CHART WEEK – Part 2: Passing Offense

Courtesy The Herald Bulletin.

It is day 2 of Chart Week! If you checked out the weekly Film Study posts during the season, you probably became familiar with several charts tracking certain stats from that week’s game. Now we’ve aggregated those charts for the full 2016 season, and each day this week, we will use a few of those season-long charts to learn something about what happened in 2016 and what might happen in 2017.

Yesterday we covered IU defense’s pass rush.  Today is the offensive passing game.

The Indiana passing game took a step back in 2016 with Richard Lagow having an up-and-down debut season.  As discussed previously, Lagow especially struggled on passes traveling 20+ yards downfield.  Today we’ll further examine his passing chart as well as dive into individual receivers.

Charting Richard Lagow’s 2016 pass attempts provide even further clarity on his deep struggles.  While 10 of his 17 interceptions came on deep passes and those 10 interceptions came on just 74 deep passes, directional issues are evident.  More specifically, the junior quarterback was absolutely dreadful on deep passes in the middle of the field.  Half of his 10 deep interceptions occurred in the middle of the field.

That makes sense.  Passes overthrown deep to the side of the field result in an out-of-bounds incompletion.  Passes overthrown deep to the middle of the field generally result in an interception.  Additionally, passes occurring deep over the middle generally face more defenders since they occur in between both safeties.

Similar to the previous post where all deep passes were excluded, if Lagow’s 9 deep passes over the middle, and only those 9 passes, are excluded from his passing statistics, Lagow’s season is extremely similar to the first 429 passes of Nate Sudfeld’s career.

It may be overly simplistic to state that Lagow is a good quarterback that just needs to avoid 1 section of the field.  Decision making was an issue for him and this is a clearly an example of that.  However, embracing a mentality to avoid deep passes over the middle when there are any defenders in the area would go a long way towards solidifying Lagow’s status as Indiana’s starting quarterback.1

Turning over to the receivers, Indiana was led by their starting trio of Nick Westbrook, Ricky Jones, and Mitchell Paige.  These 3 receivers accounted for two-thirds of Indiana’s total targets, and they were very productive.

Nick Westbrook led the way in receiving yards and slightly outperformed Simmie Cobbs’ 2015 season in terms of ratios.  While Cobbs had a yards per target rate of 9.4, Westbrook finished at 10.8.  Westbrook had a slightly higher catch rate of 58.7% compared to 54.5% for Cobbs.  Regardless, this duo should provide elite production in 2017.

Two players who won’t be back in 2017 are Ricky Jones and Mitchell Paige.  The pair complemented Westbrook with Jones handling an outside receiver spot and Paige doing work from the slot position. Paige had a much lower catch rate than his breakout 2015 season.  Some of that is probably attributable to the downgrade from Sudfeld to Lagow.  Some of it probably resulted from increased attention from defenses.  Nevertheless, with Cobbs and Westbrook ingrained on the outside, replacing Paige will be the most important aspect of the receiving core going forward.

One option is Luke Timian.  While he did some work on the outside, you could see him shifting inside.  He did have a higher catch rate than Paige last season, but also a higher drop rate.  For clarity, the drop rate is defined as drops divided by catches plus drops.2  In essence, the number of passes that hit the receivers in the hands and clearly should have been caught.3  He is possibly best suited for the outside, but his role could be determined by the health of J-Shun Harris.

Harris is unique in the sense that is still extremely unproven.  He will have overcome 2 ACL injuries, but still has just 30 career targets and 18 catches.  His 60% catch rate was decent, but his yards per target was a minuscule 5.6.  Out of 491 FBS players with 30+ targets in 2014, that ranked 433rd.  It is one thing to expect production from Simmie Cobbs coming back from injury.  For Harris, not only do we need to project health, but we also have to count on a production that we really haven’t seen.  For that reason, it would not surprise anyone to see Timian handle a few series each game at the slot position.

On the second team, Indiana has a solid core that begins with Donovan Hale.  The junior-to-be posted statistics resembling Ricky Jones and Nick Westbrook on a per target basis.  He received just 5% of IU’s targets, a number that should slightly rise in 2017, but a yards per target of 9.5.  Of his 13 catches, 8 went for 10+ yards including catches of 49, 32, and 27.  At 6’4″, he has great height on the outside and offers a fantastic threat on the second team.

Outside of Hale and Timian, the second team should include some new faces. Redshirt freshmen Taysir Mack, Jonah Morris, and Phil Benker are the most likely candidates although the introduction of new receivers coach Grant Heard should offer a blank slate to the current receivers as well as recruits such as Whop Philyor.4

Another aspect is the talented pass-catching ability of the running backs.  Arguably the running back position as a whole is more established catching the ball than actually carrying it.  Camion Patrick has actually proven little as a running back, but his JuCo and junior season experience as a receiver showcased his pass-catching ability.

Mike Majette has proven more of a rushing ability than Devonte Williams, but both have been great catching the ball out of the backfield.  Despite limited playing time, the duo combined for 15 catches on 16 targets, a 94% catch rate. Devine Redding was fine catching the ball, but he wasn’t really explosive and battled an elevated drop rate of 6.9%.

It certainly seems that Indiana should use their running backs more frequently in the passing game than the 14% they averaged in 2016.  Last season under current IU offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, Tennessee running backs received 20% of the targets.  While IU doesn’t have anyone of the caliber of Alvin Kamara, it would probably behoove the Hoosiers to get the ball to their speedy backs in space.

Overall, Indiana has a lot of returning weapons in the passing game.  Probably the biggest question is if Lagow can get the team’s play-makers the ball consistently.  Or will one of the underclassmen pass him on the depth chart?  This one might not be decided until the fall.