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Strategy Session Part 2: Quarterbacks and H-backs in Sean Gleeson’s offense

How does the current roster fit the play call possibilities?

Bethune Cookman v Nebraska
Quarterback Noah Vedral has an opportunity to win the starting job
Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

In Part 1 of this three-part series, I looked at two personnel groupings with one example of how they can be best leveraged to defeat a defense. It also included a little commentary about the Air Raid influence new Rutgers Football offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson picked up last season at Oklahoma State.

In Part 2 below, let’s talk personnel. Reader ign1 in the comments of Part 1 asked directly,do we even have the type of players to run this type of offense right out of the game come September?!” The answer: maybe.

The two quarterback set

Before diving into specific players, it’s worth nothing that Princeton under Head Coach Bob Surace has a niche in their offense for not just using two quarterbacks, but putting them on the field at the same time. Gleeson, when he was still the running backs coach in 2017 prior to being named offensive coordinator, was well versed in the practice as you would expect since he basically needed to teach the quarterbacks how to also be running backs lining up in the backfield. Gleeson even has a video describing its keys to success on Football Toolbox.

Without repeating verbatim what Gleeson described so eloquently, let’s highlight the key components. If interest is high enough, we can dive into how existing plays could be modified even more than what Gleeson talks about.

  1. Quarterbacks need to be willing to carry the ball as if they are a running back.
  2. Quarterbacks need to be willing blockers.
  3. Quarterbacks need to have the physical skills other than throwing the ball that make them as or more valuable than who they are replacing because defenses need to respect that the offense could run any play in their playbook out of this personnel group.
  4. Ball control CANNOT be compromised.

If all the preceding are true, then the benefits are potentially tremendous. This gets the quarterbacks more reps in game situations, the hardest position to build depth. The angles produced by the number of locations on the field that defenders need to defend passes from becomes unmanageable, much like scrambling quarterbacks already produce. Thirdly, what cannot be understated is how much more film and possible plays defenses need to prepare to play against during the week.

The biggest reason not to do this is that the element of surprise is more powerful in some ways, but less in others. One reason Rutgers has had success throwing the ball with Isaih Pacheco (a HS QB) and Janarion Grant (lefthanded) before him is that defenses immediately crashed down on them assuming a run. If the defense sees a quarterback lined up as a running back and getting a quick toss, they may be more likely to stay home and stick with their assignment, especially at the second level. And do you really want to remove Pacheco for example, to get another quarterback on the field? Obviously not. If not him, then who? Rutgers wide receivers have been often maligned, but they are still better at catching passes than QBs. Remember Gio’s drop against Penn State in 2018?

Don’t expect Rutgers to line up with two quarterbacks on a regular basis because they are still working on developing one proven player at this position, but the wrinkle adds another element to what an offense is capable of doing. The adage “if you have two quarterbacks you have no quarterbacks” is misleading in this scenario, but it is true that Rutgers fans would be overjoyed simply to have one guy they trust slinging the ball in 2020. The bottom line is that Rutgers needs every advantage they can get on Saturdays at this point, no matter how small, and lining up with two quarterbacks on the field at least once a game may do that.

Gleeson’s success with Quarterbacks

Princeton has a reputation of developing quarterbacks by now, but their talent coming out of high school is comparable or lower than what Rutgers has on its current roster. The player who thrived the most under Gleeson as a Tiger was Chad Kanoff, who originally signed with Vanderbilt. Kanoff was so successful as a primarily dropback passer, he set passing records and took control of the starting job to the point Princeton had little need to use their two-quarterback system described above in 2017.

It’s true that prior to taking his first game leading Sean Gleeson’s offense at Oklahoma State in 2019, Spencer Sanders had never taken a college snap. He ended up as the Offensive Freshman of the Year last season running Gleeson’s offense. However, as a high school senior he was Gatorade Player of the Year, the Associated Press Player of the Year, and Texas Mr. Football, so there was clearly a level of talent beyond anyone on the current Rutgers Football roster, regardless of position.

The year sandwiched in between (2018) is probably when Gleeson did his best work, as he was without a guy who could just drop back and throw dimes 40 yards downfield into tight windows. To offset this limitation, Princeton used multiple quarterbacks, more option runs, and every tool in their toolbox. The result? The team’s leading rusher was quarterback John Lovett (no relation to the former RU commit) and by the way ... the highest scoring offense in Ivy League history en route to a perfect 10-0 record.

His ability to use what he has and make it work is among the top reasons Greg Schiano was so keen on poaching Gleeson from Mike Gundy and the Big 12. Rutgers doesn’t have a Spencer Sanders, but maybe they can develop the next Chad Kanoff. In the meantime if they need to patch it together with a Lovett type who can pass and run, but is not elite at either skill, so be it.

The Quarterback Transfer: Noah Vedral

Though he he announced his intentions to join the program (after playing at hometown Nebraska) over a month ago, Vedral’s buzz picked up Monday after Greg Schiano said, “I think Noah really fits what we want to do offensively really well.” Schiano continued with, “[Vedral] has the skill-set that I think can fit well into what we’re doing as well as the experience.‘’ The Head Coach also noted that Vedral has two years of eligibility remaining which matters more now with so much uncertainty surrounding college athletics in 2020.

I haven’t done a thorough film analysis OTB post for Vedral yet like we did in the past with Kyle Bolin, McLane Carter, etc. I even did a straight up comparison between Carter and Bolin. However, I have watched Vedral’s tape a lot during this quarantine as most of our readers probably have. There is a chance he is exactly what Rutgers needs from a smart, scrappy leader and takes control of the offense immediately. Of course, Rutgers hasn’t had much success previously with transfer quarterbacks, so there is always a chance he doesn’t even crack the top two of the depth chart.

My initial conclusion is that Vedral is somewhere in between a Chas Dodd and Giovanni Rescigno. He’s not as much of a natural thrower as Dodd, but the ball comes out of his hand with less effort than Rescigno. Even without a cannon of an arm, Vedral has the best ball placement at the second and third levels among RU quarterbacks since Dodd and “good” Gary Nova. At first glance it looks average, but I need more data to assess Vedral’s ball placement at the first level, critical to success in the shallow crossing route mentioned in Part 1 that fuels the Air Raid. Dodd and Nova were not their best on screens, check downs, and traffic near the line of scrimmage, whereas Rescigno was elite at it. Like both Dodd and Rescigno, Vedral looks pretty good at going through at least his first three reads post-snap and delivering the ball with confidence.

As a runner, Rescigno was the best Rutgers quarterback in my lifetime (not Ray Lucas) in knowing when to scramble versus how long he could hang in the pocket. Dodd for example, preferred to wait as long as possible to find an open receiver. Vedral seems to have a pretty good natural grasp of pocket presence that theoretically should get better with more game action. Vedral is a little quicker and slipperier than Rescigno, but far from the running power that Johnny Langan provides (more on him later). On Quarterback option runs, expect moderate success, but not a true “dual-threat.” Remember, he was coached by Scott Frost who ran for over 1,000 yards during his National Championship season in 1997, albeit in an option run scheme. As a result on designed quarterback runs especially in short yardage, Vedral looks very impressive in understanding where the holes will open up and reading blocks.

The wildcards for Vedral are if he can get any sort of protection, if he can develop the chemistry required with his receivers without the typical training camp heading into the season, and avoiding injuries. A lot of quarterbacks look good behind an average or better offensive line, but Nebraska was definitely better than Rutgers in pass protection in 2019. He is also not a huge guy and if he loses any amount of arm strength or quickness due to injury, may be completely ineffective for a team that needs a playmaking quarterback like Rutgers. Despite the massive hype train, I’ll give Noah a roughly 50% chance of being the opening day starter the next time the Scarlet Knights play an actual game.

The incumbent(s)

Schiano also did mention Monday, “I think there will be a tremendous quarterback competition in training camp. It’s their job to perform and it’s our job to figure out what is the best decision for our team.” So what are the adjusted individual expectations since our quarterback position review for everyone else?

Art Sitkowski. The best case scenario is that Sitkowski can be Gleeson’s next Kanoff mentioned above. The physical makeup 6’4”, 225 lb. is identical. You can see our sister site’s breakdown when Kanoff joined the Arizona Cardinals, here. Sitkowski at times has shown elite ball placement at the first and second levels, but he will have to learn yet another offense as so many RU signal callers have had to do in the past. Heading into his 3rd year is when it is reasonable to expect most quarterbacks to “get it” at the college level, though Sitkowski’s timeline has been all messed up for a variety of reasons. He has the physical acumen to be a devastating runner if he makes good decisions when defenses don’t account for him, though confidence in all aspects of the game needs to continue to grow like we saw in 2019 compared to 2018 already.

Johnny Langan. “QBs who are willing to block and run with the ball” listed above is where Langan shines and one of the reasons Boston College wanted him to play another position. Langan has the physical skills to be a solid H-back and perhaps one day may make the same transition as Johnathan Lewis (more on that below). He stands to make the biggest gains if Rutgers uses two quarterback formations and can prove himself as a better thrower than he was while starting in 2019. The experience and respect he earned in 2019 is a wildcard. If Vedral is not the starter, I would absolutely use Langan in short yardage.

Peyton Powell. With the addition of Vedral, Powell’s chances likely decreased in actually winning reps at quarterback initially. On the flip side, if the addition of Vedral causes Rutgers to open up the playbook a little more, he could be a guy throwing those reverse passes we saw in the past from Janarion Grant. If he has success there, maybe he is the wildcat or “Wild Knight” quarterback rather than Pacheco was last year. If his throwing improves from what is obvious on his high school tape, maybe he is the next Greg Ward in a few years. It’s unlikely, but he is an elite athlete so it is possible.

Cole Snyder. Though Vedral is yet another quarterback that Snyder needs to beat out, the description of why Vedral is a good fit at Rutgers should be music to his ears. Snyder was considered “small” by recruiting services but is listed at 6’1”, 202 lb., almost identical to Vedral (6’1”, 200 lb.). It’s entirely possible that once Snyder and Vedral are head to head in practice, the staff realizes their skills are indistinguishable. For example, the natural understanding of ball placement, tough running, overall athleticism, and leadership of Vedral are exactly in line with Snyder’s strengths while Snyder has more chemistry with his receivers AND more eligibility.

Evan Simon. The true freshman early enrollee still has the highest upside even in the new system. He has above average arm strength and at times elite ball placement. When re-watching his highlights, he is an even better runner than I remembered, perhaps Gleeson’s offense fits him even better than previously thought. His offensive line at the high school level was far from that of a national powerhouse. That helped him develop an elite pocket presence and forced him to complete a lot of bootleg throws that jump out in the Gleeson Oklahoma State offense from 2019 when they faced superior competition.

Austin Albericci. The walk-on from Closter got a lot of reps in Spring 2019, but not much has changed for him.

In the quarterback room, the wrinkles in this new offense should help maximize the talents of all players involved (perhaps even Sitkowski) while also offsetting their reliance on specific position groups for specific results. Of course if one guy completely separates himself as the best overall, that signal caller will obviously get the nod. If not, the starting job will be limited to whichever players can legitimately make the defense respect throws to the second and third levels, whereas anyone who can’t force a defense to honestly respect deep balls (factoring in the offensive line questions) will be out of the competition. Let me re-iterate that if a quarterback cannot make Big Ten defenses respect the pass, he and the offense cannot succeed because the Scarlet Knights do not have the offensive line to overpower in the run game. The rules of the game today are so skewed toward the pass, every team, especially those in the bottom of their conferences have to at least posses the threat of completing a long ball. Last year McLane Carter had average at best arm strength, but he could do enough to complete an occasional ball downfield that was lost once he was out for the season due to injury. No one on the current roster has TRULY proven that yet, but Vedral has the most game tape that shows he might be able to in 2020.

From those who can make defenses stay honest, the player with the best combined ability to complete short routes (screens, shallow cross, check downs) AND run for some first downs will be in the best position to help Rutgers as a whole develop the building blocks of a long-term successful offense. Hearand Now in the comments of Part 1 notes that this is a “total rebuild” so the focus needs to be on the Scarlet Knights being able to do the basics of this offense well so they can build on those in subsequent seasons rather than just try to patch it together in 2020.

The H-back ... Cowboy ... Tight End ... whatever they will be called

The most versatile players on the offense can also go from placeholder to difference maker and everywhere in between. As mentioned in Part 1, no word yet on what Rutgers will call this hybrid Tight End-Fullback-HBack-etc position group, but they will be critical to whether this offense succeeds or fails early in this total rebuild. There’s some variety here and the offense could potentially get a lot of different things from this contingent.

Johnathan Lewis. Lewis is returning from an injury, so it’s unfair to simply assume he will back to 100% whenever the season begins. If he does return to full strength as a freight train running with the rock, Rutgers will want to get him the ball as a fullback rushing or catching it and hope he trucks a few people. As a former quarterback in a number of systems, the hope is that he can learn the new system quicker than most. It’s unlikely that he will throw many passes, but with a “Mohamed Sanu lite” cannon of an arm, the staff has to at least consider him for gadget plays. He has enough experience to be a passable blocker right now, but he needs to take steps forward to be truly dangerous as a receiver and blocker if Rutgers expects to have an impact tight end in 2020 as no one else is ready.

Matt Alaimo. I really like what I saw from Alaimo in 2019, especially when he was hyped as a plodding, old-school, East Coast Mark Bavaro. In fact, Matt is a lot closer to the modern version of a Tight End. Listed at 6’4”, 237 lb., Alaimo made only six catches in 2019, although four came in the first three games. He may be the biggest beneficiary on the entire offense with the switch to Gleeson from Nunzio Campanile calling plays in 2019. I expect his breakout will be during the 2021 season.

Brandon Myers. Physically, Myers is more of a Sam Bergen type fullback than Michael Burton and is primarily in the game for his blocking. Myers lined up all over the formation in 2019 and may be asked to do the same in 2020. In the long run his position will be featured less year over year, but for now, he is a capable fullback that should help Rutgers in the early stages of the rebuild. His long-term ticket is how well he can catch the ball.

Jonathan Pimentel. Pimentel as a walk-on was given a unique opportunity to get reps for a Big Ten team early in his career due to the depth concerns. Tight end is a position where walk-ons can be effective later in their careers once they truly become men and Pimentel’s ceiling is probably a slight notch below Matt Flanagan, who went from RU walk-on to NFL player.

Cooper Heisey. Like Lewis above, Heisey was a quarterback in High School. So even though I don’t expect Heisey to throw a pass in 2020, his knowledge offense as a whole puts him in a position to learn more quickly. If he did throw a pass, which may be difficult with TE shoulderpads, I’m sure the opposing defense would be shocked.

Shawn Collins. Collins is a true freshman, but could see action right away if he proves a quick study. The need for athletic tight ends in the spread who are in one sense simply big receivers with some blocking skills is a void he is as qualified to fill as anyone in the group.

Victor Konopka. Without the normal offseason program, Konopka’s chances in the short term may be reduced because he is still relatively new to the game of football. His long term ceiling though is even higher (perhaps the highest of this group) because his basketball skills translate well into becoming a receiving tight end in this system. Though inexperienced, he has proven to be a willing blocker.

Overall, the group of Tight Ends and Fullbacks has potential, but their success will ultimately come down to good coaching, these players absorbing the knowledge, and good quarterback play. There are certain roles in life where it’s ok to just “get by” with a minimal level of overall ability and a lot of effort, but having a difference maker like the 49ers do with George Kittle adds another dimension. I don’t think this group has a guy who is ready to breakout right now as a receiver, though what I do like is the diversity of skills in the group that a good offensive coordinator can find different ways of leveraging to his advantage. The quickest way to relevance is if someone can emerge as a red zone threat.

In Part 3, we can review the concerns I have for Gleeson heading into the Big Ten, including the legitimate question as to whether the nightmares of the Drew Mehringer will return, fears about the “no huddle” spread pace, and what to expect in a total rebuild.