It may not be Week 1, but make no mistake, the hype for a new college football season is still in full effect in Week 2. Just because we got our first taste of the tailgate food, the afternoon-long couch sessions, and all the highlights the eyes could handle didn't mean we weren't ready for more seven days later.
Week 1 held a handful of meaningful games in the grand scheme of the 2019 college football season, but in Week 2 — though every game is important, yeah, yeah, I know — there were really only two games that every fan, no matter who you were or where you lived, had circled on their Saturday scheduled to make sure they were right in their seat to watch.
Clemson vs. Texas A&M was the first. The Aggies took the future National Champions down to the wire in College Station last year, and this year there was expectations that they could do the same in Death Valley. But that one didn't really live up to the hype, as Clemson, though they didn't blow A&M out, won in convincing fashion in a game they control for nearly all four quarters.
But the other game — oh, the other game — was well worth the wait.
LSU at Texas.
In the week's lone matchup of two Top 10 teams, the Tigers and Longhorns gave us a game that will be talked about all the way up to the College Football Playoff. Back and forth they went with offensive firepower we're not used to seeing from these two historic schools. With a plethora of college football's brightest stars — soon-to-be NFL players — going at it for sixty minutes, one man, one performance stood out above the rest.
I'm talking about LSU quarterback Joe Burrow.
Burrow was 31-for-39 with 471 passing yards and four touchdowns in the Tigers win over the Longhorns in Week 2, and somehow his tape was even more impressive than his stat sheet.
If you've read any of my 5-Play columns before, you know that I enjoy diving into the often untold personal backgrounds of each prospects. I like to tell readers who these players are off the field and where they've come from to better understand the guys we watch on the field.
Burrow's story is certainly a good one. An underdog of sorts, Burrow, a former 4-star recruit, was recruited to Ohio State by then offensive coordinator Tom Herman. At the time, head coach Urban Meyer didn't really care for Burrow, but Herman continued to pester Meyer in his belief in what he saw in Burrow.
After Burrow finally earned a scholarship and committed to the Buckeyes, Herman bolted for Houston, leaving Burrow with not many coaches in his corner. The result was two years on the bench backing up quarterback J.T. Barrett. After two years at Ohio State, Burrow grad transferred to LSU prior to the 2018. And that's where our film breakdown begins.
Burrow's story off the field is worth learning, but his story on the field and how he has progressed as a passer in one calendar year is the one I'm really focused on today. As someone who watches a lot of SEC football, I watched quite a bit of Burrow in 2018. As I watched him light it up against Texas, I had flashbacks to last year where I saw him miss the exact throws he was now making on the money here in 2019.
Last year I saw a quarterback who needed work.
Last Saturday I saw an NFL player.
Play No. 1: Arrival of NFL Throws
2018 was Burrow's first season as a full-time starter. He played in 10 games at Ohio State, but they were all in relief or as the backup to J.T. Barrett. Knowing this, you figured there would be some early in-game accuracy issues to work out, and such was the case.
Burrow's accuracy was not what it needed to be in 2018, as he completed just 57.8 of his passes on the season. His 7.6 yards-per-attempt average and less than 3,000 yards passing in 13 games played showed that the game plan was not set up for him to make big throws simply because he could not execute them.
The play above from the 2018 Florida game is a good starting point to show where Burrow has improved. Even without the sun permanently blinding the LSU receiver as he went to look for the ball, Burrow bounced that one a few yards in front of where the receiver was headed towards the sideline. That kind of throw towards the sideline 25 yards down the field does have some difficulty to it; it's a timing throw that requires both touch and velocity. However, those are the throws starting quarterbacks are asked to make, especially ones who have NFL aspirations.
This second throw was the first big one Burrow made in the Texas game this past Saturday, and oh my sweet heavens was it beautiful.
Look at it. I mean just LOOK at it.
The confidence in which Burrow steeped into the throw, the pace at which the ball flew through the air, and the pin-point accuracy to put that one right into the bread basket of the receiver just as he was making his final step in bounds was simply NFL-worthy.
Those are the kinds of throws that you have to make, at least every now and then, to be considered a guy who has a chance to stick in the NFL. As the players get bigger and faster at the next level, the throwing windows get tighter. Burrow looked like he could complete a slant pass through the driver-side window of a moving F-150 in his game against Texas.
Play No. 2: Improved Eye Manipulation
As stated before, when you get to the NFL, the throwing windows get pretty tight. Sometimes it seems like you have to fit the football through a hole the size of, well, a football. Knowing that, offenses have to get creative to try to expand those windows. Sometimes that comes from play design, sometimes that comes from a receiver being a natural at separating from defenders on routes, but sometimes it has to come from the quarterback himself.
The way a quarterback does that is with eye manipulation. What is eye manipulation, you ask? Well, it's basically what it sounds like. With more than one receiving option on the field, what a quarterback can sometimes do is look one way at the snap as to bait zone defenders into moving one way, only to quickly look off them to another option and throw it in the opposite direction (where they planned to go all along).
The play above is of Burrow from 2018. In it, he showed poor eye manipulation.
When you get into the red zone, space because a premium. Using the back of the end zone like it's a 12th defender, the defense can load up players in zone coverage and make it seem like there is nowhere to go with the ball. This is where eye manipulation has to come in.
Instead of trying to fool the defense, Burrow stared down the receiver he wanted to go to. He only looked one direction, and as he released the ball, even though he put it in a good spot, the man defender trailing the wide receiver, as well as the safety in zone coverage, anticipated where the ball was going due to the fact that Burrow gave it away with his eyes. This caused the incompletion.
Burrow's ball path and throwing choice was far too predictable in 2018 — and in the NFL, that kind of behavior leads to interceptions.
Against Texas, I would tell you one of the top traits I saw from Burrow was his eye manipulation, which is not something I expected to see this early in the season.
In the play above, once again in the red zone, Burrow initially looked to his right, knowing full well he wasn't going to throw to that target. In doing so, he forced the safety to move a few steps to Burrow's right, which opened up a hole in the middle of the back of the end zone. Burrow then quickly moved his eyes back to the target he knew he wanted to go to, saw that he had the space and let it rip for the score.
The angle above is an even better look at the details of why that touchdown happened. You see how Burrow was looking to his right at the snap, only to dart back to his left for the throw? That's fantastic eye manipulation.
They say that playing quarterback is all about what happens above the shoulders in the NFL. I asked 10 anatomist doctors whether or not the eyes were above the shoulders and all 10 confirmed that such was the case.
Creating space is an art. Burrow gave us a Mona Lisa versus Texas.
Play No. 3: Midas Touch
There's a difference between accuracy and touch. To me, accuracy is something that can be improved upon with repetition and technique. Footwork, throwing motion and a whole lot of reps can give you the muscle memory to put some throws on the money in certain situations. But there are going to be a handful of throws every game that a quarterback is going to have to see, and in a split second put air under the ball with the right pace, the right accuracy and in the right time. That's a touch throw, and those aren't as easily improved upon, if at all.
How successful a quarterback throws with touch helps tell me how much of a natural they might be. This is what made Kyler Murray my unquestioned QB1 by the time the 2019 NFL Draft process was done. Murray could look at a throw and within a millisecond let the ball go with the exact amount of air, speed and placement it needed to have to be on the money.
In 2018, as shown above, I didn't see that from Burrow, and that was a big reason why I had my doubts about him going into the season — I didn't think he was a natural.
But against Texas, Burrow was a natural in every sense of the word. That pass may not have been caught, but it should have been. It was right on the money with the perfect amount of touch.
Sometimes touch throws don't miss by much, as these two clips one year apart can be a testament to. But it's hitting those touch throws that tell me you can make it at the next level. Touch passes are required for things like backing away during pressure, fade routes at the goal line, and longer routes such as wheel routes. Burrow's jump in improvement on touch throws against Texas opened my eyes to him being a guy who can make the required throws at the next level.
Play No. 4: Behold, The Back Shoulder
Back shoulder throws are a staple of playing in the NFL, and winning at the highest level of college football, too. The reason they are so important is because defenders are going to play your receivers tight, but you still have to be able to hit them.
In the play above, Burrow's first game of the 2018 season, Burrow was not as sharp when it came to accuracy. As expected, that showed up on some of the more difficult throws. That throw above involved some pretty tight coverage, but that didn't mean it was the wrong throw to make, Burrow just didn't hit his spot.
Going back to that whole "creating your own space" thing, that ball from Burrow needed to be thrown with more pace (confidence) and to the backside shoulder of the receiver where the defender couldn't have been able to get his arm up. Instead, it was slightly under thrown, right over top of the receiver and in range of the defender making a difference.
Fast forward a year later and that throw looks a whole lot different.
On the back shoulder throw shown above, Burrow threw that ball with supreme confidence (required) exactly where it needed to be for the receiver to turn over his back shoulder (that's the name of the throw) and grab it outside of the reach of his defender.
That throw had tight coverage throughout, but Burrow created his own space by leading his receiver to a spot in the air where basically only his guy could get it. Trusting yourself and your receiver to execute plays like back shoulder throws are the signs of a confident quarterback, and those two throws back-to-back a year apart show how much Burrow has improved in that area.
Play No. 5: Big Game Burrow
Plays under pressure are so important for a quarterback. If you can't be the guy to deliver when the game is on the line and the defense is throwing everything plus the kitchen sink at you, you're going to lose some big ones that maybe you didn't have to.
That was the case with Burrow in 2018 when he played Florida. With the game on the line, Burrow stared down his receiver and ended up throwing a pick-6 under pressure instead of marching his team down the field in comeback fashion. Though I wanted to note that play, that isn't the one I chose to highlight in this section.
The reason I chose the play above is because keeping a big play alive until the very last moment is part of dealing with pressure, and that includes keeping your eyes up. Last season, in Burrow's season opener against Miami, he was faced with a ton of pressure up the middle on that play. He navigated the pocket well and even seemed to break though. But if you'll notice, he never thought to pull the ball back up for a potential throw. If he did, he would have seen his receiver streaking across the middle with space in front of him. If Burrow hits that (albeit a tough throw) that's likely a touchdown.
Turn the clock ahead a year to last Saturday and Burrow was faced with a similar situation. However, this time, after navigating the pressure in the pocket, Burrow kept his eyes up and found his man on a similar pattern, in which he delivered a beautiful ball under pressure for the game-sealing touchdown.
I was very encouraged by what I saw from Burrow against Texas. Play-for-play he showed improvement in a lot of ways. Though it was a big win to get under his belt, LSU's schedule doesn't let up. He's still have to face the likes of Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M and Alabama.
But if we get the Joe Burrow we saw against Texas for the rest of the season, there's no reason LSU can't hold their own and even come out on top in all four of those games. And there's no reason Burrow can't be considered one of the top quarterback prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft.