When Willie Taggart finished his career at Western Kentucky, he did so holding the all-time Division I-AA record for rushing yards as a quarterback, with 3,997. Taggart scored 47 rushing touchdowns in his college career. To put that in perspective, Lamar Jackson had 50 with Louisville.
It’s safe to say that Taggart understands the value of quarterback mobility. Under the previous Florida State Seminoles staff, opposing defenses didn’t have to truly respect the quarterback run-game. That makes it easier to defend handoffs to running backs, but also easier to stop the passing game, knowing the QB will scramble infrequently.
Changes are coming.
But just how much more will FSU’s QBs run in Willie Taggart’s offense?
FSU is going to run the QB at least twice as often as it did under Jimbo Fisher
The words at least are key here. I dug into the data pulled by my friend and colleague Bill Connelly, SB Nation’s stat guru and founder of FootballStudyHall.com. He provided me with non-sack rushes (so designed runs and scrambles) for the last seven years. With the data (and having watched Taggart’s offenses since his 2015 switch to the aggressive Gulf Coast offense), I think it’s justifiable to expect FSU’s QBs to run twice as often. It could be triple, but that’s not a place I’m willing to go just yet.
Florida State’s offense operates almost entirely out of the shotgun. For an effective running game to work from the shotgun, the offense must be able to apply a constraint to the defense in the form of a QB run threat, so the backside defenders cannot chase the running backs with no regard for a QB run play. Almost all of FSU’s running plays under Willie Taggart will have at least the legitimate threat of the QB running. It makes a defense defend 11 on 11, as opposed to 11 on 10.
In the Gulf Coast offense, Willie Taggart’s QBs have run the ball 455 times (not including sacks, which college football stupidly counts as a rush) in 38 games. That’s an average of 12/game. Under Jimbo Fisher’s last five offenses, a span that includes the dynamic 2013 offense, QBs ran it 252 times in 66 games, or about 3.8/game.
In those two comparative spans, Willie Taggart’s offenses are running the quarterback three times as often as Jimbo Fisher’s offenses, 12 times/game compared to roughly 4/game.
But that data requires some further parsing
Because Taggart’s offense operates at a much greater pace than Fisher’s incredibly slow offense, it’s instructive to control for pace, while also examining what percentage of plays run were QB runs.
For Taggart, it was 17 percent, while for Fisher, it was slightly less than 6 percent. So 17 vs. 6, which is still about thrice as often.
Personnel matters, too
There are other factors impacting this, as well, such as personnel. In 2015 and 2016, Taggart’s USF offense was quarterbacked by Quinton Flowers, a 5’10, 210-pound player who many expect to play a different position in the NFL, as he’s a considerably better runner than thrower.
BOTTOM LINE Flowers simply doesn’t show the consistency or accuracy needed as a passer to play that position in the NFL. While college quarterbacks have made the transition to wide receiver in the NFL, Flowers’ fortunes are likely to be at running back thanks to his sturdy build and running talent. He has the foot quickness to elude tacklers, adequate speed and good finishing power. While that adjustment may take time, it’s his best shot at playing in the league. -Lance Zierlein, NFL.com
It’s incredibly encouraging that Taggart took a player who is not talented enough to play QB in the NFL, but does have potential as an NFL RB, and ran him a lot (368 QB runs 2015-16), as opposed to asking him to throw too much.
The QBs on FSU’s roster, however, all throw it better than Flowers, while none are near the runner Flowers is.
It’s helpful, then, that we also have an example of what Taggart will do with better passers: 2017 Oregon. QB Justin Herbert is one of the most touted prospects in the 2019 draft class.
Herbert is a much better passer than anyone on FSU’s current roster, but he still ran it 35 times in 7 games, or five times/game. Backup Braxton Burmeister ran it 50 times in 5 games.
FSU’s quarterbacks (James Blackman, Deondre Francois, and Bailey Hockman) are somewhere between Flowers and Herbert on the running/passing spectrum. None are close to the extremes of either.
7-11 non-sack runs/game by the QB seem like a reasonable expectation based on Taggart’s track record and available personnel.
But it doesn’t mean a ton more hits to the QB, because sacks will go down
From 2013-17, Florida State QBs were sacked once every 30 plays. In three years of the Gulf Coast Offense, Willie Taggart’s QBs have been sacked once every 48 plays.
FSU’s QBs under Jimbo Fisher were sacked on average 30 times/year, while Taggart’s have been sacked 18 times/year.
To put it another way, Jimbo Fisher’s QBs were sacked 53% more often than Willie Taggart’s QB, on a per-play basis.
That’s a big difference, made all the more remarkable considering FSU was playing with the lead more often than Taggart’s offenses (80% winning percentage vs. 68%).
Some of this is a result of Taggart’s offenses running the ball more than they throw it, which leads to fewer opportunities for sacks.
On a rate basis, Jimbo Fisher’s QBs were sacked on seven percent of dropbacks. Willie Taggart’s have been sacked on five percent.
But the other part of the equation is that when defenses have to respect the QB run, they cannot focus quite as much on rushing the passer.
How will FSU’s QB running compare to its rivals?
This isn’t exactly revolutionary or extreme, it’s joining the vast majority of the rest of college football.
New Florida coach Dan Mullen runs his QB considerably more than Willie Taggart does, even. Mullen ran Tim Tebow 637 times, which isn’t all that surprising because Tebow wasn’t a great thrower. But more telling is that he ran Dak Prescott, who is a top NFL QB 474 times.
From 2010-17, Mississippi State’s QBs under Mullen ran it an average of 167 times. Mullen’s QBs run about 25 percent more often than Taggart’s, or about three more attempts per game. On a per-play basis, Mullen runs the QB about once every five plays, while Taggart does it once every six.
Clemson runs its QB almost exactly as often as Mullen ran his QBs at Mississippi State: 163 times/season, though when adjusting for pace and games played (Clemson has played about an additional game each year compared to MSU), it’s safe to say Mullen is still the coach among FSU’s rivals running his QB the most often.
Miami will be an interesting situation to watch. In this past year, Miami’s QBs had 102 non-sack rushes. Before 2017, Miami did not have a QB capable of running. But its recent QB signees (N’Kosi Perry, Jarren Williams) are all very athletic, so it’s worth watching to see how much more often Miami will run its QB.