Saturday September 22, 2018, was one of those steamy fall afternoons on the Bayou.
The temperature reached a high of 91 that day shortly after the noontime hour, as a thunderstorm rolled through Baton Rouge. But like most Saturday afternoons in the fall, the weather could not dampen the spirit of the LSU faithful. Why would it? The Tigers, fresh off a one-point victory over Auburn the week prior in a comeback victory, were ranked sixth in the nation. Coach Ed Orgeron had the team believing in themselves once more, and they were three touchdown favorites over the visitors that night.
No, a quick thundershower on a steamy September day and night was not going to dampen those faithful.
But the visitors almost did send everyone home unhappy. The LSU Tigers raced out to a 24-0 lead that night, but the visitors fought back. Early in the fourth quarter, the Tigers held just a 24-21 lead, and held on to pull out a 38-21 victory. After the game, Orgeron complimented the losing side. “There was a letdown in the second half,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said, comparing his team to an overconfident fighter who drops his hands and then gets “hit in the face.”
“They had a great game-plan. We couldn’t stop them. They kept us off balance,” Orgeron said. “We won the game, but it wasn’t good enough. Obviously, we’re not happy.”
The visitors that night? The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. The quarterback who almost pulled off the upset? J’Mar Smith.
Smith that night completed 27 of 50 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns, against a defense that a year later would win a National Championship. He did it on the road, in one of the game’s most hostile of environments, and he displayed some of the traits that make him a very enticing UDFA prospect with his new team, the New England Patriots.
A single game - and a loss at that - does not fill out every box on a scout’s evaluation report. To get a full picture of Smith as a prospect you need to study his 2019 season as well. When you do, you will see anticipation throws, progression reads, and the traits that the New England Patriots value at the quarterback position.
But one night can tell a story. A story of a quarterback with arm talent. A quarterback who moves extremely well in the pocket, but is not afraid to hang in there and deliver knowing he is about to get leveled. A quarterback who makes the anticipation throws necessary to achieve at a higher level.
A quarterback for the modern game.
Early in the contest the Bulldogs were already trailing 24-0 and facing a 3rd and 8. Smith drops to throw but faces nearly immediate pressure off the right edge. He is able to climb the pocket and keeps his eyes trained downfield. As he slides to his right, he delivers on a throw to the back shoulder to his target nearly 40-yards downfield:
Smith’s ability to respond to pressure stood out that night. Take this play from later in the contest, when he evades what should have been an easy sack:
Smith really should have hit the deck here, but he has both the awareness and play-strength to stay upright and get the ball out, avoiding a sack and a huge loss of yardage. This escapability and pocket movement is a big part of his game. Watch the pocket movement - and then the throw - on this downfield completion:
The end zone angle is perfect on this play. Watch Smith’s footwork as he evades the pressure, combined with his eyes which stay downfield scanning for a target. The then throw, which is delivered with velocity down the field from a collapsing pocket around the QB:
Now sometimes you cannot escape as a quarterback. The design of the play and how the situation unfolds require you to hang in there and deliver the throw, knowing you are going to take a shot. Often described as “staring down the gun barrel” - for lack of a better phrase - this is one of those little things that comes with playing the position that you have to endure if you want to be great.
Here is Smith showing this trait:
Smith knows the defense has a free runner at him, with this delayed blitz from the middle linebacker. Rather than bail the pocket he hangs in there, and gets the ball out on time for a completion to move the chains. Thankfully for him he was able to get the ball out (and an interior offensive lineman was able to peel back and get just enough on the rusher) to avoid a huge hit, but he was ready, willing and able to stand in there and deliver.
Let’s talk about anticipation before we close this out. Yardage after the catch is a huge element in New England’s offense, and the quarterback in such a system needs to get the ball out on time and in rhythm. That gives the the target the best opportunity to get additional yardage after the reception. On this completion, Smith flashes the anticipation you want to see, even with a double-clutch before the throw:
A deep out route thrown right along the sideline with precision placement and velocity. The proverbial “NFL throw,” made with anticipation. Again, he even double-clutches here, and to me that is a sign that his mind is actually more ahead of the play than you might expect.
Here is another anticipation throw from Smith against the Tigers:
This throw comes on an in-breaking route inside of the numbers, an area of the field where anticipation throws are harder to come by. But here is Smith, pulling the trigger as the receiver is coming out of his break, and before the underneath linebacker can rotate over.
Again, one game does not complete a full scouting report, but Smith’s performance that night in Death Valley is worth a stand-alone piece, because he flashed NFL traits against the closest thing he saw in 2018 to an NFL defense. That year the Tigers held then-number 8 Miami to 17 points. They held then-number 7 Auburn (and Jarrett Stidham) to 21 points. They held then-number 2 Georgia to 16 points. They held then-number 22 Mississippi State to 3 points. But on this night, Smith and the Bulldogs hung 21 on them on the road in front of 102,321 Tigers’ fans in one of the game’s toughest environments to play.
That night Smith checked a lot of boxes. Is it fair to expect him to be a starter immediately? No, but it is fair to consider him perhaps the third quarterback on this team, and a player who can help this roster as a practice squad quarterback. Consider the passers New England faces in 2020: Mahomes. Watson. Jackson. Wilson. Allen. Tagovailoa (potentially). Murray. Athletic QBs who are dangerous on the move. Which UDFA QB best replicates what they can do? Brian Lewerke, or Smith.
My money is on the kid who gave Orgeron fits on a steamy night down in the Bayou.