If you asked most evaluators on the web where they would slot West Virginia’s Geno Smith after the first five weeks of the college football season, they would have told you No. 1 overall. Now there are questions as to whether he’ll even be a Top 10 selection and criticism is coming from all angles. The latter is to be expected, as it is draft season when we all have an opinion, but the criticism of the signal-caller may be misplaced.
Since the college football season ended, some have cited a lack of arm strength as a chief concern about Smith. This is a questionable critique because there are dozens of throws that are show to the contrary. They illustrate good enough arm strength to hit throws outside the numbers from various platforms, which include from the far hash and deep from outside of the pocket.
Even though there are quality throws made from these positions, there are legitimate questions as to why some of the attempts didn’t get to the intended target. One thing is clear: They are not because of arm strength, rather improper footwork.
Improper footwork is something that’s common by young quarterbacks and something I admittedly often harp on. The only reason I do is because proper footwork is vital for a passer due to how much control it has over where the ball is placed and if it gets to the target. In Smith’s case, what he fails to do is step through his throws, which naturally causes a failure to rotate the hips. One instance came against Texas.
When Smith dropped back on one particular play, he had a receiver running an outside breaking route to his left in the short side of the field. It was going to be a quick throw for rhythmic purposes but he still had to get the ball out with proper footwork. This meant that when he went to throw the football, he’d have to step through his throw, which he didn’t do; what he did instead was plant his foot into the ground at the spot he was already at.
What this does is makes it difficult for him to rotate his hips because there is no forward movement of them. If one attempts this at their backyard or, say, near their computer, for example, they will notice that once their foot goes straight into the ground at the same spot, they are forced to turn their entire body when they are throwing the football.
Turning the entire body to rotate the hips can also mean raising the back leg up higher in an effort to add more velocity to the throw. Consequently, raising the back leg makes the shoulders more parallel to the field, which is noticeable as Smith follows through on his throws.
This type of footwork is not an issue for every quarterback, however. Some quarterbacks are able to get away with it because of the velocity on their throws (e.g. Aaron Rodgers), but it’s unlikely that Smith will be able to. As seen in the Kansas State game, for example, he isn’t always able to drive the football outside the numbers, which could be a problem in the NFL until he fixes the problem.
There are other concerns with the Mountaineers quarterback too. Although he’s very smooth and subtle when avoiding pass-rushers in the pocket, he has had issues throwing the football on the run at times. This is not to say he isn’t athletic but it’s safe to say that he is a traditional pocket passer and simply operates better in the pocket.
Moreover, there are several aspects of Smith’s game that are admirable. For one, he’s a very accurate passer and has shown that he can anticipate pass-catchers across the middle. He knows where windows are opening up and when his receiver will run into them. In the same game against Texas, he showed the ability to do the above on a tight throw against zone coverage into the wide side of the field.
Before I dissect the play itself, it should be noted that West Virginia is trailing 34-to-38 early in the fourth quarter and it’s 4th-and-6. This is a crucial down and distance for the team and for Smith, a pass that must be completed.
The throw itself is to the slot receiver, who is running a deep out against the previously mentioned zone coverage of the Longhorns. There is a defender, safety Kenny Vaccaro, shaded inside of him and outside, a cornerback playing soft coverage in the flat. There’s also a deep safety over the top, but he isn’t a factor on the play because he’s getting over the top of the outside receiver’s clearout route.
When Smith drops back and goes to make the throw, he has to understand that there are very few places he can fit the ball in. If he throws the ball outside of Austin, there’s a good chance the receiver is going to take a strong and direct shot. If he throws it inside, there’s a possibility that Vaccaro, who is trailing and looking to undercut the route, intercepts it.
So the best way to place this throw is high and behind, thus shielding the receiver and giving him a good chance of catching the football. And that’s exactly what Smith does as he completes the pass for a chain-moving first down.
This is a brilliant throw by Smith and one that not only shows he can take in coaching but also process the information he’s being given by the defense.
Of course, a week later, he made a throw that saw his receiver take a tough hit outside on a similar route but that’s part of learning the position. He’s still learning the ins-and-outs of the position and if he figures them out at the next level, he has the talent to be an upper-echelon quarterback. Whether that means he is a worthy of a first overall pick or the tenth, I’m not sure but with value scattered across the board in this draft, I can see a team selecting him very early and thinking they’ve got themselves a quarterback akin to the Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Romo.