Our favorite balding, allergic-to-pineapple head football coach arrived in Columbia with a reputation as a unique offensive mind thanks to his tutelage under Gus Malzahn and Brian Harsin, and demonstrated by the funky-functional “position-less” NC State offense that he ran from 2016-2018. At the core of it all, however, was his ability to get the most out of the quarterbacks he was tasked with and that’s what I want to analyze today.
Drinkwitz is only 38 years old and has had only two “official” jobs as offensive coordinator: Boise State and NC State. However, he called plays at App State and, of course, calls plays here. Interestingly enough, Drinkwitz’s only had one quarterback who he’s coached for multiple years and that’s current Houston Texan backup quarterback, Ryan Finley.
Finley signed with Boise State out of Phoenix’s Paradise Valley High School as a middling three-star recruit. He redshirted his first year at Boise before playing in a handful of games during his redshirt freshman season in 2014. He was named the starting quarterback for the Broncos in 2015, but lasted only three games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. When Drink took the NC State offensive coordinator position at the conclusion of the 2015 season, Finley opted to transfer with his old OC, and thanks to a waiver granted by the NCAA, was given immediate eligibility and earned the starting quarterback job for the Wolfpack in 2016.
So despite taking six years to graduate — and attending two different schools on opposite sides of the country — Finley’s sole offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach was Eli Drinkwitz. Similarly, Finley is the only quarterback that Drinkwitz has worked with for multiple years (he coached running backs when he was Co-OC at Arkansas State and was a tight ends coach in his first year at Boise). Essentially, Finley’s development is, truly, the only data set we have to gauge Drinkwitz’s ability to develop quarterbacks...until Connor Bazelak completes his reign as Missouri’s QB1, that is. And because we’re entering the doldrums of the Valley of No Football, now is the perfect time to overanalyze small sample sets and project those to our favorite team. Let’s go!
Here’s Ryan Finley’s career stats:
Given that his first year on the field was purely in mop-up duty and his second year at Boise consisted of three games, we’ll consider his 2016 NC State season as “Year 1” and his 2017 NC State season as “Year 2” and compare the difference between those two seasons.
Let’s dive into the differences!
- 2016 (Year 1): 243-402 (60.4%)/7.1 yards per attempt
- 2017 (Year 2): 312-479 (65.1%)/7.0 yards per attempt
In 2016 — Finley’s first full year at the helm of Drinkwitz’s system — Finley was used mostly to bail out the Wolfpack offense on third downs, ranking 16th in passing-downs success rate and creating a ton of third-and-manageables. In fact, Finley’s 3rd-down completion rate was 68% with a 148 passer rating to boot...and his overall completion percentage was 60%. Confusing, eh? Much like the Tigers last year, Drinkwitz ran a ton on 1st-downs (61%) and relied on efficiency from a vertical passing game to keep up with the chains and occasionally break open big plays thanks to the “tweener” all-star skill position corps of Jaylen Samules, Nyheim Hines, Matthew Dayes, et al.
In 2017, Finley threw 77 more passes and improved his completion percentage by 5%, but also became mega-reliant on Samuels and Hines who combined for 274 passing targets, 27% of the team’s total targets. However, Finley did throw down field more often thanks to the emergence of Kelvin Harmon (69 [nice] catches, 1,017 yards, 14.7 yards per catch) and a smattering of other young receivers, but his yards per attempt essentially stayed the same (7.1 in ‘16, 7.0 in ‘17).
- 2016 (Year 1): 3,055 yards/12.6 yards per completion/18 TDs/8 INTs/15 sacks
- 2017 (Year 2): 3,518 yards/11.2 yards per completion/17 TDs/6 INTs/13 sacks
Yards improved from Year 1 to Year 2, but yards per completion regressed; he threw one less touchdown, two fewer interceptions, and was sacked two fewer times. Overall, this is nice continuity; YPC doesn’t really matter much and one fewer touchdown through the air certainly won’t make or break a season. Overall, Finley was definitely a better producer in his second year of the Drinkwitz system.
- 2016 (Year 1): 59 rushes/193 yards/1 TD/3.3 yards per carry
- 2017 (Year 2): 57 rushes/288 yards/3 TDs/5.1 yards per carry
The Drinkwitz system doesn’t require - or feature - a dual-threat quarterback, but his signal-callers are presented with multiple chances to run it themselves in a given game, and they are required to capitalize on those opportunities. Finley’s first year was fairly pedestrian in the rushing department but he did a much better job of picking his spots in Year 2, improving on every category drastically in two fewer carries between Year 1 and 2.
Finley vs. Bazelak
Now, here’s the comparison between Finley’s first year as a starter and Bazelak’s:
Anyone else weirded out that Finley and Bazelak had the exact same sack rate and yards per carry in their respective first years? No? Just me? Ok, cool.
Finley had three more games and - predictably - had higher numbers in the raw statistical categories. However, Bazelak had a much higher completion percentage and was more careful with the ball, avoiding interceptions and sacks better than Finley.
But what if we took Finley’s progression from Year 1 to Year 2 and applied that to Bazelak to project his 2021 season? Glad you asked! Here’s the percentage improvement for Finley 2016 to Finley 2017:
- Completions: 243 -> 312 (+28%)
- Attempts: 402 -> 479 (+19%)
- Yards: 3,055 -> 3,518 (+15%)
- Touchdowns: 18 -> 17 (-5%)
- Interceptions: 8 -> 6 (-25%)
- Sacks: 15 -> 13 (-13%)
- Rushes: 59 -> 57 (-3%)
- Rushing Yards: 193 -> 288 (+49%)
- Rushing Touchdowns: 1 -> 3 (+200%)
Apply those percentages to Bazelak’s 2020 stat line and you get this:
- 279-385 (72.5%)
- 2,721 yards (7.1 yards per attempt)
- 7 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 10 sacks
- 33 rushes, 159 yards, 4 touchdowns
Finally, take those numbers from a 10-game season and project that to a 13-game schedule (assuming a bowl game, of course) and it comes out to this quasi-mathematical sample 2021 stat line:
- 362-500 (72.4%)
- 3,537 yards (9.2 yards per attempt)
- 9 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 13 sacks
- 43 rushes, 207 yards, 5 touchdowns
What do you think? Would that be an acceptable improvement for Bazelak in Year 2?