Sometimes the difference between a touchdown and a drop of a wide-open pass comes down to the difference between an active and passive approach, the space between the fingertips and the palm, and understanding why even good technique isn’t good in the wrong situation.
Kenny Stills is a big-play wide receiver. Watch enough of his games and you’ll see a player capable of getting behind cornerbacks or winning 50/50 balls on any variety of fades in tight coverage that you can imagine. There will be plenty of positives to list about Stills’ game in the coming months.
I believe the Oklahoma star has the potential to become a long-term starter within a few years. I also believe that like any good prospect, Stills has areas to address in his game. Sometimes an issue can be such a fine point of detail that it can go unnoticed as a lack of concentration.
This 1st-and-goal pass from the eight with 2:20 in the half against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl is a good example the differences between decent and optimal pass catching:
- Passive and active catching.
- Catching the ball with the palms instead of the tips of the fingers.
- Good and better hand position.
The play begins from 20 personnel with receivers 2×1 and the backfield configured in an offset pistol.
Stills was the outside receiver on the twin side with a corner playing three yards from the line of scrimmage and shading Stills to the inside. The route was a fade to the left sideline. Stills does a fantastic job working open on this route.
Fade routes tend to be simple patterns where the emphasis is on the pure athleticism of speed, quickness, hand-eye coordination, and leaping ability. What I love about Stills here is that the junior receiver turns this simple route into an elegant pattern. Stills begins his fade to the outside, angling his outside shoulder and drifting to the boundary while looking over his inside shoulder. The A&M cornerback reacting to this route understandably sees this as the break to the football when in fact it’s Stills’ opening move. If you read this blog regularly, then you know I have a deep appreciation for receivers who can tell a story that puts them a step ahead of the defender.
With the ball in the air, Stills continues to bait the corner by continuing to drift outside while turning his head over his inside shoulder.
Stills takes one more step towards the outside, plants his outside foot, and pivots to his right, turning inside out.
This outside turn helps Stills keep his eye on the ball and at the same time turning his back to the defender and shield the pass. This is nice route technique and it places Stills in position to make a play on the ball with plenty of room inside the boundary in position where the defender cannot play the ball. The problem begins as the ball arrives within a few feet of Stills.
This looks like good technique. Stills’ hands are away from his body, palms up, fingers extended, and he’s looking the ball into his hands. Nine out of 10 times, this is a technique that no one would question – perhaps 9.9 out of 10 times. However, Stills could have extended his arms for the ball with his elbows and backs of his forearms pointed towards the ball – a more active technique for acting the football in this situation.
Whenever there is a chance to take an active approach to attack to football rather than a passive one, you take it. If Stills extended as recommended, his fingers are in a better position to make first contact with the ball. Instead, Stills’ hands are in a position where the ball could just as likely strike the receiver’s palms – a part of the hand where the receiver doesn’t have the same ability to stop the spin of the ball as easily as the fingers.
The tip of the ball arrives directly to the palm of Stills’ right hand. If Stills has both hands positioned so both sets of fingers touch the front of the ball at either side, there’s little chance that the ball rebounds off his hand because the fingers stop the spin. Instead, the ball rebounds off Still’s right palm as the left hands is a good six inches away from the ball.
When the ball bounces off Stills’ right palm, the receiver raises his left hand towards the ball. At this point his hands are simply reacting to the ball and not in a good position to control the pass. This passive hand position leads to more passive reactions.
The ball rebounds off the palm of Stills’ left hand and begins its trajectory towards the receiver’s face mask. Meanwhile, the A&M cornerback now has a free pass to make contact with Stills and disrupt the receiver’s chance to control the football. The ball then rebounds off the face mask and his hands are too close to his chest to re-extend as the ball flies off Stills’ helmet.
The rebounding ball flies beyond Stills’ reach, just grazing his fingertips of his left hand.
The pass falls incomplete, and what should have been an easy touchdown as a product of a great route is a dropped ball. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Stills demonstrates good hands and excellent skills adjusting to the football. However, even good prospects have areas to improve. I believe the best receivers tend to attack the ball with aggressive hand position. This is something Stills can do with greater consistency.
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