Last week, Gators Breakdown podcast host Bill Sikes cited an interesting stat concerning Florida Gators QB target Joe Milton.
32% of Joe Milton’s JR season passing yards came on 10 throws. If all goes well, this # will drop as his intermediate passing improves. 🐊
— Bill Sikes (@realbsikes) March 22, 2017
Milton makes big plays. That’s how someone can be a hot recruiting prospect with a 46 percent completion rate.
There haven’t been many big plays in Gainesville during the last six seasons. So Sikes’ stat got me thinking about what differentiates college quarterbacks.
I sorted quarterbacks by QB rating for 2016 and then examined their statistical profiles in tiers (1-5, 31-35, 61-65, and 91-95). I required a maximum of three DNPs for the year to eliminate anyone whose efficiency was high because of a lack of playing time.
There’s a significant drop in completion percentage at each tier of QB, with a larger drop between the top tier and the 31-35 tier than between any other tier. The same trend is present for yards per completion and yards per attempt.
Looking at last year’s Florida QBs, it is not a surprise the offense struggled. Both Del Rio and Appleby earned lower-tier completion percentages. Their yards per completion and yards per attempt ranked with some of the worst quarterbacks in the country.
However, the last two columns in the chart present something intriguing. If you average the longest throw for each game that each quarterback played, every tier averages roughly 40 or 41 yards except for the top tier at 55.5 yards. Additionally, the percentage of total passing yards that those plays account for increases as QB quality decreases (h/t @realbsikes for the stat idea).
It’s not the quantity of big plays that separates elite college quarterbacks from less successful counterparts. It’s the quality of plays that they make between the big ones.
The significance of this is huge when evaluating prospects. It suggests that we should pay less attention to someone who throws a pretty deep ball and more attention to someone who throws an effective 12-yard out. It means that sticking the throw down the seam over the linebackers without getting the tight end killed, or delivering the ball accurately, predicts success.
This isn’t a one-year phenomenon. Look at the average statistics of the last eight quarterbacks to win the Heisman Trophy. All but one completed better than 66 percent of his passes. Only last year’s winner — Lamar Jackson — won the Heisman with substandard accuracy. But Jackson is a bit of an outlier because of his running ability.
What does this mean for the Florida Gators? Well, I took a look at the five options at quarterback as high school seniors to see if anything stood out.
Initially, this table seems to blow apart my argument, as Del Rio earned an outstanding completion percentage. But look at his yards per attempt and particularly his yards per completion. They’re terrible compared to everyone else on the list. This is indicative of a quarterback who checked down a lot or whose receivers were tackled immediately because the ball was delivered slightly off the mark.
Kyle Trask posted outstanding numbers, albeit in limited playing time. But his entire high school career (161 pass attempts) is in line with his senior totals. Trask is accurate and an unknown. The question is whether he can make decisions fast enough in the SEC with such limited playing time.
Jake Allen was Jim McElwain’s first Florida commit and led St. Thomas Aquinas to a state title. While he didn’t perform up to expectations in 2016, his completion percentage wasn’t significantly different than his career percentage (60.0) or his 2015 percentage (63.4).
This statistical battle comes down to Feleipe Franks and Kadarius Toney. I wrote a few weeks ago about why I favor Toney, but there’s a lot to like in Franks’ statistical profile. He hits big plays, averaging 4 yards per completion more than Toney. Toney whittles that edge on a per-attempt basis due to an accuracy advantage.
Franks most reminds me of Matthew Stafford. Stafford was more accurate in high school (64.9 percent) but posted similar yards per attempt (12.8), yards per completion (19.7) and possessed an elite arm. This is great news for Franks because Stafford became the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
But I never feared Stafford. His QB ratings of 109.0 and 128.9 his freshman and sophomore year were below average. (For reference, Appleby posted a QB rating of 128.0 last season.)
Stafford’s junior season — as well as his cannon of an arm — are what led to him going so high in the draft. He posted a borderline-elite QB rating of 153.5 on 383 attempts in 2008. But for all the fanfare around Stafford and Georgia, he never won the SEC East, let alone an SEC championship.
This isn’t to say that Franks will follow the same path. But to expect him to come in and be a savior — particularly when the defense should take a step back — is a significant ask.
That’s why I lean toward going through true freshman growing pains with Toney. He throws the ball accurately, but doesn’t get to that number through checkdowns (16.3 yards per completion). His numbers are better than last year’s No. 1 QB prospect, Jacob Eason, coming out of high school. Factor in Toney’s running ability and the comparison looks favorable.
Franks may be excelling in practice. But it’s easy to see a rocket go 70 yards downfield to an open receiver and fall in love.
Hopefully Jim McElwain and his staff decide who the starter will be based on who can consistently hit the 12-yard out.