Positions of Interest: UTSA's Search for a Quarterback

If UTSA is going to continue to compete for bowl appearances, and, perhaps, leap back into CUSA West contention, the quarterback position is critical. Yes, it’s the most vital position on the field, but for UTSA and Roadrunner fans, the loss of a two-plus year starter throws a new light on the newcomers to the position. 

Why it matters: Aside from the obvious, and it’s all pretty obvious, college offenses often take the identity of their signal caller. If you have a competent quarterback, he can elevate his team, sometimes to an extreme degree. 

So, how do you take your coffee? For all the variants that question opens, how an offensive coordinator adjusts to a signal caller is almost as broad. Very few teams have plug and play backups on their roster. Programs don’t sign replicants. Each quarterback brings different skills and weaknesses to bear on an offense. For UTSA specifically, the Al Borges hire this offseason gives us comfort.

We loved Frank Scelfo. UTSA fans, near the end, didn’t and that opinion is understandable. Scelfo’s offense limped to the finish line last year and cost the Runners wins. From a scheme perspective, Scelfo was a master of moving chess pieces to make the defense beat itself. The problems came once UTSA couldn’t operate its base offense efficiently. At the end of the year and against better opponents, UTSA dropped its yards per rush by two full yards. The Roadrunners shifted from an elite running team to a poor one. They were left with punchlines but no setup. 

Borges is a chameleon to some degree. His offense can shapeshift to the strength of the quarterback and skill players. He can take his coffee any number of ways and make it palatable. With UCLA the Bruins were pass happy. With Auburn, Borges pounded two NFL caliber backs. With Michigan, he took a dual-threat quarterback and incorporated more zone read schemes. Does it always work? No, Borges gets fired like everyone else, but he’s adaptable. 

What's the key? Whether Frank Wilson chooses Bryce Rivers, Cordale Grundy, D.J. Gillins or someone else, the offense must run efficiently. To illustrate this point let’s go back to 2015 and a young walk-on quarterback named Dalton Sturm. 

 Bryce Rivers and Cordale Grundy ( John Daveport San Antonio Express News )

Bryce Rivers and Cordale Grundy (John Daveport San Antonio Express News)

If you watched Sturm play, then in Larry Coker’s program, you saw an athlete playing quarterback. There’s a reason Sturm played scout team running back. By 2016, with a new system, Sturm started showing some of the passing tools that landed him a training camp invite. The Arizona State game is illustrative. In the second half, the Roadrunners were in the game because Sturm went full Johnny Football, making plays when all else failed and, with ASU’s pass rush, that happened quickly on most plays.

What opponents learned to do was chain Sturm to the pocket and alleviate his legs. His completion percentage took a nose dive. In 2017, you saw a quarterback that was able to operate from the pocket, make every throw, and, as UAB learned, could break contain and burn you with his athleticism. His completion percentage rose by six points and his QB rating improved by eleven points over his 2015 season. He was also a total gym rat. That’s a non-negotiable. 

Sturm improved and developed to a point where he didn’t get UTSA beat, and he handcuffed defensive coordinators who tried to find a way to limit him. He became an excellent college quarterback. Don’t expect that from any of the array of quarterbacks on this year’s roster. But what you can expect or hope for is that whoever takes the field won’t get UTSA beat and better, that they are efficient. 

What to watch for: Some signposts are efficiency are 1) can the quarterback get the offense out of bad situations or do they make those situations worse 2) do they value the football and 3) can they become a threat that the defense must account. 

Watch SMU’s Ben Hicks early in 2016 or Kellen Mond early in 2017. Their inexperience became an asset for the defense to cut the defensible area of the field. Both improved by seasons end, but growing pains are inevitable, unless your Jameis or Johnny, but then you’re probably stealing crab legs or riding an inflatable swan. 

Expect Borges to ride the running game heavily. Especially in the early games against ASU, Baylor, and Kansas State, he'll want to simplify reads and emphasize getting the ball out quickly. 

One final thing, Bill Belichick was mic'd up several years ago, I think Drew Bledsoe was still with the Patriots. Belichick spoke to a young backup quarterback and his advice was simply don't be afraid to throw the ball away. Belichick would never be upset with an incompletion. Would he be upset with a sack, you bet. Interceptions? Absolutely. But throwing the ball away is ok. In other words, just don't get us beat. 

The X-Factors:  While UTSA's quarterback situation is unsettled, the rest of skill talent might be the best in UTSA's brief history. Jalen Rhodes is an excellent back and B.J. Daniels has potential to be a game changer. At receiver Marquez McNair and Greg Campbell Jr. are experienced hands and Tariq Woolen, Tykee Ogle-Kellogg, and Andrew McGowan are brimming with potential. 

The real chicken and egg riddle applies to receivers. Which comes first great receivers or good quarterback play. We think good quarterback play makes receivers better but the physical tools of players like Ogle-Kellogg and Woolen are hard to overlook. 

Meet D.J. Gillins: D.J. Gillins is an athletic freak. He’s big, strong, and fast. He has a cannon arm. The reason, we think, those skills haven’t translated on the field is that the nuance of the position has escaped Gillins so far. That’s why Wisconsin moved him to receiver and why he spent a year at a JC. It’s also why SMU used him on short yardage/goal line packages and not in more conventional schemes. At Pearl River Community College, Gillins played exactly one game before a knee injury ended his season. He threw for over 7,200 yards in four seasons as a high school starter. 

 D.J. Gillins

D.J. Gillins

Gillins is an unknown, but there are these reports, Bigfoot-like reports, of his abilities. At Wisconsin, he apparently “lit up the defense” during spring practice. At SMU Joe Craddock raved about his investment in “mental reps” even when injured. At times Gillins was “clearly the best quarterback at practice with speed defenses couldn’t deal with.” He had the “strongest arm of any quarterback” on the Mustang roster. He was the most “best quarterback on SMU’s roster.” He might be “better suited” at linebacker. 

If there is a consistent caution/criticism with Gillins, it’s that he’s raw. His footwork is underdeveloped. He struggles to throw the ball with touch. He reads one route, and if it isn’t there, he takes off. Knowing what we know about Wisconsin quarterbacks it’s not surprising that he didn’t see the field behind center. The Badgers crave game managers. They don’t deploy athletes playing quarterback. That might explain the position change at Wisconsin.

He injured himself a game into his Pearl River career. That injury limited him in the spring of 2017. Chad Morris held him out of contact, eleven on eleven drills. Gillins got healthy and then injured his toe last fall which limited him as well. Morris let him throw four passes last season. The he spent parts of SMU’s 2018 spring camp in a walking boot. 

Remember all that efficiency talk? Sometimes you can throw it out if you have an athlete that is so gifted that it trumps all that. Michael Bishop from Kansas State comes to mind. Bottom line, maybe he fits in as a package player, similar to how Morris used him. Maybe the health concerns are too great and he can't get on the field. Or perhaps the reports are accurate, and he contributes to UTSA this fall. 

The Big If: John Madden’s adage that if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one. After roughly a month of practice, Wilson and Borges and the rest of the offensive staff will decide who’s going to take that first snap at Arizona State. What Wilson and Borges and Roadrunner fans are hoping is that someone emerges and takes the job by the scruff of the neck. Whether its Rivers or Grundy or someone we’ve never heard of, there are twelve guaranteed dates, and it’s best to know your best eleven for as many of those dates as possible. Injuries limit that best eleven. They come for everyone. Off the field issues ranging from arrests to academics to personal loss limit your best eleven. Those are elements beyond a coach’s control.

Coaches can, grudgingly, deal with those limitations. What coaches hate is self-inflicted doubt. The doubt that comes when they don’t know, so they have to guess or base their decision on something other than performance and hope it’s right. 

The worst case for UTSA is that none of the quarterbacks step forward and UTSA offense is in flux for any part of the season. You only get twelve guaranteed chances to compete. 

Numbers Don't Lie:

UTSA was first among CUSA teams in yards per attempt in out of conference games (5.77). The Roadrunners were tenth in yards per attempt among CUSA member in league contests (4.07).

UTSA averaged 37 points per game in non-league games. In league, that number dropped to 18 points per game.  

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