Last week I reviewed the film on new Oregon OC Dillingham’s three seasons as coordinator with Memphis in 2018 and Florida St in 2020-21 under head coach Mike Norvell, focusing on the scheme that I expect Dillingham will bring with him. The other job title he’ll have at Oregon, QB coach, is one he’s had since he started coaching six years ago, including the two seasons at Memphis (one unofficially) before becoming OC there and one at Auburn in 2019 when he was also the OC but head coach Gus Malzahn was calling plays in his own offense.
Having the same person as both OC and QB coach is pretty common in modern football, when so much of the game runs through the quarterback’s decision-making process. With the rise of RPO offenses — which both Norvell and Malzahn use extensively — the quarterback is making multiple reads on virtually every play, run or pass. When reviewing Dillingham’s film over the last four years, I paid extra attention to how his quarterbacks went through their reads and progressions; this article will break down how Dillingham as QB coach developed those players.
Dillingham worked with four QBs over that time: Brady White in his first of three years as starter at Memphis, Bo Nix in the first of his three as starter at Auburn, Jordan Travis for two years as starter at Florida St, and McKenzie Milton who had transferred to Florida St after missing extensive time rehabbing an injury suffered at UCF and who played in six games at FSU while Travis was unavailable. Each of their NCAA passer ratings are pretty healthy and I didn’t detect much in the way of boneheaded errors from any of them. Three of those four are transfer QBs and the fourth, Nix, was a true freshman in 2019. Nix was named SEC Rookie of the Year that season and has since transferred to Oregon.
The most important element in both Norvell and Malzahn’s offenses during Dillingham’s time with them is operating the RPO successfully in terms of correct QB reads of the defense on each play. In fact if I were to select representative video clips for this article instead of illustrative ones, it would be almost entirely RPOs. My understanding from interviews and presentations with RPO-heavy coaches is that the threshold for a successful RPO offense is the QB getting 95% of his reads correct, which works out to no more than one or two screw-ups per game. By that standard all of Dillingham’s QBs were effective in the scheme. Some examples:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to 1⁄4 or 1⁄2 speed)
- :00 – Pretty standard RPO throw into the flat, the read is the overhang backer whose zone responsibilities are in conflict – he has to hit the back on a run and also close the throwing lane for the slot. The QB is reading his hips and shoulders and has already decided to pull the ball and throw it even before the backer takes the wrong step inside.
- :08 – The H-back is supposed to at least chip the backer here and he kind of whiffs so the viewer might think that guy is the read (the commentator did), but it’s actually the safety who’s walking down into the box at the snap. He keeps coming down onto the back, so there’s no underneath coverage on the throw.
- :15 – I feel like I watched this particular RPO about a hundred times on the Auburn 2019 film; Nix executed it very well every time. There’s two reads here, the unblocked OLB for give/keep, then the safety coming upfield on the fake sweep for run/throw. Both decisions are correct, and the ball is very nicely placed to lead the sweep man downfield with no loss of momentum.
- :29 – The X-receiver forgets to block here, it’s going to be a run or a screen no matter what so he should be engaging immediately. Regardless, the reads are the unblocked end on give/keep, then the safety over the No. 3 receiver for run/throw. The QB gets both correct and shows good awareness of where the line of scrimmage is so the throw is legal.
As a dropback passer, the QB is making a different set of decisions and reads of the defense. Both offenses I observed used progression passing systems, though Norvell’s was more traditional pocket passing and Malzahn’s was almost entirely quick passing except for a few surprise deep shots. At each school – Memphis, Auburn, and FSU – there was a pretty wide distribution of targets, including frequent passes to TEs and RBs, though among the WRs there was definitely a single favored target those QBs liked to hit more than the rest on dropback passing plays: Damonte Coxie, Seth Williams, and Ontaria Wilson, respectively. Regardless of who’s catching it, what I’m watching for a QB coach developing is proper ball placement, both finding the open man and delivering a catchable ball away from the defense. Some examples:
- :00 – The defense doesn’t re-align properly when the TE shifts here, so he’s open before they figure it out. Mechanically this throw isn’t easy but it’s pretty clear they’ve practiced it a lot.
- :09 – Nix has made the decision to throw to the outside of this double-slant the instant the safety over the slot shifts his weight inside, indicating he’s not going to fall off into the outside throwing lane and let the backer cover the inside route. Crisp throw after a quick decision and leads the receiver into the endzone.
- :19 – Watch the QB’s helmet here, he’s effectively looking off the high safety in cover-1. The throw’s not bad either.
- :40 – FSU did so much QB power out of empty with a tight end that pocket passing took some defenses by surprise. The QB is moving through his progression effectively and drops the ball into the hole nicely on target.
RPO offenses often de-emphasize the long ball and so I was concerned I wouldn’t get much tape on that aspect of Dillingham’s QB development. That only turned out to be true for part of one season – the first half of Nix’s true freshman year. The rest of the film I watched (including the Tigers’ upset of the Tide in the 2019 Iron bowl) featured quite a bit of midfield and deep shots, and I think Dillingham’s QBs have a pretty respectable resume in terms of producing explosive yards through the air:
- :00 – Cover-1 and the safety is moving to the field, the QB quickly checks out of all that and finds the split-out back just dusting the DB. Not the ideal catching mechanics, but it’s a perfect back shoulder ball that leads him into the endzone.
- :15 – Pre-snap motion reveals zone, and Nix steps up in the pocket when he clocks the CB blitzing. That leaves a hole in coverage and just a turned-around backer to deal with the post route.
- :31 – Pretty typical o-line performance here: both tackles are beat, the RT is holding, and the center is illegally downfield on what’s a designed downfield passing play with no RPO component. But somehow there’s no flag, and Nix places this ball perfectly down the sideline where only the receiver can get it.
- :41 – Maybe two of the blocks on this play are adequate, but the QB drops this deep throwback perfectly while he’s falling backwards.
I saw quite a bit of scrambling from these QBs, especially at Auburn and Florida St, both of which I’ve written about in the past as having pretty significant problems with their offensive line protections. Every QB I watched was fairly mobile and escaped collapsing pockets effectively, though I thought Nix showed some freshman tendency to break too early in 2019, and this is my biggest criticism of both him and Dillingham. I’ve left out the plays of QBs tucking the ball and running on scrambles because footspeed and suddenness seem to come down to raw talent rather than coaching, but I’ll note that all four QBs did a good job keeping their eyes downfield and seeking out pass plays even under pressure. Some examples:
- :00 – The center has a tough job to do here because he has to block for a run going to the boundary but also keep the DT off the QB if he keeps it to run to the field. It’d be easier if he had the power to drive the d-lineman back, but he doesn’t and so Nix immediately gets that guy in his face after his first (correct) RPO read. This is a tough throw to do on the hoof and falling back but he nails it.
- :08 – The blitz protection isn’t holding up real well here and Nix doesn’t get the time to set up properly going through his progression. What a throw off his back foot, right where only the receiver has a chance at the ball. The corner can’t defend this any better and he’s forced to make it one-handed, but the placement of this ball with the degree of difficulty from the pressure is incredible.
- :27 – This is a screen so the QB knows he’s going to have a rusher in his face and has to throw while drifting back. The remarkable thing here, which should be clear on the reverse angle, is that he has to keep his eyes on the TE even with the OLB in his sightline the whole way.
- :45 – The LG pulling fools the ILB and the safety is held off the sideline by the TE in the slot. The pocket is collapsing fast and there’s open grass to run to away from pressure and shielded by that pull, but the QB doesn’t take it – he sees the corner is out to lunch (looks like zone-man assignment confusion) and hits the deep sideline pass.
Finally, while I don’t think the QB coach can do much to make his quarterbacks faster runners, I do think it’s his responsibility to ensure that they do run when the playcall and read of the defense calls for it, and that the QB uses good technique to protect himself from injury. Green lights here too:
- :00 – Correct read to keep, any Oregon fan should be able to recognize that by now. When Nix had to go down in bounds I didn’t see him throwing his body around recklessly into contact, but I didn’t see a lot of foot-first slides either (those are counted as down as soon as his hip drops). Instead this was the most common, diving for extra yardage but still giving himself up.
- :09 – Alabama made this exact same defensive mistake earlier in the game and Nix walked in for a touchdown, so it was odd to see it again. At any rate, Nix knows it too and gets an easy gain, and trots out of bounds safely.
- :18 – Classic bootleg out of the I-formation, it’s been a minute since anyone saw this in Eugene. The QB has to watch for that outside-most backer – his weight is transferred to his inside foot to get on that TE who’s supposed to leak out for the throw, so he’s not going to be able to catch the QB to the pylon.
- :32 – It’s possible that the pitch is a fake here and the QB is going to keep all the way, but at any rate it gets three different backers moving outside and the QB goes inside. Not a great lead block by the pulling RG but the QB keeps churning anyway. He can’t safely get down here, there’s no way out but through.