September 01, 2013
The quarterback competition/controversy will rage on for at least another week.
Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith "both did some good things and some bad things," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.
We're here to take a look at their performance against Western Kentucky -- the only live-action football we've been able to see either play this fall. We'll show the good and the bad, because this isn't a clear-cut case. If it were, the staff wouldn't be having such difficulty finding their guy.
First, let's start with Whitlow.
His most obvious positive attribute is his running ability, and Neal Brown catered his play-calling to Whitlow's skills. Of the 16 first-down calls with Whitlow at quarterback, nine were runs and seven were passes (for comparison, less than 40 percent of first-down plays at Texas Tech last year were runs).
The running game was effective with Whitlow in the game, no doubt. Yet it turned the Air Raid into the Ground Raid. Whitlow's two biggest runs came on two read-options that were inverses of each other.
His 50-yarder sent the running back to the middle and Whitlow to the outside:
... While his 20-yard touchdown run was the inverse, with the running back going on an outside sweep and Whitlow assigned to an inside run (that he ended up bouncing outside).
Whitlow made the right read both times (watch the defensive end on the near side in the first one and the linebacker on the second leave his gap in the middle) and then used his ability to make an explosive play -- something that staff fears won't be as readily available without Whitlow.
These are also two huge chunks of yards that wouldn't happen (at least not in this fashion) with Smith in. That's worth remembering.
But, while his running does provide an extra element to the offense, it can't come at the expense of the rest. And we didn't see Whitlow throw the ball well enough to create consistent offense. Even besides his two horrific passes to start the game, he struggled with inconsistency and finding the right targets at the right times.
He did have a few good passes -- a really good strike over Demarco Robinson's shoulder on the outside, a few decent balls over the middle, and this throw to Javess Blue on the sideline. It comes on a Four Verticals play call, and it's again an instance of Whitlow using his feet to his advantage. Nothing (apparently) is open at the outset, but Whitlow avoids the pass rush, rolls right and finds an open Blue. Whether Blue cut his route off after seeing trouble or whether it was designed, I'm not sure. But it's another instance of a play that probably wouldn't have been made with Smith.
But Whitlow didn't seem to be in control of the passing game to an advanced degree. Most of his looks were to his first read, and he didn't display many instances of going through a progression and recognizing/reacting to what the defense was playing.
Like this one. The nickel corner (on the slot receiver) will, right before the snap, move off his man and blitz. A safety drops down to take his spot, and WKU then plays a zone. Whitlow fails to properly react, and throws to the outside receiver on a slant. The linebacker reads Whitlow all the way and should have had an easy interception. You can see in the last frame that Whitlow is about to throw right at a Wildcat with two WKU defenders surrounding him:
Smith, meanwhile, did the opposite. He made quite a few throws that were easy and manageable, but also required either a) a quick look and throw, or b) a nice read through his progression. He made completions on multiple underneath routes -- the kind of "routine plays" that Brown said his Air Raid offense is built on -- and, though he made a few too many downfield attempts for me (five of his 13 attempts were airing it out to a receiver on a sideline "go" route), part of that can likely be attributed from playing down multiple scores and needing quick points.
But here's an example of a nice play that used good route combinations and the correct read. Watch the two receivers on the close side of the screen. Javess Blue, on the outside, will run a quick "in" route, while Steve Borden, lined up inside, will run a corner route.
The defense gets confused -- it appears they're playing zone and mixed up who was staying with whom -- so that made the throw easier for Smith. But he also had two options open (Blue and Borden had space around them) and he made the right read -- and a good throw. Not something that I'd be 100 percent confident Whitlow could do at this point.
He also wasn't perfect -- if he was a top-flight quarterback, I don't think there would be any question he would be starting. He didn't make many bad choices against WKU, but he said he has in scrimmages (the predominant reason he lost the job, according to Smith) and this one play against WKU shows that he can be prone to miscues.
I can't show the whole play, but Smith dropped back and double-clutched before firing the ball on a deep route over the middle. As you'll see in the pictures, he had his man open with a tight but feasible window. However, he was late (the hesitation double-clutch didn't help) and he didn't have the velocity needed to fit the ball in that window. By the time it arrived to his receiver, WKU's safety had recovered -- and should have picked it off.
Now, one complication to this whole analysis: three quarters of one QB and one quarter of the other is a terribly small sample size to judge. We weren't allowed to watch any of their practices or scrimmages in the fall. And when I asked Brown whether their performances against WKU were pretty much in line with how they had been doing in practice, he said he couldn't answer that without watching the film.
So maybe Whitlow has been a better passer in the fall and just didn't have it. Maybe Smith has been making more mistakes than we saw against WKU. (Plus, he went in with WKU already holding a sizeable lead, and his success in the fourth quarter of a game largely out of hand doesn't mean he would have had the same success in the first through third quarters.)
All we can go off of (for right now) is what we have. To me, it calls for Smith at quarterback. He's a better passer, no doubt. He can run the offense Neal Brown is used to calling, while Whitlow requires Brown to essentially create an entirely different system that emphasizes drastically different things than what he's used to. And yes, Smith has an injury history. But unless that's still affecting him, it shouldn't preclude him from being the starter if he's the best option.
Defenses will only get better, and unless Whitlow is also much better than what we saw, they will eat up the run-heavy offense that UK had to run with him in the game. I don't think that offense is the best to use for 60 minutes.