Shaw fine-tuning his play
COLUMBIA -- Drew Brees has long been Connor Shaw's favorite NFL quarterback. So Shaw already spent hours watching Brees, from a fan's perspective, before South Carolina quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus approached him during the offseason with video highlights of several NFL quarterbacks Mangus wanted Shaw to study.
Brees was one of them. Spending time watching the coaches' cuts of Brees -- which allow for more detailed study than footage of games as they appear on television -- has given Shaw a different perspective on the New Orleans Saints' star, one of the best quarterbacks on the planet.
USC's coaches aren't asking Shaw, a rising junior, to become another Brees during these spring practices as he prepares to enter his first full season as the Gamecocks' starter. They just want Shaw to learn something from how Brees handles himself in the pocket.
Shaw is 6-1, an inch taller than Brees, and both are athletic enough to gain yards by scrambling. But that's a fine line -- when to stay in the pocket a bit longer and look for an open receiver downfield or running back in the flat, versus when to take off and use those fleet feet.
"He sees everything," Shaw said of Brees. "He scans the field. He knows when to use his legs. He knows when to create open lanes because of his height. Me and the coaches have been studying him a lot this offseason."
Last season, Shaw ran 13.5 times per game, counting sacks, for 52.5 yards per game and eight touchdowns. His downfield passing, though, left something to be desired, especially early in his time as the starter -- partly because he would take off and run too quickly. In his first five games starting, he averaged six yards per pass attempt. That stat, in the final three games, jumped to 12.1 against The Citadel, 10.5 against Clemson and 13.5 against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl -- all victories.
"(Brees) does a good job of moving in the pocket and maybe hanging for one more second to get a guy open downfield before he takes off," Mangus said. "But you never want to take away that ability to do that (scramble), because Lord knows, (Shaw) made some big, big plays with his feet, especially on third down. It is such a valuable weapon and it makes defenses kind of go crazy a little bit."
Rather than rolling out or scrambling, as Shaw tended to do, the coaches are encouraging him this spring to just shift around in the pocket, to avoid the pass rush and see over the linemen while keeping his eyes downfield. The early part of the spring is a good time for Shaw to focus on that, because the Gamecocks aren't in pads yet. So Shaw doesn't have to worry about getting hit in the pocket, as he would in a live game or scrimmage situation.
Shaw settled into the starting quarterback job as last season wore on and "was getting better every time he played," Mangus said. Shaw began to rely less on his running instincts and more on what the coaches are trying to ingrain into him as instinctual now -- the patience required to hang in the pocket and look for a play better than, say, a seven-yard scramble. That's a skill great quarterbacks like Brees possess.
Shaw threw 18.8 times per game last season, compared to his 13.5 runs, but the Gamecocks didn't have a reliable deep threat other than Alshon Jeffery, who was often double-covered. With Jeffery off to the NFL a year early, finding a big-bodied outside wide receiver to replace him will be a significant storyline this spring -- and go hand-in-hand with Shaw's development as a downfield pocket passer. Still, Shaw doesn't plan to completely abandon his running skills.
"I think I'm going to keep my eyes downfield a little bit more," he said. "I'd like to stay in the pocket a little bit more, but I'm not going to take my legs away from me."