On Saturday the Jackets fell 38-22 to the North Carolina Tar Heels to bring their season record to 1-4. While the Jackets obviously have plenty of room for improvement, one player in particular sparked a fair amount of optimism among Tech fans following the game: quarterback James Graham. Graham came to the Flats as a four star recruit after decommitting from Virginia Tech in late 2017 and redshirted his true freshman season in 2018. After beginning this season third on the depth chart behind Tobias Oliver and Lucas Johnson, Graham now finds himself in position to earn the starting quarterback role for the remainder of the season.
Throwing against Single-man coverage
Graham’s greatest strength so far is his ability to make accurate throws against tight, single-man coverage. We saw this in the spring game and again on Saturday, where he looked more comfortable throwing against man coverage than against zone. This makes sense for a young quarterback, since man coverage is inherently easier to read.
Facing 3rd & 3 in the 2nd Quarter on Saturday, Graham delivered a perfect throw to wide receiver Adonicas Sanders on a slant route for a 17-yard gain. The throw was in a good spot, high and in front of his receiver to ensure it was out of the defender’s reach. Simply being able to make accurate throws against tight coverage is something Tech quarterbacks have struggled with this year, so that trait alone elevates Graham above the competition. Equally important as the throw itself is Graham’s ability to identify the blitz and recognize that the slant would be open right away. If Graham doesn’t commit to throwing the slant route almost immediately, he might not have had time to wait for another receiver to get open. This demonstrates that even as a redshirt freshman, he’s already making the correct pre-snap reads to know ahead of time where the open receivers will be.
Graham had further success against man coverage throwing to receivers on out-and-up routes. An out-and-up, typically ran from the slot, is particularly effective against man coverage because it forces the defender to come forward to guard against what he thinks is an out route. By the time the defender sees the receiver turn upfield, it’s usually too late.
Graham’s first touchdown came on a 28-yard strike to receiver Malachi Carter in the 3rd Quarter. On the play, Graham uses a designed rollout to buy time for the out-and-up to develop and then delivers a beautiful pass over both Tar Heel defenders for the Jackets’ first score of the game. An underrated aspect of Graham’s throwing is the arc he puts on his passes. We’ve seen plenty of Tech quarterbacks over the past decade whose passes always had a low trajectory and high risk of interception, but in Graham’s case, the height on his throw is what allowed it to clear the UNC defenders and fall into Carter’s arms for a touchdown.
Graham’s second touchdown came late in the 4th Quarter on the exact same play, this time on a 32-yard dime to receiver Ahmarean Brown. We can see how Brown’s great route running forces the safety to over-pursue to the flat, and once Brown turns upfield he leaves the safety in his dust. It would have been nice to see some better blocking so Graham could have set his feet instead of throwing on the run, but it didn’t matter because Graham placed the ball perfectly.
While Graham is showing great potential throwing the ball, he also has a lot of work to do, particularly when it comes to field awareness. Making throws against single coverage is simple enough, but Graham noticeably struggles more once the defense switches to zone coverage or a mix of man and zone. It will be critically important from Graham to learn how to read defenses in an instant and account for extra defenders who may be providing help over the top. This is a skill that was noticeably lacking on his first interception on Saturday.
On the snap, Graham identifies that wide receiver Josh Blancato has the advantage on a seam route against a slower linebacker. However, Graham completely disregards the safety lined up in the deep middle of the field and makes his throw as if the safety wasn’t there. Graham stares down Blancato the entire time, and the safety unsurprisingly intercepts the pass with ease. If Graham could do this play over, I’m sure he’d have at least tried to look the safety off before throwing to Blancato, or more wisely, thrown the ball to running back Jamious Griffin over the middle for a short gain.
Graham is only a redshirt freshman, but he is already showing tremendous flashes of talent. He without a doubt has the potential to become the Jackets’ starting quarterback for the next several years. If nothing else, he played well enough on Saturday to earn himself the starting spot for at least the next few games. While it’s certainly a rebuilding year and the Jackets might not win another game this season, at least Tech fans can take comfort in knowing that James Graham could be the quarterback of the future.