Through five games, what are Kansas quarterback Jake Heaps' strengths as a passer?
With help from charting data, let's take a look.
After each game, I've made an attempt to chart every play of KU's football season, which has included direction of passes, pass yardage, formation and other tidbits that can't be found in the box score.
Let's start with this: Here's how well Heaps has thrown by direction of the field:
A few caveats before we get too deep into the numbers:
• There are about seven passing plays from the Rice game that I didn't get on tape — six incompletions and one two-yard completion. That's seven throws out of 149, so our data set isn't perfect, but it's still large enough to make general observations about Heaps and his throws.
• These are pass yards thrown by Heaps in the air ... not the total yardage gained on the play. For instance, if Tony Pierson caught a pass five yards down the field and ran it 72 more, the pass yards on the play is five yards.
• These numbers do not count passes Heaps threw that were incomplete/intercepted because of pass interference or illegal contact penalties, but they do include plays that happened that might have been called back for other reasons (like offensive holding). This increases the sample size we're drawing from.
• I took out all throws that I labeled as "throwaways" in my charting.
As a right-handed quarterback, Heaps has definitely favored throwing to the right side, as more than 42 percent of his charted throws went that direction.
It's also the side where KU has been the least successful in the passing game. Heaps' 4.5 yards per attempt on those throws is much lower than that on the other two sides.
Heaps' "hot spot" appears to be the middle, where he's thrown three of his touchdowns and averaged 9.4 yards per attempt. It helps that Tony Pierson's 77-yard receiving TD against Rice was a throw in that area, but Heaps' numbers still would be better in that section even without that play.
Let's look at Heaps' throws by distance now:
Heaps has been accurate behind the line of scrimmage (88 percent), but those plays have been the least successful in terms of yards per attempt. Long throws also have been risky for Heaps, as KU is averaging just 5.4 yards per attempt on those 24 throws with two interceptions.
Heaps' strong suit appears to be the intermediate routes, and especially those that require throws 10-19 yards downfield. In that area, Heaps has thrown three TDs in 22 attempts while averaging 8.1 yards per attempt.
Finally, let's see how Heaps throws by distance and direction:
This only confirms what we've talked about above. Heaps is throwing more frequently to the right in both short and intermediate passes, despite the fact that KU's yards-per-attempt are poor in those areas.
Heaps' best passing numbers are coming in the middle of the field, with his most success coming in the center of the tic-tac-toe. Notice also that three of his five passing TDs were in that area as well.
I wanted to give you a look at one last chart. This shows the distances Heaps passes have been going, then compares that to the 2012 NCAA averages for quarterbacks.
If you look at the far-right column, you can see KU's throwing habits with Heaps. For those saying KU should throw more deep balls ... the Jayhawks actually are above the NCAA average when throwing passes over 35 yards, and that's without much success.
Also, KU has thrown a high number of passes behind the line of scrimmage compared to the national average, and while the Jayhawks are completing an OK percentage, those plays haven't been particularly explosive (5.3 yards per attempt).
The sweet spot once again (in a small sample size) for Heaps has been passes between 15 and 19 yards, as KU is averaging 10.5 yards per pass attempt while completing an impressive 55 percent of those throws.
The conclusion from all the data above? Though Heaps has thrown the largest number of passes to the right this year, KU's had much more success when he's thrown in the center.
Heaps' best numbers have come on intermediate passes between the hashes, meaning that the Jayhawks might benefit if they gave Heaps more options in that area: a perfect spot for tight end Jimmay Mundine or KU's receivers on routes over the middle.
Let's take a look at our "new" box score for Kansas' 23-14 loss to Rice.
For those who didn't check out last week's blog, this box score is meant to give some of the most relevant stats so we can take a deeper (and better) look into the numbers.
Here are a few takeaways from the box score:
KU's pass defense, once again, was stellar
If you're looking for positives, this has to be the biggest one. After a dominating pass defense performance in Game 1 against South Dakota (2.8 pass yards allowed/attempt), the Jayhawks backed it up with an effort that was nearly as impressive against respected Rice QB Taylor McHargue (4.1 pass yards allowed/attempt).
Not only that, KU's secondary is making plays on the ball. KU's 11 passes defensed (pass breakups plus interceptions) is a huge number that hints the Jayhawks should me more competitive defensively this year in the pass-happy Big 12. Through two games, KU's 7.5 passes broken up per game leads the conference, while Dexter McDonald is tied for fourth nationally with five pass breakups of his own.
KU's pass offense, once again, was pretty bad
Remember, in our "new" box score, sacks are counted against the passing totals, as technically, they are passing plays. Through this prism, KU's passing numbers go from bad to cover-your-eyes awful.
The Jayhawks mustered just 4.2 net passing yards per attempt after posting an identical 4.2 net yards per attempt against South Dakota the week before. Notice that if you look at yards per completion, KU's passing numbers jump up to 9.8 yards per catch. So what does that tell us? In short, KU isn't completing enough passes. For the second straight week, quarterback Jake Heaps failed to complete more than 50 percent of his throws, and once again, costly drops kept KU from having a more efficient passing game.
Trevor Pardula had another great game
Again, if optimism is your thing, KU punter/kickoff guy Trevor Pardula is another reason to believe KU can be competitive in Big 12 games. After seven punts, the junior still maintained a healthy 40.4-yard net punt average, and that was a big reason KU stayed close in the field-position game (KU's average start was its own 27; Rice's was its own 30). Pardula also blasted three more touchbacks, and through nine kickoffs this season, his six touchbacks are already more than KU had in all of 2012 (five in 47 kickoffs).
KU's offensive numbers were even worse considering the opportunities
In 2012, during games between two FBS teams, the average squad had 13 possessions per game. The Jayhawks had it 15 times against the Owls and still never managed to find a rhythm. To be fair, one of those possessions was a kneeldown at the end of the first half, but the numbers are ugly regardless. KU managed just 18 yards per possession, which is barely half of what an NCAA team averaged a year ago (31.1 yards per possession). Remember, that was against a Rice defense that allowed 52 points in 14 possessions to Texas A&M two weeks before.
It was a weird game for KU's running game
The last few years, KU has had success in the running game by getting modest gains to keep the chains moving. Against Rice, the Jayhawks were the total opposite of that, featuring a boom-or-bust tendency while playing without backup RB Taylor Cox.
KU had three rushes of 12 yards are more, and all were by James Sims, who has been more of a grinding back during his career. On the opposite side of the spectrum, though, KU had seven rushes that went for no gain or a loss, indicating the Jayhawks' offensive linemen were getting overpowered too often.
That made for some weird stats. KU's 4.2-yard-per-carry average might be more acceptable if the Jayhawks were better able to avoid losing plays. Instead, KU averaged just 2.6 yards on first down because of all the run stuffs, and that put the team in tough situations on third downs, where the Jayhawks' average gain to go was 7.9 yards — much too high for a team that is still trying to find itself in the passing game.
The pick-six was a killer
The box score above shows this game wasn't dominated by Rice. The Owls had slightly better numbers across the board, but statistically this game was close enough for KU to win if it had a positive turnover margin.
Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, Heaps' pick-six in the first quarter put the team in a huge hole. Bill Connelly has done the math to compile an NCAA football chart for equivalent points — the number of points a team is likely to score on a drive from a certain yard line.
When Heaps threw the pass, KU was on the Rice 46 — a yard line worth 1.62 equivalent points to KU. The interception return for TD then gave the Owls seven points, and the ensuing kickoff was a touchback, putting KU on the 25 — worth 0.01 equivalent point.
Do the math, and that was a 8.61-point swing because of a single play — definitely enough to swing the balance of a game that the Owls won by ... nine points.
In baseball, most pitchers throw fastballs in a similar way; two-seamers are thrown with the two fingers on the seams, while four-seamers are thrown with fingers going across the stitches.
That made me wonder: Are quarterbacks the same way? Is it "one size fits all" when it comes to gripping a football?
For help with those questions, I consulted the two people on Kansas University's campus that should know best: starting quarterback Jake Heaps and backup QB Michael Cummings.
I started with Cummings, who admitted he hadn't thought much previously about the way he gripped the football.
"It just feels comfortable, man," Cummings said. "I know when I was younger (around 5), I used to put my thumb over the laces, because my hand was kind of small."
Cummings said he believed the most important part of a grip was getting one that had a "natural feel." He also said a key was for the pointer finger to be the final body part to touch the ball and even admitted he had a callus on his first finger from throwing.
"That stuff hurts, too," he said.
KU quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus doesn't talk about grips with his players, Cummings said, instead focusing more on the mechanical work of passing like getting the proper footwork.
"Just try to throw with your body, not just your arm the whole time," Cummings said. "It lets you put more oomph on the ball than just throwing with all arm."
A few minutes later, I made my way over to Heaps, who said he'd had the same grip since the first time he'd picked up a football.
Heaps says it is important to have one's hand on top of the football, because the pointer finger — the last contact point with the ball — gives the ball its rotation.
Heaps also believes having the pointer finger high on the ball helps give him more control. Some QBs in the past have even gone to the extreme with this, with Heaps giving the example that Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw put his pointer finger on the point of the football when he threw.
Mechanically, Heaps said it was important to avoid two pitfalls. One is "cupping" the ball, which means putting one's hand too far over the top, which makes it difficult to snap the ball for good rotation.
The other potential mistake is getting one's hand too far underneath the ball, which again can be a sign of poor mechanics.
Heaps said it was important to maintain a "nice U-shape" with your hand, which allows a QB to get the proper release and rotation.
After talking with both QBs, I was interested to compare their grips.
It turned out there were quite a few differences.
As you can see from this comparison, the two view comfort in different ways. While Heaps' hands remains tight toward the top of the football, Cummings' hand has an extreme spread. Notice also the different placements of the players' middle and pinky fingers.
So who has the correct grip? Heaps says there's no right answer.
"If you’re going to a (quarterback specialist) that’s trying to get you to grip the ball differently, then you probably should go to someone different," he said. "Everyone grips the ball differently. It’s not how you grip it ... it’s whatever you’re comfortable with."