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April 13, 2018

O’Leary: Scouting combine process unique for quarterbacks

Jason Halstead/CFL.ca

The National Scouting Combine presented by adidas is a high-pressure couple of days for everyone involved, but for quarterbacks, it’s a little different.

You can test well in the individual drills and the interviews with teams, like for everyone, are very important. But quarterbacks at the combine don’t have the luxury of telling themselves that they can close the weekend out with a strong impression in the one-on-one drills.

“There’s so much more to the quarterback position than throwing one-on-ones and doing individual drills and stuff like that,” Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterbacks coach Buck Pierce said this week, after working closely with Noah Picton and Christian Strong through the combine.

“You try to get as much out of them as you can in a short period of time. (You’re trying to) pick up right away on certain things. Watching the feet, watching the footwork, watching how they move and the timing of the throws, those kind of things.”

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Christian Strong gets set to throw during a drill at the combine (Jason Halstead/CFL.ca)

In the one-on-ones, the quarterbacks are basically arms for rent. When you’re throwing to one receiver going up against one defensive back, there isn’t room for much creativity or snap decisions that come from in-game pressure.

“So really what you’re looking for is anticipation,” Pierce said. “Can you anticipate guys coming in and out of the breaks? Are you on them? Are you consistently being accurate with your throws? Are you giving your receivers chances to make plays and catch the football? I think both guys did a good job of that.”

Pierce, of course, spent nine years in the league as a QB, splitting his time with the BC Lions and the Bombers. He didn’t enter the league through the combine, but he said he could relate to where Picton and Strong are at this point in their careers. In 2005, Pierce had come out of New Mexico State and was trying to extend his career, the same way Picton and Strong are now.

Canadian or American, Pierce said, it’s a jump for everyone at that point.

“Obviously, the hardest thing for a young guy coming in is being able to make the most of your opportunity when you get that chance,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter where you played, where you came from. It’s ‘Can you adjust to the professional game and are you going to make the most out of your opportunities when you get those opportunities?’”

Pierce knew about both quarterbacks well before the combine. Picton was more of a name in Canadian football circles, given his career with the Regina Rams and his Hec Creighton season in 2016, but teams have had plenty of film to watch of both players leading into the combine.

“Watching his tape you can tell he has a really good understanding of the game,” Pierce said of Picton. “Real nice timing on his throws and he could make every throw, too. That was one of the things that he wanted to see from a guy that was a bit on the smaller side, that he could make the throws. He looked good, he looked polished. Fundamentally, he looked good.”

Noah Picton runs the 40-yard dash during the combine in Winnipeg (Jason Halstead/CFL.ca)

Strong play over the last year from Brandon Bridge and Andrew Buckey, in Saskatchewan and Calgary, respectively, has revved up the conversation about Canadian quarterbacks. Pierce said that might help generate interest among Canadian kids to play the position, but that teams in the CFL don’t need convincing on the topic.

“It doesn’t matter. I think if the kid can play, they’re going to get opportunities to show what they can do at the next level in the CFL,” he said.

“I think Brandon Bridge and Andrew Buckley have shown that and continue to show that. I think it’s great for the CFL game and great for these quarterbacks to start evolving and start saying, ‘We’re in the right position to continue to get these opportunities and play professional football.’ There are enough eyes out there now. They’re getting watched and they’ll get opportunities. I think it’s a great thing.”

While he worked with Picton and Strong in Winnipeg, Pierce did as much as he could for the two quarterbacks. He stressed accuracy and consistency over straight arm strength. If one or both of them are drafted, or if a training camp invite comes their way after the draft, the journey for a young quarterback in the CFL is a long one, regardless of which side of the border you’re from.

“You have to continue to learn,” Pierce said. “It’s a big picture thing, where the quarterback position is one of those where you’re consistently learning, consistently trying to get better.

“Guys are playing into their 30s, their mid-30s now, where they’re getting opportunities. Matt Nichols was in the league for I think six or seven years before he fully got his opportunity to be a full-time starter. Those six or seven years were great experiences to prepare him to be where he is now.

“The real good quarterbacks love that process of being ready whenever their number is called, putting in extra work and going out there and proving themselves when their number is called.”