Geno Smith's numbers so far this season are so good they're almost laughable. However, the scheme he plays in has been described as "gimmicky" and, up to last weekend, he had not exactly faced a murderer's row of defenses. Time to take a look at what makes Smith so special.
There's nothing that I can write about the Air Raid offense that Chris Brown of SmartFootball.com hasn't already covered in a more thorough and insightful fashion than I could ever hope to. I'll link to his work on the WVU offense at the end of the article, but I found this passage to be particularly illuminating regarding quarterbacks and offensive systems:
"An unfair but unsurprising label for Smith, given Holgorsen's history, is that he's a 'system quarterback.' … The most common concern about system quarterbacks is that college productivity doesn't translate to pro success, but for Smith, the plays he's running, albeit in a spread offense, are essentially NFL ones. The running game is based on the inside and outside zone, the passing plays are found in every NFL team's playbook in one form or another, and, this season in particular, Smith throws the ball vertically down the field. This is not the old dink-and-dunk Mike Leach offense — death by a thousand shallow crosses. Smith is making the safety move and hitting the deep post or corner for a touchdown, just like they do on Sundays."
Now, are there certain facets of the WVU offense that pad Smith's numbers? There are plays like the Shuffle Pass, which is nothing more than a Jet Sweep that is tossed forward instead of handed off and counts as a pass. However, what Smith is doing is largely a function of his own talent and development as a passer, along with excellent chemistry with his supporting cast. The eventual totality of his numbers and the offensive system he plays in are secondary to evaluating his traits and skills as a passer. And in those facets, he's elite.
A secondary complaint made about Smith has been how few quality opponents he has faced. Last year, he had a better performance against LSU (who had an NFL caliber secondary) than any other quarterback that they played. Shredding through the likes of Marshall, James Madison, Maryland, and Baylor to open the season, Smith and the rest of the Mountaineers faced their first major test of the season last Saturday against Texas.
Manny Diaz's Texas defense (Explained here) is arguably one of the most complex (in terms of scheme) and rich (in terms of talent) in the country. He vacillates between man coverages, pattern-match zones, and zone blitzes, brings pressures from everywhere, and generally makes life very difficult for quarterbacks. Last season, the Texas defense held Brandon Weeden and the explosive Oklahoma State passing game (whose offensive system was installed by current WVU Head Coach, Dana Holgorsen) to just 218 passing yards and one touchdown on 41 attempts.
In theory, pattern-match zones in football play out similarly to matchup-zones in basketball. The defenders don't drop to pre-designated landmarks and wait to break on the ball, but rather they read the offense's route combinations and choke off space by playing man on receivers that enter their area. When executed properly, defenses can seamlessly pass receivers off to each other. Combined with pressure, and you can begin to understand why good pattern-match zones can be a nightmare for quarterbacks. Basically, this is really nasty NFL stuff brought to college football courtesy of one Nick Saban (although major h/ts are in order to TCU's Gary Patterson as well).
Now, most people have seen a ton of Smith's hugely exciting plays down the field. However, I wanted to show a couple of plays against in the 4th quarter against Texas to point out how truly advanced he is at the craft of playing quarterback.
Converting for the Nonbelievers
It's the 4th quarter, WVU is down by 4 points, and facing 4th and 6. They line up in 20 personnel (two backs, zero tight ends), with two receivers to the wide side of the field and a single receiver to the short side. Smith sees Texas in a two-deep safety set and calls a route combo to specifically attack it - the Fade/Out concept.
The idea here is that against Cover 2, the Fade will come open in between the corner and the safety. Against Cover 2, there Out combined with the running back in the flat should create a horizontal stretch on the underneath zone defender (in this case, the nickelback). Things aren't as easy as you draw them up on the whiteboard, however, because Texas is playing pattern-match Cover 2.
With only one threat to the weakside of the formation, the left corner makes a "Meg" call, playing man-to-man coverage. The right corner gives the Z receiver, Stedman Bailey, a free release into the fade route. He will sink downfield to protect the infamous Cover 2 "honey hole," while facing inside to read the slot receiver and the quarterback. The nickelback drops vertically facing the sideline, looking to carry the slot receiver up the seam and/or wall him off against intermediate in-breaking routes. The inside linebackers drop and react to any back releasing to their side of the field. As you can see, even though the pass concept is designed to attack a two-deep safety look, the pattern-matching aspect allows the defense to minimize its holes and essentially play hybrid man/zone principles.
Smith can see that this is going to be a really difficult throw. With a safety over the top (not pictured), the Longhorns have a numbers advantage to the passing strength - three underneath defenders to cover two underneath receivers. Throwing the fade to the "honey hole" isn't an option because of the sinking corner - who is basically waiting and baiting the quarterback into an errant throw that he can close on. Math and leverage dictates this play as a win for the defense. Remember though, it's 4th down in the 4th quarter and WVU trails. There is no living for another down. Knowing that he must make a tough throw into a tight window, Smith pulls the trigger on Tavon Austin running the out.
Smith cannot place the throw hard to the outside, as he'll either lead Austin directly into the sinking corner or allow the corner to make a break and get a hand on the throw. It also has to get up and over at a trajectory that will clear the nickelback. Smith throws it exactly to where he needs to, high and to Austin's back shoulder, letting him go up and put his body between the ball and the corner. The 4th down is converted and WVU keeps it's drive alive.
Making It Count
There's not much point in converting on 4th down unless you cap the drive off with some points. Smith did just that, punctuating the drive with another fantastic throw into very tight coverage.
On 2nd and 4 from the 6 yard line, Texas is playing straight Cover 2 man. WVU runs play action off of Outside Zone. The two outside wide receivers run slants, with the slot running a corner route.
Once again, Texas has tight coverage across the board - what looks like a win for the defense. Smith sees the safety (#17) driving hard and the slant to the single receiver side, but at too deep of an angle. Stedman Bailey flattens out his slant and Smith makes a great anticipation throw into a tight window, releasing the ball just before Bailey crosses the safety's face.
Making the difficult look easy. Smith will have to do the same on Saturday against Texas Tech, who surprisingly is ranked as the top passing defense in the country from a statistics perspective. But the top quarterback in the 2013 NFL Draft should be able to handle it.
Air Raid Primer
Holgorsen's WVU Offense
Latest Wrinkles in the WVU Offense