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Nick Fitzgerald and the art of spread QB eval

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NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Mullen figured out something rather groundbreaking with Dak Prescott at the helm of his offense at Mississippi State. Well, perhaps he figured it out back in Florida with Tim Tebow, or later when trying to contest Cam Newton at Auburn, but he recreated the magic by featuring Prescott and now seems poised to unlock the formula once more with Nick Fitzgerald.

The magic is what you can do in a spread offense when the QB is your inside runner. That particular skill set opens up a world of options.

It’s too uncommon to hear people talk player eval in terms of how easy it is to build a team around a particular player. People will typically evaluate players based on how well they fit into pre-selected roles or archetypes rather than how versatile they are and how easy it could be for them to fit alongside different types of players.

Most college programs use systems that make most positions an exercise in plug and play, but quarterback is generally a position that needs to be versatile enough to help the players around him fit together. He’s the edge and corner pieces of the puzzle.

The basis of every “spread to run” offense

The goal of the spread offense, if you couldn’t figure it out for yourself, is to “spread” the defense out and ideally to threaten them at two different points at the same time.

Run/pass options (RPOs) and option runs are the foundation of every style of “spread to run” system and they each turn the QB into a point guard who’s making one of a few different decisions in “pick’n’roll” type settings on nearly every play.

The run concepts or route combinations that teams will pair together depend a lot on other aspects of the team’s philosophy. Chip Kelly’s Oregon, for instance, preferred to put a lot of horizontal stress on teams and flood the field with as many speedsters as possible who could exploit the creases that would result.

Art Briles’ Baylor went the other direction and put vertical stress on opponents by combining two-back run concepts with vertical passes. His QBs were the ultimate point guard distributors, essentially choosing every play between tossing the ball to a big man flying at the rim (inside run) or else flipping it out wide to an open three-point shooter (vertical pass).

The QB will always put up big numbers in the spread offense but first and foremost he’s a trigger-man for making the system work with proper distribution.

Where is the value-add?

That’s the big question for a spread QB, once you get past the question of whether he can reliably make quick reads and distribute the ball properly on spread concepts. A point guard that’s only good at passing is a fine guy to have on your team but if you want to beat good defenses he’d better be passing to some great finishers or shooters. The value-add from a PG might come from his ability to finish at the rim or pull up and shoot. For a QB there are several places where he can bring value-add, here’s a few examples from some of 2016’s better spread signal-callers.

Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield value-add came mostly from the fact that he’s remarkably competent and capable in just about anything you’d like a spread QB to do. First of all, he’s capable of making good, quick decisions to either throw or run which unlocks the full theoretical arsenal of a spread playbook. RPOs, QB options, and multiple route combinations are littered across the Oklahoma playbook because Mayfield knows how to do them all.

He can make reads in the passing game and throw the ball accurately out to the hash marks, he can throw from the pocket, and he can throw on the move. In the run game, he’s quick enough to pull the ball and get loose on the perimeter or even dart through creases between the tackles. Listed at 6-1, 210 and probably more like 5-11, 205, he’s not a big punishing runner and he’s not terribly fast either, but if you don’t pay him due attention he can definitely beat you.

Finally, he’s really good when things break down at using his quickness to buy time and quick decision making to either make a play throwing the ball off the scramble or tucking it and grabbing yardage on the move. This may be his only “elite attribute” as he’s “good, not great” at most anything else you might want from a QB.

The fact that Mayfield is good or adequate at so many things has made it VERY easy for OC Lincoln Riley to plug in all kinds of different players around him and make hay at Oklahoma.

The Heisman winner Lamar Jackson’s main value add comes from his dominant athleticism that makes him an absolute terror in space. Jackson isn’t always a terribly accurate passer, although he can throw the ball great distances while on the move or standing still with an effortless flick of the wrist, but he’s definitely good enough to force teams to cover WRs when they line up out wide.

Once you’re spread out to defend Louisville’s formations, that’s when the real fun begins. How do you make sure you keep this guy corralled for the full game without him pulling away and burning you? I’m not sure there’s a defender in the country that can be reliably expected to tackle this guy in open space if Jackson has anything remotely resembling a two-way go.

Nick Fitzgerald and the Mullen masterpiece

Some teams look for particular value-add from their spread maestros while others tend to grab the best they can and then suit the offense around what that QB brings. Mullen is starting to build an archetype for a particular type of value-add he wants from his signal-callers and it’s based off guys like Tebow and Prescott.

His current QB Nick Fitzgerald is a pretty good passer. He threw 335 passes this season for 2287 yards, good for 6.8 yards per pass, with 21 TDs and 10 INTs. Not amazing, but not bad for a sophomore playing in the SEC West.

Here’s an example of some of his stronger points as a spread passer:

Auburn is playing cover 3 and bracketing the Bulldogs’ passing strength with a down safety. Fitzgerald reads the deep safety, fires the ball in rhythm and on time to a curl route where his team is at advantage on the weak side, and does so with a pass-rusher in his face that beat a blocker. The ball is dropped, but you can see enough here to know that Fitzgerald has real potential in a spread passing game, particularly if he’s surrounded in future seasons by better blocking and receiving.

Fitzgerald may even be able to bring some value-add in the future with his ability to stand tall, beat pass-rushers, and fire lasers down the field with his big arm. At 6-5, 230, Ben Roethlisberger is the inevitable comparison and there is some of that ability to get free and throw down the field.

His real value-add though is what that frame allows him to do as a runner. Here’s another tantalizing glimpse of the schematic possibilities he brings to the Mississippi State offense:

That’s a QB Power run with a pass option to throw a quick bubble to the field if Auburn left it there to be had. This is is maximal stress to put on a defense with a power run behind lead blocking to one end of the field combined with a perimeter screen to an athlete on the other end. How do you get enough defenders to the point of attack to stop a big, lumbering QB like Fitzgerald from picking up yardage in chunks?

Well if his OL can’t block on the backside then it’s less difficult, but in the play above despite his teammates’ shortcomings Fitzgerald still makes a pretty nice play. He drags the Auburn DT forward for about three yards and probably would have had at least 10 had he gotten slightly better blocking.

Here’s a glimpse of what he can do as a runner when blocking doesn't set him up to get dragged down before building up momentum:

Things actually worked out very favorably for Mississippi State here, as things tended to do for teams that faced Arkansas’ defense, and Fitzgerald isn’t even touched until the deep safety grazes him at the 10. It’s all too easy for a guy of his size to drag Hogs into the end zone.

Next season, with the starting QB decision made going into spring, the Bulldog coaching staff can focus on developing and orienting the rest of their offense around Fitzgerald. Because his skill set is so extensive and includes the ability to run between the tackles on option or direct snap runs, that’s going to be pretty easy.

They’ll be able to continue to plug in scat backs at RB that can do work on the perimeter, because getting tough yards between the tackles won’t be a necessary attribute from their main back:

And they’ll be able to utilize flex TEs that aren’t great blockers, because they can always block troublesome DEs with the QB option:

If Mullen wants to go max spread with four or five receivers and trust Fitz to hit them on the perimeter while threatening the interior with direct snap runs, he can do that. A star WR can trust that he’ll always be working in a lot of space because of the run threat, a star RB will know that his blockers will almost always be at advantage because Fitzgerald is holding pursuit with the threat of an outside throw or QB keeper on the option.

Like Dak Prescott, Nick Fitzgerald was a three-star prospect who’s other D1 offer came from Middle Tennessee State. But Dan Mullen has realized that big, sturdy runners that can make quick reads and throw the ball can bring unique value-add to a spread offense that has a multiplier effect across the rest of the team.