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Film Review: Scraping blimps to scrape a bowl— an Alex Hornibrook joint

Winning hangtime contests.

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Syracuse v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Kendal Briles has spent the better part of a decade as either a passing game coordinator or offensive coordinator. He spent these years in the same offense, the renowned Briles family offense fashioned by his father. Regardless of if he was calling plays, Briles the Younger has been intimately involved in the receiver play of some of the best offensive attacks college football has ever seen. Downfield attack is what Kendal Briles did then, and it’s what he does now.

This has helped Briles become one of the premier offensive minds in the game.

After bouncing between Florida and Texas, Florida State landed Briles. Willie Taggart famously spent an offseason with the Briles family— which is, in and of itself, notable, as the Baylor crowd is very secretive about their offense. Taggart eschewed the run-focused, heavy-personnel mentality of his Harbaugh football education during the 2015 season and adopted a Briles-reminiscient offense that was coined the “Gulf Coast Offense.”

Now Briles is in Tallahassee, and the downfield attack came with him.

In one of our last Film Review pieces, we discussed the shot plays that the pace of Briles’ offense opens up. Briles likes his quarterbacks to find single coverage opportunities downfield, and likes his receivers to create them using “choice” option routes. Not all of the following are shot plays, though most feature choice routes in which Briles’ scheme helps receivers get open.

Alex Hornibrook did a good job of recognizing these opportunities against Syracuse. And there were several. Unfortunately, the execution was not there.

Let’s dive in.

This is really nice decision making from Hornibrook. He recognizes that the coverage will allow D.J. Matthews space to break to the outside. He does a great job looking off the safety. Unfortunately, the throw forces Matthews not only to adjust, but to go full extension, dive, and toe tap with a great catch to keep the ball in bounds. A better throw gets several more yards.

When you get Tamorrion Terry in single coverage, you go for it. Terry may not be having his best season as a ’Nole, but he is still one of your best players, and you give him a chance at a 50/50 ball whenever the opportunity arises. Hornibrook recognizes the opportunity, but doesn’t step into the throw with pressure coming. The ball doesn’t make it to Terry.

Single coverage for Matthews who beats his man quickly, which means GO. Hornibrook recognizes it quickly, but Matthews isn’t Terry; you can’t expect Matthews to come back to balls and fight in the air. He’s like a Mike Wallace— get some air under it and let him run. Hornibrook got some air under it, scraping the Goodyear blimp en route to a ball well underthrown.

Tre’Shaun Harrison is similar to Matthews in that both are explosive, speedy receivers who can burn a DB who missteps. Harrison sees the space the ’Cuse defender’s outside leverage offers him and takes it. He’s flying, three steps clear of the defender, and opening up room. Hornibrook recognizes this quickly and gets some air under it. Harrison makes a great play, somehow coming back over the top of the defender and catching it. This reminds me of one of Deion Sanders’ best highlights. This ball needs to be on the outside shoulder and the DB would have no chance at it.

Here’s an example of how you should throw this ball:

Same deal here. Hornibrook sees this, and here he makes a better throw, about 25 yards in the air to the outside shoulder of Harrison where the DB can’t get to it. You’d like to throw this a hair further, but that’s nitpicking. Harrison needs to grab this.

There were times Hornibrook didn’t get help from his receivers. Terry dropped one notably good ball.

Hornibrook Is an inherently limited player, so when receivers don’t make the play that he offers, it hurts the team even more. His big plusses are letting playmakers get the ball in space and run for yards after the catch. Here’s a play where that is the plan:

Slant thrown quickly to Gabe Nabers. Nabers crosses the face of the backer in the hook zone here and has quite a bit of room to run. This is normally where Hornibrook feasts. Unfortunately, it’s too far behind for Nabers to adjust and catch it.

Hornibrook can often make up for his arm strength deficiencies with accuracy and timing. That’s his game. That’s what he needs to do to make FSU move the ball.

Here’s a beautifully run post, run into a wide-open middle of the field. This is where Hornibrook’s anticipation lets him down. When he throws it early, Hornibrook can find a receiver like this, get the ball out and let the playmaker work. Hornibrook shuffles his feet in the pocket too long, and the receiver reaches the 20-yard marker before Hornibrook begins his throwing motion. When you have limited arm strength, you have to get the ball out early. Hornibrook himself stated this when questioned about his arm strength at Wisconsin.

Hornibrook is a smart quarterback. He recognizes opportunities quickly, he’s a well-known film junkie, and he knows the game well enough to acknowledge his flaws:

“I think accuracy and timing can work hand in hand with arm strength,” he explained. “Obviously, there are some throws you need to (zip) it in there. And I can do that.

“I feel great throwing every single throw. I haven’t seen a throw that I can’t make. Any time you can’t put enough juice on the ball if you throw it early it will get there at the same time.”

If you throw it early, it will get there at the same time. That’s fair, in theory. But the above clips show it just isn’t always the case, in practice. Of the 7 plays above, 6 plays highlighted were downfield passes; just one was a solid throw, and all the catches were tremendous plays by WRs. Hornibrook graded out very poorly on downfield throws in this game. You can’t rely on that.

FSU’s offense didn’t need to hit every open deep shot against Syracuse. It won’t need to hit them against Alabama State. And the other quarterbacks on the roster certainly haven’t shown the ability, accuracy, or timing to do it better. James Blackman did in 2017, but the early 2019 returns haven’t looked promising. Jordan Travis has not seen a single snap, so we can’t even guess what he is capable of.

And that’s the problem.

With the teams remaining on FSU’s schedule, FSU needs two wins and only has three games where it has a better than 50% chance at a win. FSU opened as a favorite against Miami, and will close the season as heavy underdogs playing away at Florida.

FSU needs to hit these deep shots to win games in which its offensive line is outmatched. Against Miami and Florida, the OL certainly will be. In those games, FSU will need chunk plays to move the ball. Realistically, Florida is a level above where FSU is in 2019. Their defensive front will likely rack up highlight reel plays and stat— but their back-end can be had if shot plays are well thrown.

If FSU can’t make these plays against Miami and Florida, its bowl chances rest on beating Boston College. The Fighting Addazios are having an up-and-down season, and FSU will be favored, but a November game in Boston after a Miami game is a prime letdown spot. And if FSU finds a feisty Eagles team that Saturday, the ’Noles will need their quarterbacks to connect downfield.

Briles is manufacturing downfield opportunities left and right, like he has throughout his career. His scheming has proven to get playmakers open downfield. But Florida State’s quarterbacks need to hit them. And Hornibrook and Blackman haven’t shown that they can.

Something will have to give.