It's the time of the year when smokescreens are being made, mock drafts are being set and college coaches are trying to get one last positive word in about their former players before the draft. The latter's what it looked like when many read the comments of Duke head coach David Cutcliffe on his most recent quarterback, Sean Renfree.
“I’ve looked at almost every guy available and I think Sean Renfree is the most accurate passer in the draft,” Cutcliffe said. “There’s a reason as a three-year starter that he’s the most accurate passer in our history. He has great knowledge and an uncanny ability of putting the ball where he needs to put it.”
It's debatable whether Renfree is the most accurate passer in the draft. An argument can be made for it though. In most cases, accurate quarterbacks in college are accurate in the NFL. And there's no doubt about it, Renfree's been accurate. His completion percentages as a starter the last three years are 61.4 (2010), 64.9 (2011) and 67.2 (2012).
If you're thinking he's only accurate because he doesn't make many difficult throws, think again. Renfree does a good job of throwing through windows at the intermediate and vertical depth and shows very good anticipation. Why does the anticipation matter? Because it's a large number of the throws that he'll have to make in the NFL.
A good quarterback is like a traditional soccer midfielder (e.g. Italy's Andrea Pirlo), as he sits back and spreads the ball around the field before defenders and even his own players expect it.
Here's one example of Renfree doing his best impression. He's sitting back in the pocket after taking a quick dropback and is scanning the field on third-and-15. To his right is a wide receiver running a dig route toward the middle of the field. When the receiver breaks inside, Renfree is already raising his shoulder to throw the ball.
The receiver isn't open yet but the middle of the field is. There's no middle linebacker or safety patrolling it, thus Renfree is free to throw in it. When he finally does, the ball is thrown accurately for the target to bring it in for a first down.
When Cutcliffe was discussing the pro potential of his quarterback, he made an astute point about arm strength – a trait that many deem very important for the NFL.
“If you’re going to succeed in the NFL, it’s not about strong arms,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s not about trying to hammer throws in there. It’s about extreme accuracy. Every level you play football, people are less open. And it’s being able to command the ball. And Sean consistently commands the ball better than any other quarterback that I see coming out.”
One reason he made the comment is because many are questioning the arm strength of Renfree. Some are debating whether he can make all of the necessary throws that allow the playbook to be opened up from cover to cover. Admittedly, he can't. He doesn't have the ability to throw with great velocity or drive the ball 60 yards downfield like Joe Flacco can. However, he doesn't need to have an arm like Flacco. In a league where the measure of arm strength can be defined simply as good enough or not good enough, Renfree's is good enough and like Cutcliffe said, he commands the ball well.
What he also does well is understand the down-and-distance in a game. It's another important aspect of playing quarterback because it shows an understanding of situational football. Every week in the pros, there are quarterbacks that throw the ball too short of the first down marker and end up leaving yards and points in the box score.
In Renfree's case, he understands where to go with the ball and who to go to. Consider this simple check down against Cincinnati.
The Duke Blue Devils have a combination of routes that are geared toward clearing out the middle of the field for the running back to catch a pass on third-and-seven. One receiver to the quarterback's far left runs a clearout route while the other two run out routes. To the right is another receiver that will run a square-in route, and in the middle of the field, the running back will sit down as an outlet.
FIU will be playing Cover 2 on this play, which is a five under, two deep zone. At the snap, the middle linebacker will drop down the seam similar to a Tampa 2 linebacker, leaving the underneath vacant for the two outside linebackers to cover. One of the outside linebackers, the weak-side linebacker (circled), will end up in trouble, though.
When the ball snaps, the weak-side linebacker follows the eyes of Renfree, which are fixed on his receivers to his left. As the linebacker is watching Renfree, he loses discipline and leaves the middle of the field vacant. That allows the running back to come through the offensive line and sit down wide open for a pass.
At this point, it's up to Renfree to make a smart decision. He can throw the ball outside the left hash to one of his receivers but that's not ideal. In this situation, a quarterback is taught to throw the ball to his running back because he's most likely to go one-on-one against a linebacker. More often than not, the running back will beat the linebacker.
Renfree's ability to take in coaching and show an understanding of the game is illustrated with his throw to the running back, who catches the pass and ends up scoring a touchdown.
This will be important when it comes to having a chance to play at the next level. The coaches need to put a quarterback that they can trust on the field and that's what they'll be able to do with Renfree, provided he continues to work hard at learning the game and further developing his fundamentals.
Renfree's not going to be drafted highly because he doesn't have all of the physical tools that teams look for. He'll be knocked down draft boards because of a shoulder injury and many will question his arm strength, but he's a mid-round talent with the tools to develop into a starting quarterback.