The SEC is no stranger to stat-stuffing dual-threat quarterbacks like Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel. On Saturday, Alabama will face another one of those types, a player who is regarded by most as the best quarterback in the SEC: Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott.
Prescott was a Heisman hopeful last season with more than 3,000 yards passing and almost 1,000 yards rushing; at one point he had Mississippi State ranked as the No. 1 team in the country. This season, Prescott has taken a bit of a step back in terms of raw yardage, but his higher yards per attempt and his 18 touchdowns to just one interception suggest he’s playing a more efficient style of quarterback.
The reason many say Prescott is the best quarterback in the conference is because of the stats he puts up with the depth chart he’s given. However, stats don’t paint the entire picture.
So what can we expect to see Saturday when Prescott faces Alabama for the last time in his career? Do the Crimson Tide present a favorable counter towards his playing style? Or will he become just another victim of Alabama’s 2015 run through the SEC West?
Let’s build ourselves a nice foundation by observing some of what Prescott did last year versus Alabama.
Prescott as a runner
When you take the label “dual threat” literally, it means there are two threats a defense has to plan for when facing one player. Last year we saw Prescott use his legs as a counter to pressure in the pocket from Alabama defensive line. In the play above, even with former Crimson Tide linebacker Trey DePriest in a QB spy assignment, Prescott was still able to pick up the first down. It was a good example of how if he can escape and get some momentum, Prescott is hard to bring down because of his strength and size.
However, being a dual-threat quarterback also means there will be a few plays that make fans let out a big “ugh.”
The Vine above was a designed quarterback run that Alabama was ready for and was able to stop for a loss thanks to some help from its linebackers and safety. If I’m a Bulldogs fan, I’m all right with that play, but it’s the play after that which bothers me.
On third-and-8, they basically ran the same play against less pressure up front and couldn’t get the yards needed. The margin for error favors Alabama if the quarterback is the only threat to run. Once Prescott tucks the ball away, everyone on the defense can flock to him. With no other player coming out of the backfield, there’s no hesitation created to freeze the defense.
To find success in the run game, I think Prescott and the Bulldogs offense should turn to the tape of Josh Dobbs and the Tennessee Volunteers from this season’s game against the Tide.
Tennessee did a very nice job combining multiple threats to run the ball with both running back Jalen Hurd and Dobbs, and it also used moving offensive linemen to create an added sense of hesitation in the defense.
Ultimately, what offenses try to do when executing a read-option is somehow confuse the linebackers. If the five offensive linemen can’t block the other team’s four defensive linemen, nothing is going to work anyway, so everything really revolves around fooling those linebackers long enough to give a ball carrier space as he crosses the line of scrimmage.
The play above was a perfect example. As the ball was snapped, Alabama linebackers Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster had their eyes in the backfield looking at Dobbs and Hurd. But as Tennessee’s right guard stood up and ran to the right, both linebackers also moved slightly toward the right because Hurd was also moving in that direction. That gave Dobbs all the room he needed up the left side.
For Prescott and MSU, I think their key is using a read-option running attack that features more than just designed quarterback runs.
Here’s a video from MSU’s game against LSU this year. I’ve slowed down this Mississippi State read-option play so you can see the whole picture. Prescott kept it and only gained a few yards, but that is because no one on the Tigers defense believed the running back would get the ball. A handoff to the running back would’ve gone for a first down, if not more.
Mississippi State has a good weapon in Prescott as a runner, but it has to make Alabama believe there’s a threat for him to hand it off on those read-options; that’s where the hesitation comes from. Otherwise there’s no point in even running read-options, and that would prove dire since creating hesitation in the run game has been the only effective way to run on this Alabama front.
Prescott as a passer
The statistical accolades Prescott has accumulated over the years are impressive. However, breaking down individual plays can paint a clearer picture of why a guy who has been such a cornerstone for his offense isn’t regarded as a top passer.
Prescott’s game is built for the college level. He’s tough to bring down in open space and can buy time with his feet when his first or second read doesn’t open up right away. But Prescott struggles when he’s called upon to make touch passes.
Corner throws into the end zone are tough, but when we’re talking about what makes good quarterbacks great, this is a skill you’d like to see.
A big arm will always be coveted when picking a quarterback. After all, the bigger the arm, the farther you can stretch the field. But over the years I’ve learned that even though a strong arm can open up a game plan, accuracy and touch are still more important.
In the Vine above we see Prescott fail to capitalize on a blown assignment due to subpar touch on his pass. These opportunities will be few and far between against Alabama, and if Prescott is missing throws like this, I can only imagine what will happen when there’s a defender looming near the ball. It could be a day of multiple turnovers if Prescott makes too many throws like this.
I used those two examples to show that touch passes are a concern with Prescott on both short and long throws. It’s a part of his game that I’ve never really seen the resort senior grow into — mainly because touch and accuracy are tough to teach.
Alabama’s secondary plays a very aggressive style of defense. They line up at least one corner in press coverage every down. The reason this style is so successful is that it forces a quarterback to throw to open space when a receiver may not even be there yet. That’s a difficult skill to hone, and last year Prescott showed us he doesn’t have it nailed down yet.
Throwing receivers open is really the only way to beat this Alabama defense in the passing game. Its front four is so good at getting pressure without a blitz that the time between the snap and when the ball needs to be released doesn’t allow for much route development down the field. This will force Prescott to get rid of the ball quickly. I expect to see a lot of timing routes between him and his receivers. That simply means that the wide receiver knows the ball will be within his catch radius in three, four or five seconds. It’s not about him being open; it’s just about him turning around and trying to make a play when that timer goes off in his head.
It’s obvious that this Alabama defense is very good. I expect the Tide to stay in their 4-2-5 formation like they did against Tennessee and really try to jam MSU’s receivers, forcing Prescott to make uncomfortable throws. Watch for them to use Foster and Ragland as quarterback spies. If Prescott is to have any success, he has to remain cool and collected when pressure comes by delivering throws to the sideline with accuracy.