of the exact responsibilities he does have."
Gruden got his answer pretty quickly.
First, as is pointed out in the show, the "simplicity" of the West Virginia offense is mitigated to a point by the fact that the Mountaineers were averaging about 95 plays per game during one stretch of the season with their hurry-up offense -- a good 20 plays more than a team would generally manage at a common tempo. That's common to any quick-paced scheme -- when Tom Brady comes to the line when the New England Patriots run no-huddle, he may have a two- or three-digit call. There isn't a lot of time to go past that if you want to keep defenses on their heels. And with that offensive speed comes more responsibility for the quarterback. He has to come to the line, read the defense, and decide who's doing what.
"It's like being in a movie -- you're the director," Smith told Gruden. "You're putting guys in place, lining up sets, lining up formations, getting good looks. If you don't like the look, slow it down and gets your wits about you. Maybe throw out a couple of dummy cadences and see what's going on. Maybe switch a formation to see who moves and who doesn't (a common trap to discern whether a defense is playing man or zone coverage). Ultimately, defenses have to react to the offense."
On one weak-side zone running play that Smith details, the team lines up in a Pistol formation with receiver Tavon Austin screaming from the offensive right to left pre-snap. Smith turns with a counter handoff look and gives it to the running back on what Gruden calls "96 Wanda," but he could give it to Austin as he's moving in front of him in the formation.
"This is 'Ace,'" Smith said. "Tavon is the 'Y' receiver, so it's "Y Quick 16.' So, instead of '96,' it's '16' for us. I'm running up to the line, yelling, '16, 16' -- telling my offensive linemen, and letting Tavon know he's got a quick [call]. I've got the option to throw my 'Z' [receiver] a quick screen because [the cornerback] is so far off. There's so much intricacy in this simple play right here."
Smith then drew up '416 Quick Right' (what Gruden called '96 Wanda') on the board, first detailing the blocking responsibilities of the receivers to his left. He explained Austin's tap option, and the bobble screen option of the 'Z' receiver. Now, what Smith has to discern at the line in a split second is a bit more complicated. If there is a blitz to the strong side, Smith has to read it, and he won't want to send Austin into that. If the corner/safety combo to the weak side is switching up and the 'Z' receiver has the opening to take it deeper, Smith has to understand that, create the call, and time that new route up. If he decides to pitch it to Austin, that mesh point has to be perfectly synchronized.
Gruden's conclusion? "He's audibling. He's recognizing coverage rotations, and different techniques by defenders. They've asked him to do a lot at West Virginia. I learned a lot about him as a person -- he's a very conscientious, high-character guy. I like that."
Amazing what actually talking with Geno Smith, and actually putting Geno Smith through the paces, can do.