When Baylor quarterback Seth Russell went down for the season with a neck injury, it brought two questions to the forefront of the playoff conversation. One: How much does it matter when an offensive machine like Baylor loses a quarterback, as compared to everyone else? Two: What kind of read do we have on true freshman Jarrett Stidham, and is he ready to play?
Here’s how Russell has performed this season, as compared to last season’s starter Bryce Petty, 2012 starter Nick Florence, and the senior season of Heisman winner Robert Griffin III.
|2011||Robert Griffin III||291||402||72.4||4,293||10.7||11.8||37||6||189.5|
As you can see, Russell has actually been a little less accurate than the average Baylor product, but his adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) is the highest of any recent Baylor quarterback. This is probably what happens when you throw 50-50 footballs at star receiver Corey Coleman.
Baylor has been a plug-and-play system at quarterback for so many years that it’s hard to imagine a huge drop-off. This injury still hurts though, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time given how backloaded Baylor’s schedule is. But if there was one team in the playoff picture that could lose a starting quarterback (besides Ohio State, which is unfair) — it’s probably Baylor.
Baylor’s offense is designed to give quarterbacks simple and easy reads on run-pass options. This will keep Stidham from having to be a supercomputer and reading every coverage perfectly. Coleman’s presence will also give Baylor a trump card — man-to-man defense is much easier to deal with if you have a receiver in Coleman who can beat most men.
Keep in mind, before you write off Baylor, that Stidham is no slouch. You can look at the small sample size numbers and discount them a bit — Baylor was playing poor defenses in garbage time — but Stidham as a recruit was a humongous get for Art Briles and the Baylor staff. More than one journalist came away from the Elite 11 quarterback camp thinking Stidham was the best quarterback out there. And that’s measuring him up against UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Texas A&M’s Kyler Murray and other should-be stars.
I do think it’s reasonable to expect freshman mistakes from Stidham. I don’t expect him to come in and limit the playbook. Not only because it’s a simple playbook, but because Stidham has proven in his short time that he has the arm talent to make every throw that Baylor can create for him.
The issue, then, is one of execution. Is Coleman enough of an edge to keep Baylor from getting swamped by a physical defense that plays man and stops the Bears from succeeding in the run game? Is Stidham going to be able to pick up blitzes and disguised coverages and keep Baylor from becoming a boom-bust offense? I think he has the talent to do so, and I’m not necessarily a believer that there’s some forcefield that prevents freshmen quarterbacks from being successful right away. (See: Jameis Winston.) Nor is there one that makes quarterbacks with experience less turnover prone. (See: Also, Jameis Winston.)
I also don’t think it’s realistic to think that Stidham is going to throw up gem after gem against the back half of Baylor’s schedule, which is pretty intimidating. In a three-game stretch, Stidham will have to play Oklahoma, at Oklahoma State and at TCU. There’s probably going to be a stinker in that bunch. And in that game, Baylor had better hope they’re still running the ball well.
Ultimately, Russell going down doesn’t much change Baylor on paper. If you look at what Stidham is being projected to be, and the system he plays in, it’s not hard to imagine him being successful. The challenges Baylor will face in the weeks ahead were going to be issues with or without Russell. And, unless you believe that Russell was going to be flawless because he had more experience, Baylor was likely going to face some adversity in this set of games anyway.
But, to get back to a root principle of sports psychology: this is a lot of pressure to put on a true freshman quarterback. He’s got the talent to handle it. Will the mentality and execution match the talent? That’s when it’s time to toss the paper aside and see what a player is really made of.