Some people consider South Carolina’s Connor Shaw a dual-threat quarterback. Some consider him a running quarterback. Some consider him a mobile quarterback.
Tennessee’s defensive players consider him a worst-case scenario heading into Saturday’s game at Neyland Stadium. That’s because Shaw is the kind of quarterback who has given the Vols fits all fall – one who can hurt a defense by running the football, as well as by throwing it.
Crunch these numbers:
Game 1 saw Austin Peay backup QB Jacob Sexton burn the Vols for 25 yards on seven carries.
Game 3 saw Oregon QB Marcus Mariota shred Tennessee’s defense for 39 yards on four carries. Counting two sacks, his adjusted total was 27 yards on six carries.
Game 4 saw Florida backup QB Tyler Murphy relieve the injured Jeff Driskel and torch the Vols for 84 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, with a long run of 28 yards.
Game 5 saw South Alabama QB Ross Metheny gash the Vols for 67 yards and two TDs on 10 carries, with a long run of 32 yards.
Game 6 saw Georgia QB Aaron Murray – not exactly known for his running – carry twice for 60 yards against Tennessee with a long of 57. Counting a sack, he officially was credited with 53 yards on three carries.
Clearly, the Vols struggle to contain mobile quarterbacks. So, can anyone pinpoint the problem?
“I really can’t,” senior defensive end Corey Miller said. “It helps facing guys like Mariota and Aaron Murray … guys who actually can run the ball. It gives you a sense of exactly what a quarterback like Connor Shaw can do.”
What Shaw can do is turn a defense inside-out with his running ability. He rushed 12 times for 43 yards in Game 1 versus North Carolina, 16 times for 75 yards in Game 2 against Georgia, 18 times for 94 yards in Game 3 versus Vanderbilt, four times for 30 yards in Game 4 against Central Florida and nine times for 50 yards in Game 5 versus Kentucky. The only team that has halfway contained him all season was Arkansas, which limited Shaw to 37 yards on 14 carries but lost 52-7.
Obviously, Tennessee defenders must stay in their lanes when rushing the passer. Otherwise, Shaw will pop through a gap and be off to the races.
“It’s very important because any slip-up can cost you, especially against a quarterback like Connor Shaw,” Miller said. “He can take a little play that has no yardage going and he’ll take it 30-40 yards just with his legs.”
A mobile quarterback is especially challenging for linebackers, since they must break off their pass coverage responsibilities and react immediately if the QB elects to tuck the ball and run.
“It makes it a lot more difficult,” senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp said. “When a guy starts running around the whole defense begins to break down.”
The worst thing a defender can do, however, is take his eye off the man he’s covering and peek into the backfield to check on the quarterback.
“Guys eyes start to wander. They lose track of receivers, and that’s when you have guys running wide open,” Sapp said. “It’s going to be big on our D-line this week: Key the points on the quarterback, contain him in the pocket and make him throw the ball without running around.”
Junior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson admits that facing a mobile quarterback affects a defense’s game plan.
“Yes. We might put in a spy or something,” Johnson said. “But we all have our responsibility. I’m going to do my job. If I don’t have the quarterback I can’t worry about the quarterback. You just have to do your responsibility.”
Even if everyone on defense does his job, a mobile quarterback can make something happen. Nothing is more deflating than to have all of the opponent’s receivers covered, only to see the quarterback salvage the play by scrambling for 15 yards.
“It’s deflating,” Sapp conceded. “It gets frustrating sometimes. We just have to maintain our coverage and not get frustrated. They’re going to make their plays sometimes. We can’t let the quarterback running dictate how we cover.”
That’s especially true for a defensive back. If he takes his eye off the receiver for a split-second, a big gain is likely to occur.
Junior cornerback Justin Coleman said Tennessee’s secondary players can’t let Shaw’s scrambling ability change their No. 1 priority.
“We just have to do our job – play the receiver,” Coleman said. “Then, whenever the ball’s thrown, stop the receiver from catching the ball.”
The obvious antidote to a mobile quarterback is to make him pay for running by knocking him senseless a time or two.
“I know he can run because I played against him in high school,” Johnson recalled. “He’s always been mobile, so the key is keeping him in the pocket and getting some hits on him.”
Unfortunately for Tennessee, Shaw seems almost oblivious to hard licks. He just bounces to his feet and gets ready for the next play.
“You can tell he’s a tough guy,” Coleman said. “What we’re going to have to do is deliver the blow. He’s going to have to feel where Tennessee’s coming from. Whenever we hit him he’s going to have to feel it.”
Unless the Vols can make Shaw “feel it” a few times Saturday afternoon Tennessee’s recent futility against mobile quarterbacks is likely to continue.