Caleb Williams is perhaps the most electrifying player in all of college football. The USC quarterback is coming off a Heisman Trophy season, and has already delivered his first dynamic moment of the 2023 college football season with this incredible play against San Jose State a week ago.
But will he be the first quarterback taken in the 2024 NFL Draft?
For a while that seemed like a sure thing, but draft veterans remember the days of “Sam Howell QB1, “Spencer Rattler QB1,” and other way-too-early prognostications that failed to come true.
Sure, Williams looks every bit the part of a future star in the NFL, but things change, and other quarterbacks might have something to say about that conversation.
Like Drake Maye.
While Williams was lighting up scoreboards out West last season, Maye was doing the same on the East Coast. In his first year as the starting quarterback at UNC, Maye connected on 66.2 percent of his passes for 4,321 yards and 38 touchdowns, against just seven interceptions. Beyond the production were the traits Maye displayed a season ago. As more and more NFL draft evaluators started to dig into his film over the summer, momentum began to build around Maye — not Williams — being QB1 heading into 2023.
Just what is it that has people excited about the UNC passer?
Different evaluators have different approaches when it comes to studying players, and quarterbacks in particular. From my vantage point, it is critically important to watch not just the good games, but the bad ones. The games where a quarterback’s team loses, and the games where the quarterback himself struggles.
For Maye last season, the ACC Championship Game against Clemson was one such outing. It was one of just two multi-interception games he had on the year, and one of just two games last season where he did not throw a single touchdown pass. While NCAA Passer Rating is not the most ideal metric, the 106.0 he posted against the Tigers was his third-lowest of the season.
UNC lost 39-10.
And yet … even this game could be used to bolster the argument that Maye can be QB1 when the draft rolls around.
Because in this loss you see Maye doing things at the quarterback position that matter, and doing things at an extremely-high level for the position. Even in a losing effort, Maye demonstrates traits NFL teams covet at the position.
Traits that may very well make him QB1.
We can start with this play from early in the game, with UNC facing a 2nd-and-4 situation. UNC catches Clemson in a Tampa 2 coverage, and with a pair of routes bracketing the defender running the middle, Maye uses his eyes to perfection, getting that defender to flatten for a step before drilling in a throw to the receiver coming out of the right slot:
The end zone angle gives a great look at how the QB uses his eyes here to influence that defender. Maye takes the snap, gives a quick peek at the route he eventually throws, and then gets his eyes to the middle of the field. That forces the defender to flatten his footwork for a step, which is all Maye needs. He then gets his eyes back to the slot receiver on the right, and puts the ball right into his chest.
The defender he froze arrives a step late, and the Tar Heels have a fresh set of downs.
Life in the NFL is hard as a quarterback. Nothing is ever perfect, pockets are rarely clean, and the defenders on the other side of the ball can make your life miserable. In recent years the league has trended towards passers who can create off-script, and off-structure. The quarterbacks who can create magic when plays break down make life brutal for opposing defenses, and create big plays for their offenses.
Later in the first quarter UNC faces a 3rd and 6 at the Clemson 10-yard line. The Tigers bring pressure, and get a free runner on Maye. While the Tar Heels have a Mesh concept dialed up, the QB cannot sit and wait in the pocket. He needs to react.
Which he does, to perfection:
These are the kinds of moments — where a QB turns potential disaster into a big play for his offense — that are critical in today’s NFL. Maye avoids the free runners, keeps the play alive (and his eyes downfield) and finds Josh Downs on his crossing route to give the Tar Heels a fresh set of downs in the low red zone.
A three-yard touchdown run from Maye on the next snap would give UNC an early 7-0 lead.
Ball placement is another critical aspect of playing the position. If the quarterback is not putting the ball where it needs to be, and when it needs to be there, it is hard for an offense to have sustained success. While Yardage After the Catch (YAC) is often considered a wide receiver stat, the quarterback plays a huge rule in that metric. Throws that are on-time and well-placed put the receiver in position to pick up those big YAC yards, or sometimes just give the receiver the best possible chance to make the catch.
Early in the second quarter the Tar Heels face a 3rd and 8 in Clemson territory. The Tigers send five after Maye, while UNC dials up a three-receiver concept to the left side with a wheel route, a swing route, and a snag route from Downs.
Watch as Maye, from a collapsing pocket, gets this ball out on-time to Downs, who breaks away from the defender walling off the middle of the field:
Maye puts this throw in the absolute perfect spot, leading Downs away from the nearest threat. That gives the receiver a chance to complete the catch and turn upfield, spinning away from the defender and falling forward for the first down.
Later in the drive UNC faces another third down, this time a 3rd-and-17 situation. With the football on the left hashmark they run a Flat-7 Smash concept, with the running back releasing to the flat and the isolated wide receiver running a corner route.
Clemson again gets a free runner at Maye, but he solves that problem with touch and anticipation:
With how this play unfolds, Maye cannot wait a second longer to make this throw, otherwise the Tar Heels will face a difficult fourth-down decision. How does he solve the problem? With anticipation, and touch. The receiver has yet to start his break, but the ball has to come out now. So Maye takes something off this throw, allowing the ball and the receiver to come together perfectly.
Just look at the state of play when Maye is about to release this throw:
The receiver has yet to start his break, let alone get his eyes back to Maye, but the ball is coming out.
Problem solving is part of playing the position, and Maye does it extremely well on this third-down situation.
Sometimes as a quarterback your best decisions are the throws you do not make. This next example — yet another third-down situation — is one such moment from Maye. The Tar Heels face a 3rd and 7, and run Tosser to the right side of the formation, which is a pair of slant routes.
Generally speaking, quarterbacks read this concept “inside-out,” working from the slot receiver to the outside receiver. If that inside slant route is open, hit it quickly. If not, get your eyes and feet reset to the outside slant, and get the ball out.
Here, Maye opens to that inside slant, but the Tigers bring man pressure while dropping the safety into the throwing lane as they bracket Downs in the slot. With yet another pocket collapsing around him, Maye — who has started to throw to Downs — resets himself and drills the outside slant to move the chains:
When you hear the phrase “processing speed” used to describe quarterback play, this is one example, Maye has to catch the snap, get his eyes to the inside slant, read it out and decide “throw or no-throw,” and when he does not throw inside, he has to reset and get the ball out to the outside slant route.
All while six pass rushers are trying to put him in the hospital, and this all happens within three seconds.
So you want to play quarterback?
Early in the fourth quarter the Tigers held a 29-point lead, but Maye was still battling. Once again you see how well he can use his eyes to manipulate defenders on this example. UNC dials up four verticals out of a 3×1 formation, with Clemson dropping into Cover 6 (Quarter-Quarter-Half) in the secondary.
Watch as Maye influences the inside safety on this play by first looking to the inside receiver as he crosses vertically, before throwing the seam route to the middle trips receiver:
Maye creates the space with his eyes, as well as the timing. The second his right foot hits his drop depth, the ball is coming out of his hands. He also puts this right on the receiver, and the Tar Heels have another first down.
All of these plays show Maye solving problems in different ways, and answering the challenges that quarterbacks face on a down-to-down basis in the NFL. And doing so at a very high level.
Now, as mentioned at the outset Maye threw a pair of interceptions in this game. Those two plays need just a bit of context. The first fame on a 3rd-and-goal situation late in the third quarter, and might even go into the books as a positive for Maye, despite the disastrous result:
As we have seen throughout this piece, the Tigers brought a lot of pressure that night. But on this play, they throw Maye quite the curveball as they rush just two and drop eight defenders into coverage, using one more as a spy on Maye in the pocket.
None of his initial reads are open, given the number of defenders in coverage, so he buys a bit of time by rolling to his right. Eventually a receiver works back towards him, and Maye has an option in the passing game. But the throw is off target, leading the receiver to believe that the pass is intended for someone else, so he pulls his arms down.
Instead it goes right to a defender, who returns it the distance for the Pick-Six.
The other interception? That came with under six minutes left, and the Tar Heels still trailing by 29. Once again the Tigers brought pressure, and Maye tries to hit a vertical route along the left sideline. He has some trash at his feet, so he cannot step into the throw, and the pass is slightly underthrown, leading to the pick:
While you hate to see turnovers, adding in the context for both plays makes them look a little better than just the numbers on the stat sheet.
There is a long, long way to go until the 2024 NFL Draft. Quarterbacks will rise, quarterbacks will fall, and who knows? Maybe Maye decides that life on campus is worth living another year.
But even in a game like this, where UNC came out on the losing end, you see traits that matter at the position, especially at the next level.
Williams may end up being QB1 on some boards.
With traits like this, however, Maye might be there on others.