Cardale Jones and the Context of Confidence


Like most who study QB play, Cardale Jone fascinates David Igono. So does the role of confidence in performance.

Good underclassmen quarterbacks are often intriguing developmental prospects. The little I’ve seen of Ohio State’s Cardale Jones has me fascinated. The upside is clearly there.

He has a feel for the game that he hasn’t completely harnessed. His college career has been a series of fits and starts–always looking over his shoulder at the rest of the depth chart. Jones is a prospect with upside potential and his game is screaming for a coaching staff that believes in his tools and plays to his strengths. He needs time and trust to develop long-term–two keys I don’t know if he will get at Ohio State.

Despite Jones’ solid feel for the game, he is prone to inconsistency and mental lapses. When he’s on, as we all witnessed during last season’s college football playoff, he can shred a defensive game plan in one drive.

This season has been more pedestrian. Jones has not been as assertive as he was during that playoff run. He’s missed on reads that were gimmees last season.

Everything about his body language on this take makes me shudder. The top of his drop reeks of a mind churning with rusty machinery. Jones is more than capable of either delivering a better pass or keeping the ball and picking up yards with his feet.

Jones is at a stage of his career where his best performances come when he’s lathered up and confident. He needs to be in rhythm to be at his sharpest. This next attempt is midway through the second quarter against Maryland and it’s evident that Jones still isn’t on the beat.

I would say eight out of ten times Jones would put this pass in a spot that would be a touchdown. He repeatedly demonstrated the ability to drive the ball downfield with confidence last year. It’s clearly more random this season. Later in the same game, Jones has a similar read and executes it cleanly:

When this is observable behavior from a quarterback, it’s not a question of talent or ability. It boils down to confidence. When Cardale Jones is confident he plays with a bravado that is annoyingly addictive a la Philip Rivers.

But it’s his lack of confidence that is the major speed bump in his development path at this point of his career. Jones has all the physical tools and the baseline mentality required of a quarterback to continue growing into a viable pro. Watch him last season, and his confidence at the end of last season jumps off the film. He played up to and beyond the level of competition against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon.

Maybe Jones’ showings can be explained by great game-planning and him simply catching fire at the right time. Regardless, his performance down the stretch rightly put him squarely in the 2015 spotlight. When comparing this season and last side-by-side, there is an obvious drop-off.

Football, like any other craft, requires confidence and preparation. I had an old friend from high school ask me what the main difference in playing the game is as you climb the ranks. Other than the obvious differences in the level of competition, it all boils down to confidence.

My confidence bolstered my conviction in my preparation and belief in the game plan. In high school, I would make sure I knew all the coverages and pressure packages. I knew on game day that as long as I listened to my pre-game mix, I would destroy anyone across from me.

When I got to junior college, it became obvious pretty quickly that being amped and being prepared are mutually exclusive. I started every game that I played in mostly because I developed the understanding that practice is where the preparation for the game was won or lost.

When I transferred to West Virginia, it was clear what was asked of me and every player on the team. We had to know our assignments. We had to be in shape. And we had to expect to make plays when we were on the field. When you fuse preparation with an unshakable confidence it’s hard not to shine when given the opportunity.

As I look at Jones’ career I  have unanswered questions. I wonder if the confidence I saw last season has been dulled this year by his surroundings? Is the issue the function of a player who has lost a measure of confidence in himself? Throughout 2015, Jones has either been dueling with J.T. Barrett for the starting quarterback position or looking over his shoulder when results aren’t to form..

The version of the spread offense Ohio State runs is more suited to Barrett’s strengths as a dual threat. Jones is mobile, but gaining yards by land is not his strength. Therein may lie the key to beginning to understand why Jones has struggled.

It may be that the coaching staff is higher on Barrett as the executor of the offense, but sees the enormous potential Jones brings to the table and can’t resist using him. Balancing a player’s psyche and performance is tricky business. I don’t know what’s gone on at Ohio State. I do know that at the next level Jones’ margin for error is smaller.

Professional football is full of talented players. The quarterbacks that stick long-term are the ones that embrace the preparation process. Take this excerpt about Aaron Rodgers as a backup from Greg Bishop:

Teammates described how when Rodgers spent three years backing up Brett Favre, he would be uber-competitive in Saturday walk-through practices, when the first-team defense wants to rest. Thompson said that Rodgers even injured himself once while celebrating a touchdown in one of those walkthroughs. “I think he got injured once,” Thompson said. “Sprained an ankle or something. Something with his foot. Because he was celebrating after we scored a touchdown in practice.”

If Jones leaves early for the draft, how he prepares is going to be exponentially more important than whatever he initially brings to the table. I think Jones would thrive in a situation where he could learn firsthand from a longtime NFL starter while he adjusts to the demands and the speed of the game.

Cardale Jones on song is fun to watch. He makes plays within the framework of the offense and he’s shown the ability to create offense down field when timing breaks down. He’s also a big, tough kid.

Staring down pressure up the middle of the pocket Jones hits his receiver in the hand on a post route that should have went for a touchdown. He is not rattled by pressure. He’s also mobile enough to keep his eyes up field to make plays.

Jones has a fluidity of motion that serves him well when plays break down. His feet don’t get chaotic when he’s under immediate pressure. This allows him to press to his left to set up the time and the space to get off this gem.

He also knows when to pull it down and leave the pocket. Many spread quarterbacks are adept at running the ball and picking up yardage. Jones is good at getting what he can out of play and not exposing himself to too much damage. His vision and awareness on the run makes him especially dangerous.

If he’s behind the line of scrimmage Jones’ eyes are up looking for a viable target. There’s very little wasted movement from his feet to his head or shoulders.

The subtlety to his athleticism combined with his physical prowess creates problems for a defense. If pressure or blitzes are dialed up and they don’t get Jones down he makes them pay.

If Jones declares for the draft he will be scrutinized on roughly twelve games as a starter. The 2015 tape of Jones still has me intrigued – despite his 2014 film showcasing a lot more of his upside potential. He regularly displays game savvy that’s appealing when you take into account his athletic traits.

For Jones to develop and succeed at the next level, he needs a front office and a coaching staff willing to allow Jones to mature as a playmaker at quarterback. That may take a couple of seasons–maybe more. If a team is willing to take the long-term view and methodically develop him, Jones can easily become one of the best quarterbacks in this draft.

David Igono is a former defensive back who played at West Virginia University and a couple of seasons of arena football. A longtime draft anorak, he considers the 2014 RSP the inspiration for taking the process more intentionally. Follow him at @d1gono.

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