Mark Sanchez: Quality Over Quantity
For most NFL quarterbacks, sixteen starts make up a season. For USC's Mark Sanchez, sixteen starts add up to a lifetime. That's how many times the 6-2, 227-pound resident of Mission Viejo, California took the ball under center as the main man for what has essentially become the NFL's minor-league team. That's not a lot to go on, especially since Sanchez is coming out a year early, foregoing his senior season to see what the NFL has to offer.
There are two sides to the small sample size conundrum -- some believe that Sanchez needs more game film to validate his NFL readiness, while others believe that what he's done in just those 16 starts speak to an upside that is as high as it is for any player in this draft class.
The man in question says that you should look at the quality, not the quantity, of the starts. "More than anything, it's valuable experience playing in a pro-style system," he told me on Monday. "When I go through interviews with teams, and I go on the board and talk about football, they know that my knowledge is way beyond where some guys are coming out of this process. So, I'm well ahead of the learning curve there. Competition-wise, I played against the very best. Not only in games, but in practice, I'd play against Sedrick Ellis, Lawrence Jackson, Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews -- all those guys are first-round guys. I'd do that every day in practice, and if you know how USC practices under Coach (Pete) Carroll, it's ones versus ones all the time.
"The games have been meaningful games against the best competition. Ohio State, Penn State, the Rose Bowl, big-time games in the Coliseum, and a large media market. I feel like it's been great experience, and very meaningful experience. Once NFL teams saw me, and understood how mature I am, and ready for this next jump, they've understood that I'm for real."
Sanchez also has the advantage of his friendships with other former USC quarterbacks; he's talked to Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, and Matt Cassell about their NFL lives and varying degrees of success. "They've been helpful and given me their insight, and it's been great to hear from them. They've told me what to expect in minicamps, how the Combine was going to go, just little things here and there. Don't get caught up in where you get drafted, and don't fall in love with a team, Things like that. They've been very helpful."
After a redshirt freshman year in 2005 and seven pass attempts in 2006, Sanchez got his first three starts in 2007 against Arizona, Notre Dame and Oregon in place of John David Booty. And when the 2008 season began, he was the main man despite suffering a dislocated kneecap in spring practice. What Sanchez did was a revelation -- he led the Pac-10 in just about every meaningful quarterback stat and was among the top performers in the nation in passer rating (164.64) and touchdowns (34). College quarterback stats are difficult to quantify when so many spread-style offenses skew the numbers, but Sanchez's intangibles set him apart in a hurry.
"More than anything, just how excited I am to play in every game and every practice," he said, when asked about the attributes that don't show up on tape. "How I study and take the preparation phase to heart. It's important to me to be prepared and to study the right way. Being a personality in the locker room, someone that other guys can talk to and look up to. A vocal leader, an emotional leader, and someone who knows when to lead by example. I think that really shows when you celebrate after plays and you're with the guys all the time when you're playing or practicing or just in social situations, it's important to be a team guy."
What is seen on the tape -- a mobile quarterback with a wide array of skills -- was developed at Mission Viejo High in his junior and senior years, when he met Coach Bob Johnson, father of former USC and NFL quarterback Rob Johnson. Johnson the elder has been with Sanchez all the way, from high school to NFL workouts, and the protégé couldn't be more grateful.
"He's just been more than a coach -- he's really transcended the whole coach-player relationship. He's been absolutely a mentor to me, and it's been so special. He's been having me throw balls to his family... I don't know how to describe him -- he's just been the best. The best to play for, and once you've played for him, he's your best friend until the end. He wants the best for me, he's worked me out like crazy, and he knows exactly what I'm thinking. I think the best part is that no matter how great the friendship is, he's never afraid to coach me. He's always the first one to let me know when things aren't going right, or when I could be doing better, when I'm off on a throw, he still coaches me on every rep. That's important for me, because you never want to get complacent, and he would never let me."
The quarterback that Sanchez has become was built, quite literally, from the ground up. His footwork stood out at the 2009 Scouting Combine, when quarterbacks worked out on the field of Lucas Oil Stadium with Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. As I told Sanchez during our interview, I was in the stadium while he threw, and I kept watching his feet instead of his arm.
"Well, as you said, the footwork really helps in the pocket," he said. "It's about being quick, not fast, and moving in that five- to ten-yard box in the pocket. Your feet are really your base in whatever you're doing, and they set you up for the rest of the throw and the rest of the play. It's something I have worked on for years with Coach Johnson, and he's helped me fine-tune that. You put that together with a strong arm, and some mobility, and a really good knowledge of the offense, you get a season like last year with a lot of help from the other players on the team. It was a great season, and a lot of those skills -- a quick release, a strong arm, and the ability to make plays on the run, it all helps."
Perhaps because Sanchez's skill set is wider than it is tall -- he has more a full package of skills than the kind of arm that pops off the game tape -- his arm strength may have been slightly undersold. Especially in comparison to fellow elite prospect Matt Stafford of Georgia, who's famous for long downfield bombs. Is Sanchez's arm better than we've been led to believe?
"Sure, but like I said, when you see it on tape, and you see me at my Pro Day, I'm making the throws I need to make and they're down the field," he said. "We've averaged more yards per attempt than in previous years [8.71 yards per attempt in 2008, 6.72 in 2007, 7.67 in 2006, and 8.64 in 2005], and that's a direct result of throwing the ball downfield. I think it's been a little undersold, but that's not for me to decide, and it's neither here nor there. I think teams know what they're getting."
No matter how much talent he may possess, and how much potential his future may hold, any college quarterback will have setbacks in the NFL. I asked him about his team's one loss in 2008 where the Trojans let a 27-21 shocker slip away to Oregon State on September 25. How did he and his team recover from that loss to run the table?
"The way we started out in that game, we just weren't scoring," he said. "We went three-and-out three times in a row. Not only that, they converted those drives into points -- they scored 21 on us before we could even blink. When you're down like that, the best thing to do, and what Coach Carroll had us do, is just restart and re-set our focus. I think we came out in the second half, came into our own, and just ran out of time at the end of the game.
"It was a very young team that I played on, and as a first-year starter, I didn't know what to expect after a loss -- it's so rare at USC. I took a lot of the blame for that loss. That last interception I threw, late in the game, put them on the one-yard line, and they went in and scored. I told my guys in the locker room and in the huddle, 'It's my bad, and I can't afford to have that happen.' I learned what kind of maturity level we had on that team, and it was something special. Nobody was pointing fingers or saying negative things to the media; everyone just came back to practice and worked hard."
I then asked him about two specific games -- his three-interception performance against Arizona State [which USC won], and the Rose Bowl win over Penn State, in which Sanchez threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns. From the ridiculous to the sublime, what has he learned about the game?
"I learned a lot about the quarterback position in the Arizona State game -- you don't always get the bounces and you don't always make every play. We have a big-time route down the sideline and Damian [Williams] drops it and tossed it to a defender by accident, and it just kinda bounced off of him. I couldn't have thrown the ball any better, but it just didn't work out. Earlier in the game, I had a deep ball downfield, and that was dropped as well. It's just like when you have a receiver wide open and you miss him with the throw, and you feel horrible. Those guys felt bad about it, but there's nothing you can do. I put the ball there, it didn't get caught, and that was it.
"And the other interceptions... one was just a diving catch on a screen -- the guy made a really good catch for an interception, and the other one I just threw short on a wide-open go route. We all had our mistakes in that game, but the big picture was that we won. We won the game, and that's most important, regardless of stats. I think that game taught me a heck of a lot about what I'm doing, and how to win, and staying positive about everything. All those plays happened in one quarter, too. After that, we turned things around and we were just fine. It's important for a young quarterback to experience that kind of stuff.
"In the Rose Bowl, my preparation really helped, and I think it showed. I was confident, I knew what to look for on defense, and they gave us the looks we had practiced for. They threw a couple of things at us that we didn't expect, but we adjusted quickly and it was a great performance -- a total team effort. The defense played great, as it had all year, and the offense really put on a show. It was a great way to go out."
Since he declared for the Draft, Sanchez has continued to work out and improve, wowed every observer at his Pro Day, has met with most every team with a top 10 draft pick, and maintains a very busy media schedule. It was evident in talking with him that football's on his mind most of the time -- he keeps his head on straight in the face of write-ups and talking heads who have him pegged as the Next Big Thing. "You can't pay too much attention. You're always flattered when you hear stuff like that, such great things, but by no means does that set it in stone. It's one of those things you just have to take in stride and just go along with it. I'm flattered to hear it, but there are going to be expectations wherever I go, just like at SC. I'm' used to that, I'm prepared."
What will the team that drafts Mark Sanchez get?
"A fierce competitor -- someone who is really passionate about playing. A great leader who has those intangibles. Great in the locker room, a team guy like I said before. Someone who studies -- who doesn't just go out and play, but takes preparation very seriously. A cerebral quarterback. I'm always willing to learn, and ready to tackle a playbook and compete for a starting spot."
Those sixteen starts -- a season for some, and a lifetime for others -- look to be little more than Mark Sanchez's first act.
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