Ben Hicks vs. Baylor

With the news that Matt Davis is out for the season with a knee injury the Roundup is taking a look at SMU's number two Ben Hicks. Hicks, a redshirt freshman from Waco Midway made his first start Saturday in his hometown against a top 25 Baylor squad. So how did Hicks do? Let's take a look. 

For the day Hicks went 17-44 for 229 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. Hicks was sacked once and hurried seven times. 

What's telling about Hicks' afternoon is that he completed eleven of his seventeen passes by the twelve minutes mark of the second quarter, so for essentially, three-quarters Hicks completed just six passes in twenty attempts. His 39% completion percentage was well below the NCAA average in 2015 of 58%. 

Let's move onto some good news; Hicks is accurate on short screen/crossing/check down routes. We call these package or scheme plays because the outcome is predetermined in the huddle with very little to no checks or reads. The Mustangs kept the Bears off balance with those plays in the first half. As the playbook expanded, Hicks struggled. 

Here's a well-designed slip screen against a Baylor blitz in the first half, the Mustangs bring a  slot, James Proche, across the formation; the Bears show blitz; the left tackle blocks down on the blitzing inside backer leaving two free rushers outside. SMU had kept an H-back or brought a receiver into chip in similar situations, here Proche squares up to chip and slides in behind the blitz. Hicks invites the blitz in and gets the ball to Proche, center mass, with plenty of green to make a play. 

Proche, by the way, is a find out of DeSoto. He can flat out play. Here the playbook is simplified, Baylor plays to tendency and Hicks executes. 

Here's another, a designed throw with a run/pass option action as SMU pulls their right guard and run lead action from the H-Back. On the boundary side SMU's best player, Courtland Sutton, is one on one with a corner and runs a fade/stop route.

Hicks puts the pass right on the numbers, and the Mustangs are ahead of the chains. That's a throw that Hicks can make. That said, Hicks struggled with a myriad of throws against Baylor. 

In particular, Hicks struggled with a spread staples, the back shoulder fade or win route and stop routes. As a preliminary matter the back shoulder fade isn't a fade with an outside release and gradual route to the boundary, the fade in this context is a vertical route designed to get the defender engaged and running or "making a man turn" upfield and requiring a receiver to lean into the defender to anticipate and get separation. The point isn't to run past the corner; it's to engage him, get him to turn and then make a play on the ball. It's a harder route to run and master than it might seem. 

It works, and it's a staple because when executed properly, it's almost indefensible - especially by college corners. The quarter has to put the ball in a location where his receiver can make a play. 

Here's Hicks throwing a 50/50 to our new hero James Proche in the first quarter. 

Hicks gives Proche a chance to "win" the route by placing the ball where Proche can make a play on the ball over or around the defender. That worked out great. Hicks threw a very nice fade or win route to Courtland Sutton in the end zone during the second quarter that was arguably a touchdown.

The stop route is similar, get the corner to engage in a man turn, get on his hip, at eight to ten yards plant and come back to make yourself available. Again, college corners struggle to defend it. A slight difference is that your quarterback is throwing to a spot, and ideally, you're hitting your receiver in center mass after he's achieved separation. 

The vast majority of Hicks fade or stop throws were ineffective. Most weren't close. Sailing out of bounds, too far behind or at a location where Hicks' receivers were unable to make a play. Case in point: Here' Courtland Sutton on the field side with the same fade/stop from before.

That's the best player on SMU's roster, one on one, with an advantage and he can't make a play because the throw is way off target. Not a difficult throw, clean pocket, but the accuracy isn't there. 

Here's another example which brings up a bigger point...

Sutton is one on one, turns the corner, plants and is unable to make a play due to the throw. Hicks struggles with accuracy on throws over 10 yards. Hicks completed 63% of his passes that traveled 0-9 yards. Beyond 10 yards his completion percentage dropped to 25%. From 10-19 yards Hicks was 4 of 18 on Saturday. Part of the issue, we think, is arm strength. Can Hicks make that throw, across the hashes, 10+ yards downfield consistently?

We equate arm strength with how far someone can throw a football, and while that can be impressive, but actual arm strength is a combination of velocity and distance with accuracy. The play above is one of many back shoulder or win routes that Hicks threw on Saturday; he throws from the boundary hash all the way across the field to the opposite or field sideline. It's a long throw, and it's nowhere near the target. It's also a throw that Hicks struggled with all day. Accurate at 10 yards or less, 10 yards out and it's a crapshoot. After 10 yards Hicks is a thrower rather than a passer. It's an important distinction, and it's based on ball placement over hope and velocity. Passers consistently make throws to a location that gives the receiver an optimal chance to "win" the route. Throwers rear back and hope. 

The problem that jumps out during the Baylor game is that Hicks lacks the arm talent to be a true passer on intermediate and deep routes. He struggles to throw with the requisite velocity and, more importantly, accuracy.  

Here's another red zone trip that came up empty, Hicks throws what looks like a corner route based on the receiver's break. He has a clean pocket and time, but the ball is nowhere near the target.


That's a long throw to a tightly covered receiver, more importantly, if Hicks is going to miss he's got to miss high and outside. The throw lacked location and velocity to find its way home. This isn't a back shoulder throw; it's a throw that has to be to a spot or if not hit the mascot. The throw was short of the spot and didn't find the mascot. A seasoned safety like Orion Stewart isn't going let you get away with it. Hicks lacked the consistency and accuracy needed to pressure the defense downfield and give his receivers a chance to win. 

One other thing and this is a bit more subjective, but if Bill Simmons fashions himself the body language doctor, then the Roundup will borrow a page and say Ben Hicks body language against Baylor was bad. We think we know why, but it was poor. 

Baylor is a big physical football team with a very good defensive coordinator in Phil Bennett who knows how to bring pressure. Hicks was making his first start since high school; on the road against a  top 25 team; in his hometown. That's a tough ask. A team tends to look to its quarterback for leadership and direction, it's part of sports mysticism to be sure, but looking to the quarterback for assurance or steadying is commonplace.  

Ben Hicks is a competitor, that's clear. With the game tied at 6 and 50 seconds left in the first half, Hicks wanted to go, go, go. Take another shot, try and score. That's what you want to see. But Hicks took a beating from the Bears, and it showed. By the end of the second quarter, he was feeling the effects. By the end of the third, his frustration was showing. By the end of the fourth, he was done. On a couple of occasions, Head Coach Chad Morris can be seen trying to get young quarterback off the field after a mistake, seemingly imploring him to keep his head up, move onto the next play. That's easier said than done, but it's important because I can guarantee you that the Baylor sideline noticed the way Hicks carried himself; that's blood in the water for a defense. 

Hicks can and better learn that lesson from Morris. Pop-up, dust off and get to the next play even if it hurts like hell, and it usually does. Saturday was probably the worst day Hicks has had on a football field in his life. How does he handle things from here?

The Roundup...

Posted on September 13, 2016 and filed under Southwest Round-Up.