Holton Ahlers is a name with which most Cougar fans are probably not too familiar. During this past fall, the Greenville, NC native was carving up eastern North Carolina defenses during his senior year at D.H. Conley High School to the tune of 4500 yards and 51 TDs through the air. He managed to tack on another 1000 yards and 15 TDs on the ground. I was lucky enough to personally watch him hang 49 on a defense that has three legitimate D-1 prospects on it. He’s the real deal.
Ahlers is now on campus at East Carolina University and, if reality lives up to the expectations, will likely be donning the purple and gold on Saturdays this fall as QB1. And that may be the major contributing factor to how Gardner Minshew matriculated to the Palouse as a graduate transfer.
Lucky for us, Minshew started or played in a number of games for ECU, which gives us a pretty healthy body of work to dissect. I spent some time over the last day or so going through a couple of ECU games to take a look at Gardner Minshew and see if his skill set will allow him to be successful in the Air Raid. Specifically, I looked at four categories.
- Quick Game - Under ten yards, is he accurate? Does he hit receivers in stride or on the correct half of the body?
- Intermediate Windows - Between ten and twenty yards, does he anticipate open windows in the secondary?
- Verticals - He might throw one or two of these in the Air Raid. How’s the arm strength and touch?
- Gunslinger Effect aka How much like Connor Halliday is he? - The Air Raid is a mentality. We joke about “F&$! it, go deep” quite a bit, but sometimes... f%&! it, go deep. Does that mentality show up?
I have some game tape spliced in to show some examples of his throws that I think highlight his strengths and weaknesses. Overall, I came away with a positive outlook on winning football games with Minshew as QB1. Let’s go to the tape.
If we take a look at Minshew’s stats from last year, completion percentage jumps off the page, and not for good reasons. In six of the nine games in which he attempted nine or more passes, Minshew completed no more than 54% of his passes, including four games wherein he completed less than half of his attempts. Those numbers are certainly a concern for an offense that relies on accuracy—arguably moreso than any other physical trait—from its point guard. A mark in Minshew’s favor, however, is that in those other three games, he was at 66% or higher. We have a little bit of a Jekyll & Hyde situation going on. He’s going to have to have pinpoint accuracy in the quick game (throws under ten yards) to be successful in the Air Raid. What does the tape say?
ECU runs a snag concept off motion into trips at the bottom of the screen. Minshew takes a quick drop and hits the receiver in the window between the flat and hook defenders. Good anticipation combined with enough patience to let his receiver get far enough inside the defender.
Nice quick slant against man coverage in the red zone. Minshew hits his back foot and delivers a strike in stride.
So here’s the not so good in the quick game. This is the same snag concept as before, but Minshew goes to the single side. The corner dives inside and takes away Minshew’s first read. Gardner hesitates a bit and, instead of working back to the middle of the field, misfires to the back out of the backfield. This is the first throw against the #16 team in all the land (with a defense that is coordinated by Bud Foster), so this might be some nerves as he’s settling in.
We’ll go up the ladder a little bit to the intermediate levels, between ten and twenty yards downfield. Accuracy is again important here, but there is an increased emphasis on anticipating windows. Arm strength becomes more of a factor at this level as well.
Two examples of a throw that Minshew is going to be asked to make in the Air Raid: 10-yard out route from the opposite hash. This is verging on an NFL-level throw. Minshew throws it a little better in the first example, towards his closed shoulder, which is fairly typical of college quarterbacks. The ball is just outside the reach of the corner, who was squatting on the route. The throw in the second example is a bit behind the receiver, and Minshew will be expected to get that ball closer to the sideline.
This throw is pretty solid. Minshew manipulates the defense with his eyes to open up the square in on the play side, then sticks it in the window before the hook/curl defender can recover.
This throw is... less solid. It looks like the defender walled off the in-breaking receiver, but Minshew was locked on and threw it into double coverage anyway. Late, into traffic, over the middle, and high describes every interception Halliday and Falk ever threw. What’s really annoying from a coaching aspect is that he has check-downs wide open to his left and right. Unnecessary risk shortens coaches’ life spans.
The vertical throw is necessary to take the top off the defense and to beat man coverage. It seems a simple thing, running in a relatively straight line and throwing the ball really far. But the arm strength, timing, and touch all have to be there to make that throw.
This might be the best throw I saw Minshew make. It’s in a perfect spot, with perfect touch and a little bit of zip on it to boot. There’s even an unblocked rusher he has to account for. It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this.
A little bit of a deeper throw, however, shows a little bit of a flaw. This ball hangs in the air for a while. The slight hesitation at the top of Minshew’s drop is probably enough to make this throw longer than he can reasonably be expected to make. To be fair, this is fifty yards in the air to the sideline from the opposite hash. It’s not a short throw. But timing on verticals in the Air Raid is paramount, and that hitch in the drop could be problematic.
I’ve watched this play about 100 times and I can’t decide if it’s a Top 5 best back shoulder throw or just a “NononononoYES!” play. Either way, I love it.
This play kinda sold me on Minshew. Falling away onto his back foot, he still drops a dime in the midst of four defenders surrounding his target. And that defensive lineman in his face is none other than Ed Oliver, Eater of Offensive Linemen and Destroyer of Worlds.
Fourth down in plus territory, down eighteen early in the third, this is a throw they had to have to have any sort of reasonable chance to win this game. Minshew stuck the ball in where it needed to be, going to a short-arm three-quarters arm angle.
From looking at the tape, I think Cougar fans can be reasonably positive about Gardner Minshew at quarterback come September, if he does enough in the summer and in fall camp to win the starting nod. He has the physical tools to be successful in the Air Raid, showing a quick release, good anticipation and understanding of windows, and arm strength that, in Leachian terms, is good enough to make all the throws he needs to make. The question will be whether he can unlock the Air Raid mentally. It’s not a system that, at the college level, is very friendly to first year quarterbacks. Everybody Air Raids, and ECU uses a lot of those concepts, but it’s a significant step from sprinkling in concepts to going full Air Raid. It’s unfortunate that we won’t be able to see him get some work in the Spring Game, just to see how he processes the information.
Is Gardner Minshew likely to crack the 5000 yard mark? 50 TDs? Win a Pac-12 Championship? Likely not, partly because of his limitations, and partly because of the question marks around him. But there’s enough there to be cautiously optimistic about watching Minshew lead the Cougs to a fourth consecutive bowl game.