Quarterbacks In The Crosshairs
During the course of his broadcast of the Georgia-Clemson season opener Saturday night, Brent Musberger noted that there were 22 NFL scouts on hand. Clemson has had NFL talent for as long as there’s been an NFL, and the Tigers have hosted opponents similarly well-stocked. Still, never before had Clemson had so many scouts come to Death Valley (as Brent might say) to look live at the talent assembled by the Tigers and their guests.
The majority of the NFL is rarely represented at a singular location without reason, and it’s safe to assume that the majority of that majority was there to do a little early quarterback shopping. Two of Football.com’s top three quarterbacks were on display – Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd. They’re both seniors, both have started for multiple years (this is Murray’s fourth season, Boyd’s third), and the scouts flocked to Howard’s Rock to see, in part, whether both, or either, are first-round material.
I’m not sure they came away knowing anything they didn’t know already.
In Boyd, they saw pretty much what they expected: a productive multi-dimensional quarterback. He’s not in the pure dual-threat mold of Griffin/Kaepernick/Manziel, the kind of guys who will take a designed run 40 yards in a blink. Rather, he’ll run the quarterback draw and the read option capably, is shifty more than speedy but can show a burst when needed (like when he beat the Bulldogs to the edge on third down late in the fourth quarter, gained six yards and the first down, and kept Murray on the sidelines at crunch time). Boyd ran for two short-yardage touchdowns, and scouts came away convinced that the 6-foot-1, 215-pound quarterback can handle himself with the ball in his hands.
And they saw a passer who was capable but not always consistent. He was 18-for-30 for 270 yards and three touchdowns, one coming on a perfectly delivered ball to Zac Brooks, 31 yards down the right sideline. On the play before that, though, Boyd’s imprecision almost cost Clemson a first down -- and that scoring chance. His pass to Charone Peake on 4th-and-1 was well behind his receiver, enough to force Peake to have to turn and break a tackle behind the line of scrimmage to convert the first down.
Even his first touchdown pass nearly didn’t happen. Boyd needed a sidearm delivery to get the ball to Sammy Watkins on a first down on the first play of Clemson’s third possession. He got the ball to Watkins, but behind him. Watkins had to break stride, lower his shoulder and bounce off a defender’s poor attempt at a tackle. He was then able to beat the defense to the boundary and all the way down the field for a 77-yard touchdown that gets credited to Boyd, but which wasn’t really to his credit.
This is not to suggest Boyd’s accuracy is a concern for NFL scouts. More likely they see it as an area to be developed, as no one questions his arm strength or his release. He can throw on the run (better to his right than to his left), and he can run an up-tempo offense – a skill increasingly in demand in the NFL. It’s just a question of whether Boyd can fine-tune his near-misses and just-barely-made-its and make things easier on his receivers.
Murray, on the other hand, didn’t fully address the two biggest questions facing him either – can he avoid mistakes that sabotaged him in the past and can he win in the clutch?
Let’s start with the first one. Murray had some accuracy issues of his own, often delivering balls a bit low, which eliminated any chance of his receivers advancing after the catch. An intended back-shoulder pass into the end zone was thrown too far to the defender’s side (he dropped what should have been an interception, and Georgia scored a game-tying touchdown two plays later).
His one pick came not because of an underthrow but an oversight. Clemson defensive end Corey Crawford dropped into coverage, and Murray made a throw that suggests he never considered the possibility of the fire zone. He never saw Crawford, stepped in front of the pass at Clemson’s 17, and a potential go-ahead scoring drive late in the second quarter was snuffed out. Murray is well-regarded for his ability to read a defense at the line and get his team in the right play (a highly valued trait); it was his post-snap read, in this case, that enabled the inopportune turnover.
As for the question of Murray in the clutch, the scouts might have a different takeaway than Georgia fans, who are likely to bemoan only the undeniable statistic that their quarterback is now 1-10 against top-15 opponents. In truth, Murray played a near-flawless second half, despite having lost his best receiver, Malcolm Mitchell, in the game’s opening minutes.
Murray completed his first eight passes of the second half and finished 11-for-13 after the break. Were it not for a botched snap on a 19-yard field goal attempt, the Bulldogs would have had a chance to tie the game when they got the ball back with 2:25 left. Murray marched them 64 yards in 66 seconds, completing all three of his attempts and scoring on a one-year sneak. It wasn’t a game-tying or game-winning drive, but it was a clutch performance on the road against a top-10 team – that the Clemson fans stormed the field moments later should not be an indictment against Murray's mettle.
Ultimately, those 22 scouts came away with less clarity than they would have liked. Neither Boyd nor Murray established anything beyond the baseline – they are two of the best quarterback prospects in a draft that appears loaded with them, but they are no one’s sure thing.