Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Breaking Down Casey Thompson’s Play Against the Best Defense He Faced in 2021

January 21, 2022

It’s been an offseason of change for the Nebraska football program, which, as of Thursday, Jan. 20, has brought in 25 new scholarship players, including nine transfers, three junior-college players and 13 high school recruits.

Following the transfer of four-year starting quarterback Adrian Martinez to Kansas State in December, the Husker offense was left without an experienced quarterback. That changed on Jan. 7 when Frost and new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple received the commitment of former Texas quarterback Casey Thompson, who started 10 games for the Longhorns in 2021 and spent a total of four seasons in Austin.

Though Nebraska also brought in a second transfer quarterback on Jan. 17, Chubba Purdy from Florida State, it’s Thompson who will be viewed as the favorite to win the starting job in a competition that will also include Purdy, Logan Smothers, Heinrich Haarberg and Richard Torres, the lone quarterback recruit in the 2022 class. Of that group, only Purdy and Smothers each have a college start under their belts. Purdy’s came in 2020 against North Carolina State while Smothers’ came in the season finale against rival Iowa.

Thompson’s addition brings maybe the most important trait to Whipple’s quarterback room in Lincoln: experience. In his four seasons at Texas, Thompson, a former four-star recruit in the 2018 class according to the 247Sports Composite, threw for over 2,400 yards with 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

To get an idea of what Thompson brings to the table, let’s go back to Oct. 16, 2021, when the Longhorns hosted the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Texas shot out to a 17-3 lead in the first half, but ultimately lost 32-24 after scoring only seven points in the second half while being shut out in the fourth quarter.

Why look at Thompson’s game against Oklahoma State? The Cowboys’ defense in 2021 was the best that Thompson played against. Oklahoma State was first in the conference and ninth in the country in scoring defense, allowing 18.1 points per game. The Cowboys’ defensive coordinator, Jim Knowles, was just poached from Mike Gundy’s staff to fix the Ohio State defense.

One thing to note before we get in to what stood out from Thompson’s performance against the Cowboys is his thumb. In Texas’ loss to Oklahoma in the Red River Showdown the week before the Oklahoma State game, Thompson injured his thumb on his throwing hand in the second half. Thompson fought through the injury and played the rest of the game, throwing for 388 yards and five touchdowns in the wild and thrilling 55-48 loss.

It’s hard to say how much Thompson’s thumb, which was heavily wrapped, had an impact on his performance against a top-10 defense. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder went 15-of-27 for 179 yards and one touchdown. He also threw two interceptions, one of which turned into an 85-yard pick-six.

Pocket awareness

The first thing that stood out watching Thompson was his pocket presence and awareness. Oklahoma State finished the season with a Big 12-best 56 sacks, second-most in the country. Texas allowed 27 sacks, fourth-most in the conference. Thompson showed that he’s willing to stand strong, stay in the pocket and go through his progressions while the defense collapsed on him. That’s not an easy thing to do, as many quarterbacks choose to bail, which, at times, can turn into a negative play.

On the example below, Texas comes out in 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) with a bunch set to the field, or long side. It was a clever design from head coach Steve Sarkisian. Star running back Bijon Robinson initially lines up directly behind Thompson in a pistol look, then motions to the left of his quarterback just before the snap. That’s done because, if the defense is in man coverage, it doesn’t give the defender who has Robinson a lot of time to diagnose what he needs to do.

Robinson runs his route to the flat and the Cowboys are in man, which means linebacker Devin Harper (#16) has to sift through the traffic that the bunch set created. Thompson stands in the pocket and delivers an accurate ball to Robinson while taking a big shot from linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez (#20):

Here’s another example of Thompson standing strong in the pocket. Texas is again in 12 personnel and runs a play-action misdirection play. Thompson pulls the ball and wants to throw the post, but has an unblocked defender, Harper again, in his face. The play ends with a pass interference called on Oklahoma State, but you can see again how Thompson hung in the pocket with pressure bearing down and got the ball out:

 

How about one more example? This one comes from Thompson’s 58-yard pass to Marcus Washington. Texas comes out in an empty 11 personnel look with tight end Cade Brewer in the slot. It’s third-and-6, and Oklahoma State is giving a cover-zero look, which means man coverage across the board with no deep safety.

Thompson knows he’s going to have one-on-one coverage with Washington on the seam route up the field. After the snap, Thompson stays patient, giving Washington time to beat his defender, Jason Taylor II (#25), as the Cowboys’ pass rush starts to get closer. Thompson stands tall and delivers an accurate deep ball for the connection:

 

Accuracy over the middle of the field 

Thompson showed really good accuracy and timing on the slant and glance routes against the Cowboys, which were playing off of the Longhorn receivers quite often in the game. He seemed comfortable throwing those routes, and one can see Whipple making them a key component of an offense that could feature receivers like Omar Manning, Zavier Betts—who would be two great threats down the field, too—and newcomer Trey Palmer, a transfer from LSU.

In the example below, Oklahoma State’s defense is in a 4-2-5 look, with five defensive backs playing about 8-10 yards off the receivers. Texas comes out in 11 personnel, and Thompson sells the run with an excellent fake handoff, which draws in both linebackers and the boundary safety, Kolby Harvell-Peel (#31). The run fake creates an open area for the glance route, but Thompson’s accurate toss is dropped by Joshua Moore (#6):

 

On the example below, Texas is in 11 personnel and motions Robinson to the slot prior to the snap. The Longhorns catch Oklahoma State in a blitz, and the offensive line and running back do a good-enough job of keeping the pressure off Thompson, but as you can see, Cowboys’ safety Tanner McCalister (#2) gets really close to home.

Thompson, however, hangs in the pocket and delivers a strike to Robinson, who easily runs past the 235-pound Harper, who dropped into zone coverage while the five-man blitz was sent:

 

Here’s the final example of Thompson throwing a strike on a slant. Again, this is a great play design from Sarkisian. Texas comes out in 11 personnel with a trips formation to the field. At first, it looks like the ever-popular slot-fade route, with Moore (#6), the outside receiver, sitting down for a second in an attempt to pick the defender of the slot receiver, Xavier Worthy (#8), who runs his route to the corner of the end zone.

But as we see, Moore continues his route to the middle of the field after his initial pick attempt, which is by design. Oklahoma State looks like it’s going to run a cover zero on third down again, but ends up dropping both linebackers into coverage. The linebacker to the field gets drawn out of the middle as he’s carrying Washington’s seam route, which creates space for the slant to Moore for a first down. Thompson, after pump-faking the slot fade, put the ball on the money on the slant:

 

Mobility

You won’t be seeing 4.4 speed from Thompson—quarterbacks rarely have that in their arsenal anyway. Speed isn’t Thompson’s strong suit—he’s very much a pocket passer first—but that doesn’t mean he’s incapable of running, he just wasn’t asked to do a ton of designed runs at Texas. Having one of the best running backs in the nation, Robinson, might have had something to do with that. But while growing up in Oklahoma and playing for Newcastle High School, Thompson showed what kind of athlete he was by rushing for over 3,000 yards and 47 touchdowns in his four seasons.

When he had his coming out party in the 2020 Alamo Bowl against Colorado, Thompson, who replaced an injured Sam Ehlinger, ripped off this 22-yard run:

 

Against TCU this season, Thompson showed his speed and running ability on this excellent play:

 

Against Oklahoma State, Thompson only used his legs a handful of times. On the example below, Thompson pulls the ball from Robinson’s belly and follows Brewer (#80) on the split-zone bluff block. Thompson can’t reach the edge, but this is really a strong play from Cowboys’ corner Jabbar Muhammad (#6), who beats Brewer’s block and limits Thompson to a short gain:

 

This example below is Thompson climbing the pocket and using his legs for a gain of 5-6 yards:

 

Interceptions

Thompson had a couple bad decisions that turned into interceptions against Oklahoma State, one of which turned into the aforementioned 85-yard pick-six in the second quarter. Taylor, the Cowboys’ safety on the example below, sees the slant route coming a mile away and aggressively undercuts it for the pick and touchdown:

 

Thompson’s second interception of the game came in the fourth quarter, when Texas was working with two minutes left in the game. Oklahoma State’s defense baited Thompson into throwing the pass. The ball probably should have gone to Brewer (#80) in the flat, but instead Thompson tried fitting the ball over the top of the safety McCalister (#2), who dropped deeper into his zone and made the interception to help seal the Cowboy win:

 

It’s going to be an interesting spring for the Husker football program. Thompson brings a veteran presence to the quarterback room that didn’t exist before he transferred in and will be viewed as the favorite to win the starting job. It won’t be handed to him, however. If he wins it, he wins it, but there will be a competition.

Though he spent two seasons at Florida State, Purdy is still an unknown who has an injury history, but Whipple clearly likes the kid. Whipple recruited Purdy to Pittsburgh when he still coached there and then beat new Oklahoma coach Brent Venables and his fast-rising OC, Jeff Lebby, to land both him and Thompson. To beat the Sooners for not just one, but two quarterbacks they were going after is a massive win for Frost, Whipple and a program that went 3-9 last season.

Smothers showed promise against a very good Iowa defense for three quarters before freshman mistakes caught up to him in the fourth. But by no means was the loss to the Hawkeyes Smothers’ fault—that was a team effort. Don’t count out Smothers, the Alabama kid who will enter spring with a giant chip on his shoulder. He’s the best runner of the five scholarship quarterbacks the Huskers have—Whipple can work with that.

“I don’t need yes men, I need you to tell me the truth—what do you like and don’t,” Whipple said on Dec. 15. “I’ve got enough stuff, Scott’s got enough stuff.”

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