Recently, I profiled what can happen when a receiver leaves the ground too willingly. Let’s look at Northwestern’s Tony Jones, a receiver who understands economy of movement with a high target.
“Eyes to the Sky, Feet on the Ground” has its own specific display on a 20-yard reception, a target not even intended for Jones on this 3rd and 7 with 6:12 in the half. Jones is the outside twin left receiver aligned a step inside the numbers in the left flat and he runs a dig route behind two crossing routes. Things do go as planned, when the intended target, the deeper of the two crossers, gets tipped by the defensive back seven yards down field, sending the ball 15 yards in Jones’ direction.
Jones leaves his feet, but notice how the concept of “Eyes to the Sky, Feet to the Ground” comes into play even on a target where Jones has to go airborne.
Note how fluid Jones’ leap for the ball is. He doesn’t leave the ground until absolutely necessary.
If you watch this video at 0.5 speed or 0.25 speed (click the icon that looks like a cog on the bottom right) you’ll also see how orderly the progression of Jones’ movement is: His head turns skyward first, his arms follow to meet the ball, and then his feet leave the ground to give his arms that extra boost. Receivers get this wrong when they leave the ground before they raise their arms to meet the ball.
This is what refined hand-eye coordination looks like. Jones jumps for the ball, but he doesn’t have to elevate like he’s performing his Pro Day in front of scouts. The economy of Jones’ play on the pass insures that he is under the ball to make the extension.
The late leap that also allows Jones to maintain separation from the defender over top. An exaggerated leap, sends Jones airborne longer and gives the opponent a chance to deliver a hit that might knock the ball loose. This comment takes a little bit of imagination to see. Coaches always recommend receivers to run through the ball on vertical routes because a leap robs the receiver of steps he can gain to the ball.
On this play, a bigger leap from Jones creates the potential for the defender to gain 1-3 steps on the receiver while Jones is airborne. If Jones goes airborne too early, as many receivers want to do, there’s also a likelihood that he’ll have to make an adjustment in midair for the ball, either spinning or arching his back to the target, which not only slows his pace, but leaves the receiver vulnerable to unnecessary punishment.
As for Jones’ NFL prospects, this play epitomizes a lot about his game. He’s sure-handed, capable of adjusting to the ball at a variety of angles, and he understands how to finish as a ballcarrier. If there’s a pro’s game his style aspires to its former Giants receiver Steve Smith. A player closer to Jones on this spectrum may be Miami receiver Brandon Gibson–a smart football player whose intelligence and refinement in situations like these makes him a worthwhile contributor in the NFL.
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