Unbreakable: Joe Burrow’s Steep Climb To Prominence

Photo: Rob Judin - The Draft Network

If he had it his way, Joe Burrow would have never played quarterback at LSU or Ohio State. 

“All Joe ever wanted to do is play for Nebraska.”

Burrow’s father and two older brothers all played for Nebraska, but the Cornhuskers never gave Joe that opportunity. Whether it was being glossed over by his childhood team, not being invited to Elite 11 high school quarterback all-star showcase or ever getting the opportunity to start at Ohio State, not receiving chances have been the norm for Burrow. 

Selected as Ohio Mr. Football, First-Team All-State and graded as a four-star recruit, the road for Burrow has been unexpected with far more struggles than what is normal for such a decorated high school quarterback coming from a family of athletes. 

During a recent sit-down interview that was aired on College GameDay, Burrow was asked how much interest Nebraska gave him during his recruitment. 

“None... none,” Burrow said. He made no further comments to answer the question and chuckled. 

Burrow committed to Ohio State, redshirting in 2015 and spent the next two seasons backing up JT Barrett. Heading into 2018, Burrow was in a battle with Dwayne Haskins to be Barrett’s successor and Burrow made the decisions to transfer when he realized Haskins would be named the starter. 

Burrow had plenty of interest from schools when transferring but he only took two visits — Cincinnati and LSU. 

While Burrow has developed into a high first-round prospect and leader among the Heisman race, it hasn’t always been rosy for him as a Tiger. Although he elevated the standard for quarterback play at LSU compared to his predecessors, 2018 was met with considerable challenges for Burrow — starting with the Alabama game. 

LSU entered the Alabama contest boasting a 7-1 record, the game was in Baton Rouge and many thought it could be Alabama’s most reasonable chance to fall in the regular season. As it would turn out, the Tide blanked LSU by 29-0 margin and Burrow struggled. It has since been made known that Burrow played the game with a separated shoulder that he suffered during practice just two days prior to the showdown with Alabama. He still played.

Three weeks later, Burrow and the Tigers’ played a seven overtime contest at Texas A&M, resulting in a 74-72 loss to the Aggies. After the game, Burrow was so exhausted that he passed out in the locker room because his body lacked nutrition. The training staff hooked up an IV in his arm while feeding him cookies and applesauce for Burrow to regain his strength after attempting 38 passes and running it 29 times. The team was late leaving Kyle Field as Burrow was tended to. 

After battling through 2018, Burrow has LSU humming. The Tigers are a perfect 8-0 while scoring 46.8 points per game and averaging 535.9 yards of total offense. Burrow leads the SEC with 2,805 passing yards while completing 78.8 percent of his passes with 30 touchdowns against just four interceptions. 

Burrow has paired with Joe Brady to completely reinvigorate LSU’s offense. Hired as the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach in the offseason, Brady came to LSU after two seasons with Sean Payton in New Orleans as an offensive assistant. He was a graduate assistant at Penn State from 2015-2016 and prior to that was the linebackers coach at William & Mary from 2013-2014 where he played wide receiver from 2001-2012.

The Tigers currently lead the SEC and are second behind Washington State nationally in passing yards per game. LSU’s national rank in passing yards per game over the last five years: 116th in 2014, 106th in 2015, 101st in 2016, 84th in 2017 and 67th in 2018.

Brady’s passing scheme has allowed Burrow to play his best football and provide scouts the opportunity to study him in an optimal situation. The offensive system is predicated on concepts instead of routes with sight adjustments to adjust to coverage and finding open space in the defense. LSU spreads the field and challenges defenses with routes at every level. That offensive philosophy has revealed so much about the football intelligence of Burrow.

One of the top indicators of Burrow’s football intelligence rests in his remarkable 78.8 completion percentage this season. Duke head coach and renowned quarterback guru David Cutcliffe offered the following regarding what completion percentage reveals about a passer. 

“Completion percentage is pre-snap reads. When you become a master of a pre-snap read, you have a much better chance of having a completion. You have post-snap reads where you know where you want to go. You not only know where and when, because it’s got to happen on time. You have to understand why I’m making certain throws.”

A master of LSU’s offense, Burrow leads the nation in completion percentage by more than four percent over the second-highest ranked passer. He’s an incredibly smart quarterback and that becomes easy to identify from studying his tape. 

Just like Brady’s passing scheme has allowed Burrow to be the best version of himself, Burrow is what makes the system work. He does a masterful job of surveying the defense and understanding how the options he has at his disposal work against the coverage. Burrow knows where leverage is going to be, anticipates coverage rotations and hits throws accurately and away from defenders, giving his weapons advantageous opportunities to work after the catch. 

Burrow is on the same page with his weapons and the results have been spectacular. 

He’s been tested repeatedly this season and aced every single one of them. Texas and Auburn challenged Burrow with a 3-1-7 alignment while Florida tried blitzing, late coverage rotations and a mix of zone and man coverage looks. It hasn’t mattered - nothing has worked to slow down the Tigers’ offense. 

No matter how Burrow has been challenged, nothing has proven able to impact his ability to produce. Typically, pressuring quarterbacks is the best way to affect their performance but Burrow leads the nation with a remarkable 151.6 passer rating under pressure.

Burrow is a smooth operator that looks comfortable in every situation, even amid chaos. He’s a cool customer when things break down around him, keeping his eyes down the field and manipulating the pocket. He sees the entire field cleanly which enables Brady’s spread offense to be fully deployed. Because Burrow isn’t limited to half-field reads, it creates lethal spacing issues for defenses to account for.  

To boot, Burrow has smooth mechanics, a natural feel for navigating the pocket, accuracy and exceptional processing skills.

What’s not to like? The biggest knock on Burrow is his lack of top end arm strength, which is the reason Dan Burrow provided as to why Nebraska didn’t recruit Joe. Burrow’s throwing power is passable, it just isn’t an elite trait he possesses. Nobody is going to come away from watching Burrow and believe he has an absolute cannon for a right arm. But like everything in scouting, issues in players are only problems if they are in fact issues. 

Burrow has enough arm strength to make the required throws at the next level, but more importantly he overcomes any lack of zip on his passes by throwing on time, accurately and with anticipation. 

The script certainly has not gone the way Burrow has envisioned it. He wasn’t considered by Nebraska, nor did he start for Ohio State and his first season at LSU was filled with challenges. Burrow has faced uncommon obstacles along the way, but the journey led him to the exact opportunity to showcase his talent and now he’s in the conversation to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. 

Joe Burrow is unbreakable.

Written By:

Joe Marino

Senior NFL Draft Analyst

Joe Marino is a Senior NFL Draft Analyst at TDN. Marino comes to TDN after serving as a draft analyst for NDT Scouting, FanRag Sports and Draft Breakdown dating back to 2014. In 2017, Marino became a Huddle Report Mock Draft Champion when he produced the most accurate mock draft in the world.