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Quacking the Roster: QB Transfer Dillon Gabriel

Film review of Gabriel’s 2023 season at Oklahoma

Oklahoma v Kansas Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

Gabriel was originally recruited to UCF in 2019 as a mid 3-star (.8704) in the 24/7 composite. He became the starter as a true freshman for all 13 games under Josh Heupel, leading the Knights to a 10-3 season. He continued as starter for all 10 games in the covid-shortened 2020 season and the team posted a slightly better offensive output, but a severe falloff in defensive performance limited them to 6-4. In 2021, Heupel left for Tennessee and was replaced by Gus Malzahn, who’d been fired by Auburn (for, among other things, squandering QB Bo Nix). Gabriel started and played the entirety of the first three games, but hurt his shoulder on the final play of a wild game against Louisville and missed the rest of the season.

After UCF, Gabriel transferred to Oklahoma under Brent Venables, where he’s been the starter for the past two seasons. He’s played every game but two, missing the 2022 Texas game with a concussion and last year’s bowl game against Arizona as he’d already transferred to Oregon. Because of the 2020 covid holiday and redshirting in 2021, he has one year of eligibility remaining.

The 50 games Gabriel has started so far make him one of the most experienced quarterbacks in college football history – by comparison, at the conclusion of his career with this year’s Fiesta Bowl Nix had started in 61. What’s interesting in further comparing the two is that while Nix had an immediate breakthrough in his NCAA passer rating on switching schools — jumping about 40 points from Auburn to Oregon in 2022 with a superior offensive line, receiver talent, and schematic fit supporting him – Gabriel didn’t have such a leap in performance his first year going from UCF to Oklahoma, staying at the same mid-150s which is only about ten points above FBS average.

Instead, the big statistical improvement for Gabriel came in 2023, when he shot up nearly 20 points to 172.0 on what appears to be pure organic development as his accuracy, yards per attempt, and touchdown rate all ticked up substantially without risking any more interceptions. I charted every game Gabriel played in 2023, and while there was a lot to like about Oklahoma’s 8th ranked offense in F+ advanced statistics under OC Jeff Lebby (now the head coach at Mississippi State) and I understood why they improved from a 6-6 team in 2022 to a 10-2 team in 2023, I also thought the Sooners left a lot on the table and that Gabriel’s best season may still be ahead of him.

Schematically, Lebby’s passing offense uses horizontal stretch plays to set up vertical shots, which is philosophically similar to Oregon OC Stein’s approach. That had its intended effect for the Sooners, which were an elite explosive passing offense in 2023 at 23.4% of attempts gaining 15+ yards and an adjusted average of 9.51 YPA for every one of Gabriel’s throws outside garbage time. Some examples:

(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)

  1. :00 – Watch Gabriel’s helmet – the three-man rush moves him off his spot but he never drops his eyes as the No.2 cooks the DB on the flag route and makes the big catch despite the DPI. OU did very will simply going over the top against ISU DC Heacock’s “Air Raid killer” defense, something I wish Oregon had done the last time they met.
  2. :17 – Gabriel makes the decision to throw as soon as the WR is even with the CB, who collides with the WR from behind without playing the ball (why it was ruled DPI despite what looks like a pushoff, the WR has downfield position and is entitled to be there). Note Gabriel standing tall in the pocket despite pressure in his face.
  3. :30 – Here’s the other form of explosive passing, which should look familiar to Oregon fans by now: knifing the ball into the tiny window between the backer and safety in cover-7, leading the receiver by placement to cut under the overrunning DB with full momentum for a big gain after the catch.
  4. :45 – This switch release breaks the DB’s ankles in man coverage when the WR runs the sluggo, and Gabriel zips it with perfect timing.

Screen passes made up about 9% of all offensive playcalls, about the standard amount I’m used to seeing in modern college offenses such as this, and other than certain issues with predictability from formation, they don’t require examination for evaluating Gabriel’s tape – I don’t have a single screen pass on my tally sheet that failed because of a bad pass from him or an incorrect RPO read into a screen. Here’s a representative sample of the constraint plays which do feature Gabriel’s arm talent and decision making:

  1. :00 – The offense explodes out of a tight formation and the defense sends two backers after the read-option run and two DBs to the flat, but nobody for the receiver down the seam on the RPO. Good quick recognition and release by the QB, especially given that he’s getting no protection.
  2. :11 – Good read of the defense here, the blitz might inform throwing short over the middle or the checkdown to the back given how long it’ll take for those defenders to fill in. But the pocket is holding up well and the corner has his hips flipped, so Gabriel patiently takes the bigger throw on the deep comeback to the No.1 receiver against poorly positioned single coverage with the arm to deliver before the CB can recover.
  3. :19 – This RPO starts with a correct read of the crashing end to keep the ball, then as both high DBs to the field come down on him Gabriel pulls back and swings it to the motion man.
  4. :29 – The pattern here is mirrored left/right, just with the No.3 camping out as the dumpoff over the middle. Watch Gabriel’s helmet, he checks out of the throw to his right because zone coverage is clogging the lane, but hits the gap instantly to its left-side twin because that backer in the 33 is out of position.

The main limitation on Oklahoma’s offense was that explosive passing was the only thing they were really good at. Their passing efficiency was merely above average at a 54.4% success rate given the down & distance, and their rushing offense was slightly below average in efficiency at 49.4% and yardage at 4.91 adjusted YPC, and pretty bad at generating chunk yardage with only 11% gaining 10+ yards (there were some real inefficiencies in terms of back selection between boom-and-bust vs workhorse with no top-end speed, and then a third of carries went to a back with no pluses at all, a situation that they never really sorted out … though that’s all beyond the scope of this article).

The upshot of the offense’s mediocre efficiency but high passing explosiveness for evaluating Gabriel is that the Sooners were frequently in long-yardage situations and otherwise in conditions where defenses found it opportune to blitz, and Gabriel faced about five percentage points more blitzing per dropback than comparable offenses in my experience. However, blitzing didn’t seem to bother him at all, and Oklahoma’s passing success rates are not appreciably different regardless of whether the defense rushes three, four, five, or more. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Great footwork here, steps up nicely into a collapsing pocket and makes a perfect throw against single coverage.
  2. :12 – This is teaching tape on how not to pick up a blitz — all five linemen are facing backwards and the back is out to lunch – so Gabriel gets clobbered, but presnap identification of the DB’s leverage and a very quick release lets him get the ball off accurately despite that for a seven-yard gain.
  3. :22 – Blitz or not, the defense is overbalanced to the boundary here. The back does a lousy job picking up the blindside blitz but against single coverage with inside leverage Gabriel just has to win with velocity on an opposite-hash throw, and he has the arm for it.
  4. :42 – The LT doesn’t disengage his combo to get the backer and the C just gets dismissed by the nose so Gabriel needs to get rid of the ball, but he calmly hits the receiver in stride on the sideline go, dragging the corner into the endzone.

The intriguing thing about Gabriel’s decision-making as a passer is just how willing he is to go long with the ball – last year 23.25% of his attempts from the pocket (that is, excluding scrambles and throwaways) were deep shots, which is six and a half points more than Oregon’s figure, and intermediate passing was up four and a half points over Oregon’s figure, all at the expense of short downfield passing like quick hitches. Subjectively, I would say from watching Gabriel that his first instinct when in trouble or in doubt is to throw the ball long and trust his receiver, and the fact that his career interception rate is so low is remarkable.

Despite this, I don’t think that Gabriel has the biggest arm I’ve ever seen. He has no trouble at all with zip on intermediate throws and gets opposite-hash balls fired across the field on time excellently, but on his longest attempts he needs a little extra windup, and many of his deep balls are somewhat underthrown. That doesn’t have an affect on completion percentage or success rate, but it has hidden effects that come out in statistical regression – first, more windup means more pocket time, so Gabriel benefits more than effortless passers (stay tuned next week) from better pocket protection; second, receivers who’ve gotten behind the defense and could have just run straight to the endzone if they’d caught the ball in stride instead have to come back to an underthrown ball and are just tackled in place, so the drive has to continue after a big play to punch it in subsequently or are perhaps limited to a field goal. Some examples:

  1. :00 – The virtue of the underthrown ball is that if you have receivers who beat the coverage, then any contact the defender makes when the receiver comes back for the ball is interference, hence the CB throwing his hands up in the universal “I didn’t do it” gesture. Still, if this ball is placed about five yards deeper so the WR can run under it, then it’s a TD.
  2. :08 – This is a free play on the offside flag, and the WR is wide open on a zone coverage screwup. It doesn’t really make sense that Gabriel is double-clutching the ball and really powering up to sling it, and still winds up throwing it a little short.
  3. :23 – It was pretty rare that underthrown balls resulted in an actual break-up, but it did happen a couple of times like on this play. The receiver has to slow down for the ball when he had a step on coverage, if it’s out ahead on his back shoulder then there’s nothing the CB can do about it.
  4. :43 – Lebby’s defensive manipulation really works here, everybody bites on the motion, the back, or the drag, so there’s just a CB getting cooked on the post with nobody over the top. But it’s another ball where five yards deeper and it’s a TD instead of a tackle.

When analyzing failed downfield passing plays on my tally sheet, I thought about 15% came down to the QB making an unforced error, 25% were on the receiver, 35% on the offensive line, and the last 25% miscellaneous (I didn’t like the playcall, the defense just made a really great play, I didn’t get a good enough camera angle to make a judgment, etc.).

On a per-play basis, Gabriel’s error rate is pretty much standard for high level quarterbacks. He had a talented group of receivers to work with, though there were two issues I noticed: first, the drop rate for properly placed balls with no meaningful defensive presence was alarmingly high at 8.7% … 3% is standard for high level passing offenses (Oregon was at 4.2% in 2023 mostly due to Troy Franklin’s weird hands issue), so that’s more than double what I was expecting to see. Some of that is likely just down to bad luck and I wouldn’t expect that number to be quite so high again, but a figure never gets that high or affects that many receivers without some coaching issue.

Second, when one of their best deep receivers Andrel Anthony got injured midseason, rather than replace him with backups who had just as good per-play success and yards-per-target figures (Jayden Gibson outside and Brenan Thompson inside) instead his catches were redirected to inside receiver and coach’s kid Drake Stoops, plus a tight end whom I don’t think much of. Stoops is a sharp player and a real weapon, but he was overly relied upon and defenses started to key on him, and he has certain athletic limitations in terms of his vertical leap ... the shift to inside rather than outside receivers meant a different balance of deep passing. I think better management of the receiving targets might have improved passing efficiency by a couple of percentage points.

The major issue that persisted throughout the year, and struck me from the very first snaps against even inferior competition, was poor performance from the offensive line in pass protection. Each one of the linemen graded out at worse than 17% per-play error rates in pass-pro on my tally sheet and the line committed over 2.4 fouls per game, which are shocking figures for a blueblood.

Back in 2021 when reviewing Oklahoma I was surprised to see longtime OL coach Bill Bedenbaugh had taken the transfer of two Pac-12 o-linemen whom I thought played very poorly for their previous schools and weren’t doing much better for the Sooners, so the reader must imagine my astonishment when I found he’d gone back to the same well and taken two more terribly performing Pac-12 linemen for the 2023 iteration, plus a converted TCU tight end. I have no idea why a long tenured and highly respected line coach is relying on so many transfers or seems to have completely lost his eye for evaluating talent, but the results are plain to any observer.

A 35% rate of pass play failures due to the o-line is appalling (it was 19% at Oregon last year). That resulted in a rate of 18.4% sacks, scrambles, or throwaways per dropback (12.9% at Oregon). And like all quarterbacks (or perhaps a bit more so), Gabriel’s performance is affected by pressure getting through – his pass play success rate drops from 61.9% without a pocket breakdown to just 39.5% when there is one, a falloff of more than 22 percentage points. Some examples:

  1. :00 – All three d-linemen are getting through the line here, and the ball gets batted down. I don’t really have any plays where I think Gabriel’s stature prevented him from getting the ball out, instead the swats look like this – defenders are in the backfield and that makes it easy for them to get their arms in the way.
  2. :17 – Probably should have been a holding flag against the LG on this sim. The better throw would have been to the X-receiver on the far side, since his go-to guy here doesn’t really have the ups to get this hastily thrown ball into coverage, but Gabriel doesn’t have the pocket time to get there.
  3. :29 – Two rushers get through fast on a pretty uncomplicated attack, Gabriel is hit as he releases and the ball goes off target.
  4. :35 – Gabriel was pretty good at not doing this for most of the year but he had been getting hammered all day by this defense and this time he ducks his head and shoulders against the pressure getting through up the middle and around the edges, instead of hitting the crosser.

While broken pockets are suboptimal for obvious reasons, Gabriel is fairly effective at salvaging yardage from them. His average on scrambles, excluding throwaways, is a gain of 5.6 adjusted YPP, showing good athleticism and keeping his eyes downfield for improvised plays. Some examples:

  1. :00 – With pressure getting through despite the TE staying in to protect and the back not immediately releasing, the defense has a numbers advantage in coverage. Gabriel hangs in the pocket for as long as reasonable before taking off and shows some pretty good speed picking up 11 yards (not a 1st down, they were backed up due to a holding flag the previous play, naturally).
  2. :10 – The back picks up the DB on the sim this time, Gabriel is relatively clean here but he correctly calculates that with the backers dropping out he can just outrun them on the angles they’ve taken into open grass, and shows his athleticism.
  3. :25 – Gabriel was a sufficient threat to run that defenses repeatedly made the mistake of immediately collapsing on him when he started to break a failing pocket, and he’d take them up on the vacated coverage with a 1st down throw.
  4. :39 – I have this all over my tally sheet, just changing the angle a bit with a half roll, not necessarily out of trouble but to get the defense to re-align and to buy a bit more time. Watch his helmet downfield, he knows he’s got the throw against the corner but he’s waiting for the safeties to commit upfield so they’ll be out of the way for the throw to the back of the endzone.

In the designed run game, Gabriel carried the ball about 14% of the time (it was about 11% for Nix last year at Oregon). About half of those carries for Gabriel were his all the way like draws and sneaks, the other half were his decision on option plays. I only have one read-option error by Gabriel all year that resulted in a failed run play, in which he handed off when he should have kept to hit the bluffing TE on an RPO (actually, he did commit one other error when he kept on a give read, but then he made that defender miss and turned it into a successful play regardless). Gabriel’s 63.8% per-play success rate on designed runs is the highest on the team, though that’s not uncommon for QBs in read-option offenses (but it does make one wonder why Lebby gave 200 combined meaningful touches to three backs with a cumulative efficiency of 40.5%).

At any rate, Gabriel’s speed, agility, and toughness are readily apparent as a ballcarrier, and was especially valuable on the goalline in which he contributed nine rushing touchdowns. Some examples:

  1. :00 – It’s 4th and 1, and Gabriel knows it’s better to take this in himself than risk the pitch if he can avoid it. It’s subtle but watch the fake pitch motion on the overhead angle, just enough to freeze the OLB moving out onto the back and keep the lane open for him to dive for it.
  2. :11 – Nice patience on this QB draw, waiting for the blocking to develop and for the safety to follow the motion man out of the way.
  3. :22 – Gabriel has to muscle through some tackles here as he did on quite a few goalline carries; the read backer on this play made a great move after going inside on the back (and therefore pulling it and going outside is correct) to recover and even get a hand on the ball, but Gabriel keeps it secure and throws him off, then lowers his shoulder into another backer for the score.
  4. :37 – The defense bites hard on the power read, the OLB and both ILBs, even the DB takes an upfield step, so pulling it is the right move here. The DBs to the sideline are occupied by the potential WR screen that Lebby had been hitting all night so they’ve got their backs to the play, and Gabriel takes off for a big run.