Monday, August 3, 2015

The Key Position

Skyler Mornhinweg

We all know Columbia comes into this season with a dire need to improve in just about every area. You don’t endure two of the worst seasons in college football history without lots of holes to fill.

But what is the area where Columbia needs to improve the most?

The knee jerk response to that question is the offensive line, where so much of the focus has been even before former Head Coach Pete Mangurian’s bizarre Jenny Craig program for lineman went into place. And when teams suffer the kind of total breakdowns the Lions have suffered the last two seasons, the most crucial unit responsible is usually the offensive line.

But not so fast my friend.

Because a closer look at the statistics shows there’s one area that was probably more responsible than any other for the Columbia futility: QB play.

Lion QB’s last season were stunningly ineffective and that was despite the fact that pass protection, while not entirely adequate, was markedly improved over 2013. Columbia QB’s were sacked 22 times in 2014 versus 39 times in 2013. There were fewer QB hurries and knockdowns too. But no matter who was under center for the Lions last season, none of the quarterbacks delivered when it mattered.

Long time readers know I am a big fan of looking at how a QB performs on 3rd downs. Before I break down how Columbia QB’s did last season, you might want to sit down.

Columbia faced 156 3rd down plays in 2014. 136 times, they called on the QB to pass the ball on those plays. But only 59 times did those pass plays result in a completion. And only 37 of those passes were good for a 1st down, for an awful 28.6% success rate. The average gain per pass attempt was a minuscule 5.0 yards.  Seven times, the QB was sacked on 3rd down. And, here’s the worst number, the QB was intercepted on 3rd down a whopping 10 times!

And CU QB’s were about as far from versatile as you can get. Of those 156 3rd down plays, Columbia called on the QB to run a grand total of ONE TIME.

(In the even worse year of 2013, CU QB's were a dreadful 33 for 113 on 3rd down passing for just a 29.2% completion rate, 16 1st downs, one TD and five INT's. They were also sacked on 3rd down a stunning 16 times) 

For those of you who are fans of one returning QB over another, you should know that Brett Nottingham, Trevor McDonagh and Anders Hill were all equally ineffective in this 3rd down category. No one was even a bit better than the other.

By contrast, Dartmouth's QB Dalyn Williams completed 63% of his 3rd down passes, and just under half of those completions went for 1st downs. He was picked off on 3rd down just once all year. Toss in the eleven times he ran for 1st downs on 3rd down plays in 2014, and you see that putting the ball in his hands on the most crucial plays was an extremely good bet. Yale's Morgan Roberts was also stellar on 3rd downs, completing 59% of his 3rd down passes for seven TD's and just one INT. 

The O-line, the wide receivers, the pass defense, etc. all need big upgrades too. But if Columbia can get a noticeable step up from these disaster area results at QB, that will be the best chance for the Lions to get some wins in 2015.

And that’s why I think the coaches are so high on transfer Skyler Mornhinweg and his abilities to throw and run. If their enthusiasm is justified, then the most needy department will get an instant upgrade.

As for the much-maligned O-line, in just a few weeks we’re going to see major improvements in weights and strength from our returning starters and key backups. The one serious area of concern on the O-line that’s almost as serious as the QB issue is the center position. But a QB who can roll out well will help mask that weakness to a decent degree.

This is a lot to put on a transfer like Mornhinweg, but he’s not completely in foreign territory. As an alum of St. Joseph’s Catholic HS in Philadelphia, he spent years playing with lots of future Ivy players and he knows what it means to play ball while also taking on serious academics. And he’s under going to be under excellent management under the much improved coaching regime under Al Bagnoli. All of those factors should help Mornhinweg garner better results than Nottingham, who was also a transfer we put a lot of hope into. It’s still generally impossible for fans to guess right now about how well Mornhinweg will play, but what’s not impossible is recognizing that it’s the QB position were the Lions need the most immediate improvement.

My guess is the new coaches have known this all along.


oldlion said...

Jake, you are overlooking the fact that we had horrendous WR and TE play last year. While our QBs were all just awful, we had receivers who dropped passes with regularity, could not get separation either because they were too slow or could not run crisp routes, slowed down or gave up on balls, and could not stay in bounds. Our best receiver, by far, was Cameron Molina. If Chris Connors had been healthy he would have been productive.

#1 Lion said...

I was thinking the same thing OldLion. If we have the luxury of depth at QB, we should also put 1-2 of these athletes at WR. They all have good hands, they're smart and know how to read defenses (even as WRs) and they're tall. Their could also be room for a double pass. The fact is that our QBs are glorified running backs until we get that O-Line to work. I pray that our LT added some strength or else he'll get bull rushed all over the field again.

As a side note, the Staff is really energized and enthusiastic about this year. This is such a refreshing change from the past 5 administrations. Just keep NHDC away from them and we should be fine.

oldlion said...

To #1 Lion,

My reason for putting Molina in the slot is because he is not just our best runner but also our best receiver. Getting him the ball in space with quick slants, etc. helps with the apparent inability of our OL to pass protect, and we have other RBs who should be serviceable. In addition, putting Molina in the slot means that he should take fewer shots and actually make it through the season.

Jake said...

Actually, while run blocking was still a disaster I still saw improvement in pass protection last year. The numbers bear that out as well.

Coach said...

Gentleman: Football games are won with defense. A great defense keeps you in every game. It is amazing to hear these comments about our offense- what was the number of points scored against Columbia last year??

#1 Lion said...


What's the update on our kickers. they could be game changers if we are close? I thought we had good legs, just need good coaching. Thoughts?

Jake said...

Actually, I started talking about the defends first. It was over a week ago.

I will get back to the D and discuss the linebackers and the DBs soon.

Coach said...

What is NHDC?

oldlion said...

On the defense, Padilla, Akinleye and Washington are potential all Ivy DLs. Our LBs were too small and slow last year, and our DBs lacked certain cover skills, particularly in not knowing how to turn and play the ball, excessive face guarding, and poor tackling technique. So our big question marks are at LB and DB.

Jake said...

The NHDC is the "Nathan's Hot Dog Committee," our euphemism for the football committee which has done little more than rubber stamp the administration's failures and supply hot dogs at certain alumni events over the years. Thankfully, its era seems to have ended.

Roar Lion said...

I will second the Old Lion. Our WR play was embarrassing last year. An amazing number of balls dropped. Our QB play ought to be fine and Molina is a good RB. The real issues are whether we can block or catch. If Connors is healthy, that alone would help our QBs look better. I am hopeful that letting the linemen gain weight will help.

On D, Conway played regular reps at CB for Duke last year, a top 25 team. He ought to be a quality Ivy starter. We have fairly good Safeties -- esp. Kenyon in my opinion -- and some depth. The D Line is a strength, as Jake says. That leaves LB as the place where we seem most vulnerable. Curious to hear Jake's thoughts on that.

oldlion said...

In response to Roar Lion: Both Conways have the size at around 235 to play LB. Do we see that move in the cards? I am really concerned about LBs who go 210-215.

Roar Lion said...

Christian Conway played safety for Duke and is listed at 215 lbs., smaller than his brother. So I got that wrong -- it seems like we'll be deep at safety but not at CB.

alawicius said...

oldlion, I believe Christian Conway is smaller at about 215 which is why he plays DB. Jackson at 235 might be a good fullback.