We are waiting in eager expectation for Dalton Sturm to become what we think he can be, an elite quarterback. He's got the tools: he can make most of the throws, he's a plus athlete, he's a gym rat, he's going to be protected by an improved offensive line, and he's in year two of Frank Scelfo's offense. More on that later. What's missing? Help. If Dalton Sturm is going to make a leap to quality or elite starting quarterback he's going to need help from his skill players.
We can thank the great Bill Connelly and the Football Study Hall annual data dump for telling us what we've suspected, one of the perceived strengths of last year's squad, the receiving core, wasn't all that. Going back and rewatching most of UTSA's season, the up and down play of Sturm in 2016 can't be pinned entirely on his skill players, but there were rather large issues in that area. Early on UTSA's offensive line was an unmanned toll both through which anyone could pass. The run game failed at times. But the most consistent issue was inconsistent skill play.
Looking at what UTSA has coming back, which is just about everybody, Sturm might get the help he needs. So what is that help? A few ideas.
Catch the Ball
They didn't recruit you for your blocking. UTSA receivers need to grasp that concept. Charting Sturm for 2016 drops were an issue. There was not one, single, culprit, it was a group effort. UTSA's best pass catcher, JaBryce Taylor has graduated, though he was last in targets among UTSA receivers with ten or more catches.
If you're looking for a possession guy or security blanket, it might be Marquez McNair. McNair leads the returning Roadrunner in catch rate, though he was still slightly under the national average at 58.5%. McNair plays more of a classic possession role and as such his catch rate needs to be higher.
You could argue that Kerry Thomas Jr. was UTSA's most gifted receiver heading into 2016. Yet his numbers all fell last season including his receptions from 51 to 35 and his catch rate from 65% to 57%. Maybe Thomas was more comfortable in UTSA's zone read spread from 2015. Scelfo's offense requires more precise route running and reading keys. Perhaps a year in the system helps, but part of the challenge for Scelfo and Sturm is to find role that Thomas is more comfortable with. He's the best of the Roadrunner receivers after the catch. Thomas' role is to catch the ball better.
Brady Jones checks off a lot of the possession receiver boxes. He's built for the slot. Jones caught five of the six balls thrown his way in 2015 before injury cut his season short. Last year his role increased but his catch rate dropped from 83% in a very small sample size to 54%. With Kerry Thomas Jr. and Josh Stewart there's an opportunity for an effective slot player to put up big numbers and bale Sturm out of bad situations. Jones or McNair will have first crack at it but developing an effective possession, drive sustaining target is job one.
Speaking of Stewart, we'd like to go on record: We love Josh Stewart. We love his story. We love that he's built for 9 routes. Stewart led the Roadrunners in targets but was last among returning receivers in catch rate. Stewart is the type of player that you salivate over, 6-4 210 plus, fluid runner: he looks like a receiver. He averaged an outstanding 18 plus yards per catch and led UTSA in targets at 77 but his catch rate was just 46.8%.
Can Stewart develop into more than just a home run threat? As teams scheme for UTSA they'll have to account for the vertical passing game, as they do Stewart and Thomas will need to make them pay in the less congested spaces underneath the safeties. With his frame, Stewart should be a slant catching machine, corners read stat pages too and they're going to give him room to work inside or outside. That's going to require him to become a more physical route runner, not necessarily a bully at the line of scrimmage but he needs to use his size and wingspan to create space closer to the line of scrimmage.
In that same vein we can't wait to see if Tariq Woolen can contribute next season. A true freshman from Arlington Heights, Woolen is 6-5 200 pounds and on tape he can go get it. He uses his body well to shield, high point the ball and he uses his hands to catch away from his frame. He's also able to flat out go once he gets it and punishes DBs with stiff arms and clubs. His transition to the college level will be a test because UTSA's offense, again, requires more precise route running and uses an actual route tree. In high school Woolen, like most receivers in spread systems, was asked to run bubbles and 9s, 9s and bubbles. His instincts and ball skills are pretty polished for a high school player, but he'll need to master the precision and timing of Scelfo's offense.
A Tight End
One of the more under utilized tools in college football is the tight end and we believe Frank Scelfo wants to use that tool more. It's one of the reasons we love Scelfo's offense. Tight ends, or rather good ones that are used properly, are matchup nightmares. Offensive football is about putting your opponent into a position where they have to do something they don't want to or aren't comfortable with.
Linebackers generally aren't comfortable covering. Safeties don't see them enough to play the angles effectively that tight ends use and a tight end's size, let alone the run blocking threat, causes problems. The positioning of a tight end also changes to eye level of the safety or nickel. They're used to seeing players come out of certain areas, wide splits and slots, a good tight end scheme forces safeties and linebackers to find and track players from areas they don't see week to week.
UTSA signed several tight ends in their 2017 class including JC transfer Robert Ursua to go with Shaq Williams. Williams is a pass catching threat, but his run blocking isn't something anyone really fears at this point.
Sceflo is a master at pre-snap movement to gain leverage or to move defenders to location that is more beneficial to his play. Preparing for UTSA's pro-style attack is difficult in a six day work week.
A good tight end, like a good slot, is a quarterback's best friend. Not just for their pass catching skill but also for their pass protection help. That's why the NFL places such a premium on these hybrid athletes. When you can marry scheme to a superior humanoid like Gronk, Gates, or Witten you can cause biblical levels of damage and destruction.
In the college ranks finding a Gronk or Gates or Witten is difficult, but you can still "scheme" your tight end into a lot of favorable outcomes. UTSA fans won't want to do this but go back and look at the UTEP game and see how the Miners used Hayden Plinke to baffle and bewilder. Bear in mind Plinke ran a plus 5.0 forty at the combine, but the way the tight end works in and around the run game and in favorable coverage matchups mitigates the speed issue.
UTSA will use more of these type scheme plays once they find a versatile athlete who can give at least the illusion of blocking ability and combine that with athleticism and size.
Ursua is an interesting prospect, he's older after having spent some time in the Navy out of high school so unlike most typical high school or JC recruits his maturity shouldn't be as big an issue. He also caught 70 balls in two years Palomar JC and he got pretty good get off from the line of scrimmage. He's already the best blocking tight end on campus.
Williams is a sort of stretch four as a tight end. He's a plus athlete who can really pressure in pass schemes but he doesn't carry enough sand in his ass to be a banger in the run game.
I'd be surprised if any of the two high school tight ends, Chance McCloud or Michael Goff contribute much next season. If they do it's a bonus.