I was recently asked to do an offensive and defensive breakout prediction for the upcoming season and there doesn’t seem to be a better time then now so here we go!
My breakout player for the offense has got to be Connor Halliday. If you are anything of a constant reader here you might have guessed this from me, but it’s not necessarily the argument you might think of. 151-290 for 1,874 yards, 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions aren’t great stats but they are from a “first year”, part-time starter who seemed to have trouble finding a groove from game to game due to a litany of reasons. On the plus side Halliday moved the ball very effectively but he had trouble making the easy play when any sort of pressure situation arose. This year should and will be different.
Three reasons stand out to me in the opportunity for Halliday to put up a season worthy of All-American consideration:
The receivers are of course going to carry a bulk of the responsibility for helping Halliday out. The usual suspects Dominique and Kristoff Williams, along with Gabe Marks and the rest of the corps should have improved their pressure catching over the offseason and should make jumps. But the one guy that will put Halliday over the top is incoming junior Vince Mayle (May-lee). Mayle is the multi-dimensional, big, tall, fast, strong, everything receiver that the Cougs needed so badly coming into this season and every quarterback who ever threw to a guy named Michael Crabtree at Texas Tech will back up that presumption.
On top of the physical presence that he represents out on the edge, he brings with him the additional bonus of taking away extra safety help over the top of Dominique and Kristoff on the other side. I imagine teams will have to play the Cougs straight up for a majority of the snaps with straight zone Cover-2 or Cover 3, which basically means all Connor should have to read is where the safeties fill. After that, pick a window out from the underneath and throw the football to the open guy. When teams are crazy enough to man up, a mismatch of immense proportions should present itself against a safety or a linebacker in the middle of the field at 15-20 yards, which is just where Connor likes to throw. The key will be not getting suckered into thinking man when it is a zone, because that leads to throws into triple coverage as happened too many times last year.
They say the most improvement for any player at any level comes between years one and two. That stands true for starters more than the practice squad, meaning between year one of starting and year two, that’s when you’ll see the most improvement. The game will begin to slow down for Connor this upcoming season, which should be enough for him to start easing up on a bad habit of forcing throws. More importantly, with a good amount of film and just raw experience he should be able to read the blitzes before they hit him in the face (which would mean in his pre-snap reads), allowing him to hit his hot reads more often. Also, the thing I mentioned about the pressure situations, well they won’t be as intimidating this year.
There’s nothing like having all day to throw, but there’s also nothing quite like having no time at all and last year served as the latter. As much as we like to harp on the offensive line needing to be better, it’s really a case of only needing to be marginally better. The Mike Leach offense is designed as a quick release offense, so if Conner hits those hot reads I was talking about more often the “marginally” better offensive line that the Cougs now possess due to size and experience should be enough to help in a big way. In college football an extra second can be a huge difference and I’d say because of the upgraded size and extra year in the OL ranks Connor could get anywhere from .5 to the whole extra second on average per play. He’s still got to make a decision and get rid of it though, because a high percentage of his sacks last season still would have happened with three more seconds due to utter indecision.
Halliday is primed for a breakout season. Some fans are still on the “we can’t predict he’ll even be the starter” kick, but come on, really? There’s absolutely no reason or to believe that Halliday won’t be the starter at the beginning of the season. There are also no signs to suggest that Austin Apodaca made anything near the impact he needed to in the Spring in order to steal the starting job come Fall camp. As long as Connor stays healthy, he’s going to be the starter and in my opinion the breakout player of the year on offense.