It has become a truism in quarterback evaluation that any scouting report that starts with the word “winner” is usually a death knell for a quarterback prospect, and it signals that their tangible qualities aren’t front and center.
In a sense, it allows us to substitute analysis for mystique, without regard for whether or not that ephemeral quality of “winning” can translate to the next level. In fact, it can’t even translate throughout NFL careers, much less across different levels of football. Winning in the first four seasons has virtually no relationship to winning in the next four.
The NFL is littered with the careers of quarterbacks who had “it” in college, but didn’t have the skills in the NFL—Tim Couch, Matt Leinart, Chris Leak, Vince Young and notably, Tim Tebow. Josh Heupel went undrafted. Greg McElroy and Kevin Dorsey were picked in the 7th round.
So when evaluators point to “winning,” they’re using a crutch that indicates—whether or not it’s on purpose—that there is no demonstrable reason or sustainable expectation of talent that will allow someone to succeed in the NFL. It means they couldn’t isolate why a prospect will be successful, but simply that he has been.
Even knowing all of that, it should catch your eye that everyone I talked to called Brock Jensen, quarterback of the North Dakota State Bison and prospective 2014 NFL rookie, a “winner.”
How could they not? He, along with his teammates and coaching staff, have won three consecutive national championships in Division I-AA (or more commonly, the Football Championship Subdivision), going 43-2 in that three-year span. In this case, it wasn’t so much that Jensen didn’t have demonstrable talent that was easy to break down, it was that his importance to the program and his immense aptitude for the game jump right off the page.
Before head coach Craig Bohl arrived at the program, the Bison had just finished a grueling 2-8 season in Division II and their most recent game was a crushing 31-7 loss to St. Cloud State. What’s more, NDSU was prepared to move up a division in two years, into the Great West Conference.
The program turned around under the guidance of Coach Bohl, but it wasn’t until they switched out of the Great West Conference into the significantly more difficult Missouri Valley Football Conference that NDSU could really gain respect (though nearly beating FBS team Minnesota in 2006 did help).
Despite the fact that the team’s record (20-2 over two years) dropped by switching conferences (9-13 the next two years), NDSU clearly got better, and Coach Bohl had much to do with that. But to ignore the impact that four-year starter Brock Jensen had on the program would be ignoring much of the amazing story of NDSU football.
Growing up in Waupaca, Wisconsin, Jensen went virtually unrecruited in high school (despite being ranked as the second-best quarterback in the state by WIPreps.com, he did not have a Rivals profile) and was attracted to Coach Bohl’s magnetic personality in North Dakota.
Redshirting his 2009 season (a year NDSU went 2-6), Jensen outcompeted the primary backup Dante Perez, a junior, for the primary backup role in 2010. A win against Big 12 school Kansas and a very good, but losing, performance against Northern Iowa seemed to have secured the spot for starting quarterback Jose Mohler, but after he left the Morgan State game with a concussion, Brock Jensen took over.
A rocky start to Jensen’s career, he wasn’t given the security of being named the consistent starter—he looked good, but injuries piled up. First, a sprained toe in his third game threatened his availability for his fourth (Youngstown State), then a collarbone injury in the first quarter of that game was thought to have taken him out for the rest of the season.
Jose Mohler played extremely well in the next four games, ameliorating the impact of Jensen’s injury, but something nearly unbelievable happened before the SDSU game.
Both were ruled out for the season in their respective sports after suffering injuries several weeks ago – Jensen a broken collarbone at Youngstown State and Lopez a lacerated liver against South Dakota State. But Lopez surprised almost everybody when she played over the weekend and Bison head coach Craig Bohl dropped a bombshell on Monday saying Jensen is “completely healed.”
“Completely,” he said. “Those guys from Wisconsin drink a lot of milk and eat a lot of cheese.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean Jensen, from Waupaca, Wis., will be ready to play Saturday when the Bison host SDSU at the Fargodome. Jensen, the starter before going down, still has to show he has strength in his right arm.
“Some people heal faster and some bones heal faster,” said Scott Woken, NDSU’s director of sports medicine. “X-rays don’t lie.”
Somewhat hidden in the banality of the statements provided by Bohl and Woken is the sheer ridiculousness of a season-ending broken clavicle healing in three weeks. While it’s true that different types of collarbone breaks heal at different rates, the typical time to return to normal activity is three months, and patients are advised to stay away from athletic activities for another month yet.
He was cleared for the SDSU game (and there was even a question in regards to whether or not he would start) but didn’t play, and instead filled in the Missouri State game two weeks later after Jose Mohler suffered the exact same clavicle injury in the third quarter.
The Missouri State game was a loss, but Jensen started the next three games, all of them FCS playoff games. Then, Jensen was named the starter forthe 2011 season, the first of three consecutive championships.
Scouting Brock Jensen
Being a winner is an undeniable part of Brock Jensen’s identity. When I asked several people about his prospects as an NFL player, it was one of the first things people mentioned—this time without the negative connotations.
Benjamin Allbright, a draftnik who specializes in quarterback evaluation, stressed these qualities. It’s dangerous for any prospect for his report to begin with a résumé instead of a list of quarterback qualities, but Allbright was on board.
“Winner, 48-5 career record at FCS level with 3 FCS Championships.”
Sure, what else?
“All told, a great two-year project with prototypical size and off the charts intangibles,” he told me—echoing the statements of a number of other evaluators I asked.
Shaun De Pasquale runs Draft Diamonds, a website dedicated to finding and exposing “small-school” talent, and he is a big proponent of Jensen.
“One of the best kept secrets in the entire draft class. Good size, enough arm to make NFL throws, and best of all, extremely gritty and a great leader … What’s not to love?”
There seems to be consensus that Jensen possesses leadership qualities to spare, and his natural skill-set should be appealing, too. A guy projected with a lot of “upside” as an NFL prospect, he’s more than just size. His arm has been lauded as good-but-not-great by a number of people, including Allbright and Eric Galko at Optimum Scouting, with mostly mechanical issues to resolve.
Another contributor to OS, Justis Mosqueda, was confident that Brock Jensen would make a camp and had a good shot of sticking.
For Allbright, it comes down to positional coaching and the fact that a school like NDSU doesn’t often employ a position-specific coach (an issue that plagued presumed first-round pick Blake Bortles). He says Jensen needs “mechanical and footwork refinement,” and with the right quarterbacks coach, “could become Favre-like, minus the elite arm.”
A bold claim, and one particularly prescient for Jensen, who grew up in Wisconsin and was a Green Bay Packers fan before becoming an “NFL fan,” a clarification he made to me in a conversation he and I had over the phone.
While Jensen has been told that he’s drawn comparisons to Andy Dalton, he patterns his game after Aaron Rodgers, who he considers to be the best quarterback in the NFL. Like both NFL quarterbacks, Jensen’s mobility gets overlooked.
Having rushed for 500 yards and ten touchdowns this season, Jensen has shown an ability to make plays with his feet, certainly a big asset that should solidify the potential that NFL evaluators are looking for in small-school quarterbacks. The phrase “sneaky athleticism” doesn’t just pop up in reports, Jensen himself mentioned it, and it’s been a huge asset for their offense—a pro-style set that emphasizes balance and power.
“[We run] a version of the West Coast,” he told me. “The terminology in terms of playcalling may not be the exact same, but all of the concepts correlate to the West Coast. It’s definitely a version. It is, it’s a pro-style; we’re under center a lot, we’re in ‘gun when we need to be. We’re very balanced. We can come out in different formations; we’re very versatile in that aspect.
“We really try to keep teams guessing by our balanced attack. That’s the hardest thing to do, when you have that balance and you’re able to throw the ball well and run it well. When you have a quarterback that can even tuck it down and run; that makes it even harder on defenses.”
The GIF of Jensen above happens to be the type of play you want every evaluator to see, but mechanical issues will hold him back from time to time.
Unlike other quarterbacks, this isn’t necessarily an instinctive reaction to pressure more than it is an issue of driving the ball consistently when he’s been used to letting his arm strength carry him. To that end, he’s been working with Steve Calhoun, a quarterbacks coach that works with 7 Sports Group as part of Armed and Dangerous Football.
Calhoun was E.J. Manuel’s offseason QB coach before his final year at Florida State. Calhoun, along with the more well-known George Whitfield, worked together with 7 Sports Group to tighten up the mechanics of a number of top quarterbacks before the draft, including Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Nick Foles, and Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson.
That same camp also worked with Kyle Rudolph and Cordarrelle Patterson.
Jensen was effusive in his praise of Calhoun, and loved the attention to detail and focus on fundamentals, as well as the opportunity to participate in a few workouts with Jeff Garcia.
These are clear issues he needs to work on mechanically, but when you ask him what he thinks is the most important skill to work on, he’ll tell you the same answer no matter who the quarterback is: “Accuracy. I think every quarterback needs to work on accuracy, fitting things into tight windows.”
He has likened the quest for accuracy into a nearly unattainable quest for perfection in the past, which is of course the type of improvement framework that any coach would love. The offensive design of his program will help, as one of the most difficult transitions a quarterback can make from college to the NFL is throwing to receivers who will be open, instead of receivers who are already open.
Anticipation throwing is a difficult skill to master, and coordinating it with rhythm passing is one of the biggest hand-eye coordination challenges in all of sports. At times, Jensen shows the drop-step-throw rhythm that Joe Montana and Tom Brady are the best at. He’ll also show an ability to throw a receiver open and anticipate the route and break.
But it is difficult to find film of him integrating the two concepts, where his well-coordinated rhythm throws are often to receivers more obviously open, while his anticipation throws come from bouncing around in the pocket. To his credit, he is a very good decisionmaker within this context, something that was emphasized to me by Mosqueda, but playing within the rhythm of the offense will be the next big step for him.
Aside from that, managing interior pressure will have to be big. The rare times he dealt with edge pressure, he was able to step up into the pocket, often combining that step with a throw that did a better job transferring his weight. But he’s had mixed results in a muddy interior, not showing the subtle sidesteps that Peyton Manning has executed so well throughout his career, instead leaning back or scrambling away, for the most part.
This pocket manipulation was one of the issues that Allbright touched on, but given his natural fearlessness, shouldn’t be an issue as he develops, particularly when it comes to his footwork and technique.
That mechanical improvement will need to be on display during his pro day, scheduled for March 12th, perhaps the busiest pro day of the year—competing for attention with Alabama, Michigan, USC and Oklahoma, even teams with large staffs will be stretched thin. “Small-school” scouts have the opportunity to choose between Eastern Washington and NDSU.
Brock has garnered attention from a number of NFL teams, however. At least one quarterbacks coach from the AFC will be at his pro day and plans on dinner with him, while rumors swirl around the web of a Packers connection.
Small School Savvy
The added difficulty of a small-school player getting attention doesn’t bother Jensen, however. I asked him about the dearth of FCS starters in the NFL (Tony Romo and Joe Flacco, who also played for FBS school Pitt), and he felt confident in the process.
“Teams are going to break down the film. They’re going to see what they like, see what they don’t like. At the end of the day, their decisionmaking is going to be, what they see on film and what they see at the Pro Day and the type of numbers that you put up.
They have a certain feel of what type of guy they want. For me, it really doesn’t matter coming from the FCS and only seeing two guys as starters. But, you just gotta keep battling every day, keep getting better and let the chips fall in place.”
In the recent past, former FCS players like Tarvaris Jackson, Ryan Fitzpatrick and John Skelton have had their fair share of starts, while Josh McCown of Sam Houston State (though he also played for SMU) had perhaps the most surprising 2013 of any quarterback.
The NDSU quarterback was passionate about defending the talent level of the people he worked with, something he has some claim to after playing on a team that has beaten its last four FBS opponents (Kansas, Minnesota, Colorado State and Kansas State) and has finished higher in the AP Division I poll than any other school in FCS history—breaking the record in 2011 having ranked 32nd, ranking 36th the following year and 29th this last year.
“It’s just what you said we’re labeled a “small-school prospect” – in all reality we’re an FCS team,” he said. “There’s not a huge dropoff in terms of talent level. I think the biggest difference in terms of FBS and FCS teams is depth, which comes from scholarships given and that really is the only underlying factor that separates the two divisions.
“Yea, we’re going to have to fight that small-school label. And for all the guys in the FCS and below that, you’re fighting that quote-unquote small-school label. That’s one thing that we have that maybe has a negative aspect to it moving on to the next level.
“But scouts are going to see, and coaches and the executives of different teams are going to realize that and just see the character and see on film if this guy can play football; if he can play football he can play football. It really comes down to that.”
Jensen talked easier here than he did anywhere else in the entire interview, and he strongly believes in the talent level of those around him. He happens to be on a team with a number of other prospects that are catching the eye of talent evaluators, most notably Billy Turner.
“[Billy’s] got tremendous size, first of all. He’s got quickness laterally. He’s a great offensive lineman. I’m blessed to be able to have Billy guarding my blind side my whole career,” he told me. “He’s given up maybe a couple of sacks his entire career. He’s really kept me on my feet the entire time. He moves really well, I don’t think scouts realize how well he moves, hopefully they do. Hopefully they watch enough games to see that he can definitely be a long-lasting lineman at the next level.”
There’s a good chance Billy will be the biggest draw to NDSU’s pro day, and having a corps of talented teammates draw that kind of attention is exactly what a prospect like Jensen needs. I asked him about his backfield partner, Sam Ojuri, too.
“Sam Ojuri, man. Back-to-back-to-back thousand-yard seasons. Can’t say that for that many. He runs extremely well. He’s big and physical, but has the game-breaker type speed to run away from defenders and really create things that become creative sometimes. I’m excited to see where he goes.”
Ojuri and Turner have been the focus of enough attention for effective running, that sometimes it’s easy to ignore the fact that the passing offense has been fantastically efficient, and one that has been limited by its own success—NDSU begins almost exclusively running the ball into the third quarter to preserve some of their massive leads. But Jensen ranks fifth in the FCS in passing efficiency, just behind the more well-known Jimmy Garoppolo.
Despite this inherently depressive effect, Jensen ranks ninth in the FCS in “points responsible for” per game, a metric that looks at the point contributions brought about through passing, receiving and running. While Jensen is quick to thank his offensive teammates and coaches for this passing success, he also reserved some praise for Marcus Williams, the cornerback prospect.
“With Marcus, man, over the course of my career at NDSU in practice and stuff, he’s gotten me a ton better. Forcing me to throw the ball at times in tight spaces,” he said of Williams’ effect on his development. But Williams does more than help the tenth-ranked offense in the FCS. He’s the fulcrum of their top-ranked defense.
“He’s a great cover corner. We really relied on him the whole entire year last year, my entire NDSU career the past four years has been tremendous. A lot of that has to do with Marcus being singled up in man, putting our trust in Marcus knowing he can get the job done, that gives us the ability to cover the other half of the field differently and put pressure on the passer. He’s definitely been a staple to our defense. It will be fun to see him at the next level.”
The Next Level
It’s been enough for NDSU to move on, in a number of ways. Not only has one of the best coaches in college football finally moved into the FBS himself, but Jensen was confident we would see NDSU do the same.
I asked him when the Bison would grab more scholarships and enter Division I-A, and while he took care to stress that he has no knowledge of the decision, and of course has no power, it might be “sooner than a lot of people think.”
In order to do that, NDSU would need to inform the NCAA of its intentions to transition, and over a two-year period expand its scholarships from 63 to 85. In the third year, they must have at least 60% of the opponents of their schedule meet the BCS classification, while also meeting the attendance requirements.
The Bison will have no trouble meeting the attendance requirements, although the scheduling requirements are difficult. Unlike FBS schools, which announce their schedules well in advance, it isn’t easy to find a schedule plan for NDSU and didn’t have a complete schedule finalized or announced for 2013 until well into February.
Moreover, the Big Ten’s plan to no longer schedule FCS opponents puts some risk in their current 2016 plan to play the Iowa Hawkeyes, the first year the Big Ten’s planning restriction is enforced.
As for Coach Craig Bohl, he’s taken over at FBS school Wyoming, where he’ll have to deal with the loss of Brett Smith and Robert Herron as he builds their program. Jensen is confident in Bohl’s abilities to bring Wyoming further into the spotlight. I asked him what stood out about Bohl, and his glowing response should excite any Wyoming fan:
“Just, right off the top, his leadership. He’s a great speaker, he always says the right things to the media and he teaches us well and he leads by example. The things that he says, he demonstrates in his daily walk in life. He gets us ready for games. He’s very wise and we were very fortunate to have Coach Bohl. I look at him as a mentor and a guy I can go to at any time in my life for advice. If I have an issue or something I can always go to Coach Bohl for that.”
Few doubt Bohl’s ability to elevate Wyoming, especially when it comes to expanding its recruitment footprint, and it should be a fun path to follow.
Brock Jensen’s path is taking a different turn than Bohl’s now and he’ll have to create his own spotlight in the NFL. The biggest question is if he can bring his “winning” with him.