Sometimes it takes just one game for a player to work his way into the national spotlight. For Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, that one game happened on Oct. 17 against Ole Miss, the No. 13 team in the nation. After spotting the Rebels 14 points in the first quarter, Lynch powered a streak of 31 unanswered points, finishing with 39 completions on 53 attempts for 384 yards, three touchdowns and an interception as the Tigers pulled away for a 37–24 win.
That vaulted Lynch into the discussion of the best quarterbacks available in the 2016 draft, and among most analysts he has settled in as the guy just below Jared Goff and Carson Wentz in this year’s QB hierarchy. Although the rest of Lynch's season didn't go quite as well—including a three-game losing streak in November and a 31–10 loss to Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl. Auburn took away Lynch’s screen game, and covered his receivers tightly on every play in his college finale, giving Lynch a taste of what might happen at the next level.
Lynch notes that it didn’t help that Memphis coach Justin Fuente had left for the top job at Virginia Tech at the end of the regular season, but it was a good lesson for the next level, where every quarterback struggles at some point.
“The best thing is to keep a level head through whatever good things are going on and whatever bad things are going on,” he says. “You’ve just got to keep your head down and keep working through it, and keep guys on the right track."
That signature win over Ole Miss featured enough highs and lows in one afternoon to take center stage when we discussed his talent and his future this week.
Doug Farrar: Down 14–0, what are you telling your teammates? Because that’s where leadership comes in, and it’s what you need to do as the quarterback.
Paxton Lynch: My biggest thing was keeping those guys on track. Our defense was going to figure it out sooner or later, and we knew that, so whenever we got the opportunity, we needed to jump on it. We needed to keep our heads in the game and keep trucking.
DF: It was the fourth time in the first half of the season Memphis had come back from a deficit of 10 points or more. What was it about that team that allowed you to be so resilient, and how do you think you’ll carry that resilient nature to the NFL?
PL: I just see myself as the kind of person who’s never out of it, no matter what, and you can always keep working. We showed that this season, when we were down by a bunch of points, just rallying the troops and getting them going in the right direction.
DF: I wanted to ask you about your offense: There’s a ton of backfield action, a lot of sweeps, you’re on the move a lot on boot-action and QB runs. I think it’s a lot more complex than people may assume, especially in the backfield. Based on your interactions with NFL teams, how do you think Memphis’s offense has specifically prepared you for the next level?
PL: We did so much stuff that I got a taste of everything. I got a chance to drop back, I got a chance to move the pocket, I got a chance to handle protections. I checked out of runs and into passes. I got under center and ran naked bootlegs and power. We did a little bit of everything, and I think that's going to help me prepare for the NFL.
DF: How much of what happened at the line of scrimmage was on you, as far as coming to the line with multiple plays, calling audibles, calling protections and things like that?
PL: Going into the week, we’d have some plays specifically game-planned to where I would control them, and some where the sideline would control them. But that was week-to-week, and however we planned it.
DF: Did that ratio change for teams like Ole Miss, where you might see better athletes running more advanced concepts?
PL: Yeah, it would just depend on how we thought they would play some things, and how we wanted to handle it with me at the line of scrimmage or not.
DF: Well, let’s get to this game, the one that put you on the map.
Play 1: 13:18 left in the first quarter
DF: This sack early in the first quarter had me wondering what you saw. You move up in the pocket, roll to your left, seem to have an open receiver, and then everything breaks down. This surprised me, because you’re mobile, and you can throw on the run. What were you seeing here, and what was the planned play before the pressure?
PL: Before I got flushed out of the pocket, this was an example of one of our dropback plays. It was a curl/flat concept, and we were working the curl away from the backside safety. But I got flushed out and I was running, and there was a receiver right there. But he was in between what he was doing [in his route], and I wasn’t sure what he was doing, and I didn’t want to just throw the ball with him taking off in another direction and have somebody intercept it. So, that’s why I was hesitant to throw it, and that linebacker just kind of flew up on me.
DF: In a case like this, should you motion a receiver to alter his route and break with you as you run? As much as you run boot-action and roll out of the pocket, do you have signals or terminology to tell your receivers to do that in a general sense?
PL: Most of our stuff was pre-determined in how we were going to do it. There wasn’t a lot of on-the-fly motion where he would go where I went.
Play 2: 2:20 left in the first quarter
DF: This is an example of your mobility, which people seem to think is surprising for someone your size. Straight boot-action here, and then you extend the play on an eventual touchdown pass to tight end Alan Cross. This looks like a flood concept to the right, where you also have receiver Tevin Jones open in the back of the end zone. Is this kind of flood a common construct for you in the red zone? What are your keys on this play as far as when to throw to who as you’re rolling out?
PL: Yeah, this was our Strip [flood] concept, and we just read it low-to-high. We fake the run and run the bootleg off of it. We didn’t really use it a lot in the red zone unless we were using the bootleg stuff. We were selling the run-action, and our first look was to Alan in the flat. The second look was to the corner, and the third look was to the over route on the back side. But the corner route ... he didn’t really run the best route. That’s what messed it up, because there was no spacing between the two—they were both getting covered by the same guy.
DF: You’re getting backside pressure on this play. How does extending the play affect how you read things?
PL: We knew with this play that we were going to have a guy free off the edge, so you take the ball, get your eyes around and get the ball out. That’s why I kept running, because I knew there was going to be a guy free off the edge. And once the play gets strung out like that you go back to your closer read, especially in the red zone. It’s something we worked on in practice, scrambling to keep the play alive.
Play 3: 0:46 left in the first half
DF: This is an interesting play out of a full-house backfield, which again shows how diverse your offense was, and you make a bang-on throw deep to Mose Frazier here for a 17-yard gain. According to Pro Football Focus, you completed 26 of 57 passes traveling 20 yards or more in the air last season for 960 yards, seven touchdowns and one pick. But your deep throws made up just 12.6% of your total attempts, which is below the average for top-ranked quarterbacks in this class. Given your ability to throw it deep, would you have liked to air it out more? It seems it’s kind of set up for that, as much as you run play action.
PL: I know we took our fair share of shots, getting the ball downfield. But in our offense, we didn’t take too many, and when we did, they were big plays. We strategically took shots when we knew they were there. We didn’t really do that consecutively—not a lot of teams do that unless they’re Air Raid teams.
DF: What was their coverage here, and when did you know that Frazier was going to be open downfield?
PL: Pre-snap, whenever we motioned that guy [receiver Anthony Miller] to the backfield, we saw the safety bring himself into the box and take himself out of the play. So, we knew we were going to have that one-on-one shot with Mose as long as the alley defender—the SAM backer—didn’t get involved. We had the run-action fake to keep him tucked in the box and hesitant for a little bit. Once we saw it was zone coverage with the corner playing soft, Mose could keep that route on, and we knew we had them.
DF: As many of these motions and fake sweeps as you ran—and you ran as many as anyone I’ve seen—what are you looking to get out of the defense before the snap? Are you looking to see what the coverage is, or which defenders can be manipulated by the pre-snap action?
PL: Mostly, we’re just throwing off the defense, giving them different looks and getting to the formations that we know, but doing it in a bunch of different ways. Just confusing the defense, because they have to make calls and communicate and move whenever they see the motion. We’re really just throwing them off and trying to mess with their eyes.
DF: Pre-snap for you, if your thought is zone or man or I-don’t-know, but you then see from the motion that it’s one or the other, does that affect the routes and the reads at all?
PL: It really depends on the play and what the concept is.
Play 4: 11:41 left in the third quarter
DF: Love this play, where you boot out a little bit, come back to the front side against what looks like off coverage and throw a 31-yard touchdown dart to Frazier. Are you rolling out right away here to get a clearer field? Do you tend to roll out to certain places or in certain ways based on pressure tendencies in a game? And what were your reads against this coverage? The fact that you’re getting clear for more time tells me that the deep route is the plan all the way.
PL: Yeah, this was one of our called shots. We were going to take a shot, no matter what. We had two go routes on the outside on both sides, and we were running a play-action fake to get depth and move the pocket and buy ourselves some time. We were really trying to work this to Miller at the bottom of the screen—that’s who it was designed to go to—and every time we ran this play in a game or in practice, I never once threw it to the back side. This was the first time, but what got me back there was seeing that the cornerback was way off as I came out of my fake. I was going to look at Mose before I threw it away, and I trusted Mose. We had the connection, and I gave him the shot.
DF: Vernon Adams recently told me that at Oregon, they’d circle a couple of defenders per game that they wanted to exploit. Is that something you did, as well?
PL: Yeah, we did. But going into this game, we figured that we could take our chances on the outside with our receivers.
Play 5: 7:19 left in the fourth quarter
DF: As important as it is to have the accuracy and velocity to fit the ball into tight windows at the NFL level, touch matters, too. This pass to tight end Daniel Montiel in the fourth quarter certainly illustrates your understanding of that. How often do you work on knowing just how much to take off the ball in certain situations?
PL: We work on that a lot. Basically, every day at practice, we’re challenging ourselves with different throws. When to throw it with touch, and when to throw it with zip.
DF: How were you reading this? It’s pretty congested to the play side, but you do have a back-side out opening up.
PL: This is like the play we talked about in the red zone, just with a different look. We’re going low-to-high, we had a guy in the flat, a guy in the corner, and an over route from the back side. So read it low to high, and if you have the flat right away, take it. If not, go from the corner route to the over route.
DF: What do you think this game showed people about you?
PL: Everybody knew this was our shot to shine. If we won this game, we’d get the respect we wanted. And that’s how I felt. It was the prime setting for a coming-out party, and that’s how I approached it.
DF: There’s a lot of talk about you as the third-best quarterback in the 2016 draft class, though some analysts and teams may have you higher or lower depending on their preferences. But it's basically you, Jared Goff, and Carson Wentz in whatever order. What would you say if asked why you’re the best quarterback in this class? Because I assume you believe you are.
PL: Everybody has their own unique skill sets, but size-wise and with athletic ability and arm talent, I just don’t think I’m comparable to the other quarterbacks. This is something I’ve wanted to do my whole life, and the work ethic I’ll bring to a team—the relentlessness and the experiences I’ve been through at Memphis—you don’t get that experience unless you go through stuff like that. Bringing that to a team, other than my athletic ability, is second to none. And my work ethic could be one of the greatest of all time, because that’s what I want to be. I’m going to do whatever I have to do to do that.