Loaded 2024 NFL QB Draft Class Is More Than Just Caleb Williams

Bo Nix, Michael Penix and Jayden Daniels’s paths to the pros are emblematic of the modern college signal-caller.
Kohjiro Kinno/Sports Illustrated

Implanted under the NFL logo on certain Wilson footballs is a piece of tracking technology produced by a company called Zebra. About the size of a nickel, the chip is gunmetal in color and has an etched likeness of the firm’s namesake animal on the front, along with a tag number.

The league uses this technology for different purposes, including the powering of its advanced statistical arm, NextGenStats, which provides users with details about player speed, ball speed, route trajectory and yards a ball actually spends flying through the air. Zebra also sells individual chipped balls to a handful of teams, including the Bears, Rams, Packers, Vikings and Eagles. (The company says it has 12 total NFL clients but was only allowed to name five.)

The chip can track the ball’s spin rate; a higher number tends to be more desirable for a team that more regularly plays in terrible weather, yielding a tighter spiral that cuts through the air despite lake effect winds in Buffalo or a monsoon in Seattle. Because the technology is still in its relative infancy, though, any trends or knowledge accumulated by NFL teams with access to the data are kept quiet and considered a competitive advantage. 

“Teams don’t like telling us what they do with the data,” says Dominic Russo, the supervisor for Zebra’s client services.

Austin Reed is a draft hopeful quarterback from Western Kentucky whose status could be positively impacted by such technology. Reed is 24, having originally committed to Southern Illinois in 2018, then transferring to Division II West Florida one year later before joining the Hilltoppers in 2022. Like many collegiate quarterbacks, he has shuttled through the NCAA system with a handful of well-meaning coaches but was left to develop some of his technical quarterbacking skills privately. Most NCAA programs lack the resources to train quarterbacks in a hyper-specific manner, so their lifting routines, stretching routines, throwing routines and diet are analogous to those playing far different positions. Progress can plateau.

Reed had the chance to test his spin rate before his final year of college (with a different company, as a Zebra spokesman said it would not have tested a college underclassman) and had it registered in the mid-500 RPMs. After receiving some individual coaching in each of the last two offseasons and having his form diagnosed with a stop-motion camera, Reed learned that his grip was not maximizing his ability to spin the football properly. His pinky finger nudged inward a few centimeters, contributing to what’s called Waiter’s Wrist. A few tweaks to the rigidity of his wrist and his pre-snap stance upped his spin rate into the mid-600s.

“Spin rate is a really good indicator of proper mechanics,” says Reed’s trainer, Will Hewlett of QB Collective. “You want guys in the mid 600s, being able to spin it consistently.” 

Hewlett trained 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy. He says that Reed is this year’s version, meaning, a late-round quarterback who possesses high-end potential due to late-blossoming mechanics plus a vast amount of experience. Hewlett also trains the presumptive No. 1 overall pick, USC’s Caleb Williams. 

Watching Reed and Williams throw one day on a field in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., the figurative distance between the two could not be greater. Williams stands to make more than $40 million. Reed—who’s no financial slouch, having struck an NIL deal at West Florida with a local fitness store called Running Wild—will likely have to compete for a roster spot in training camp. 

But how much better equipped is Williams to win football games than Reed?

Consider the state of modern college quarterbacking: 

  • The technology, like Zebra’s, and private coaching, like Hewlett’s, is better and more accessible than ever. It has become standard practice for quarterbacks to work with their own coaches, even throughout a collegiate career in which they have a full-time staff at school. As soon as quarterbacks reach their early teens, they’re being put through slow-motion camera analysis to optimize their mechanics. As private training becomes almost a prerequisite, the knowledge base of position-specific trainers is expanding and refining, making it so, as Hewlett says, sophomores and juniors in high school can throw with his college and NFL quarterbacks and not look like they are interrupting the drills. 
  • Because of the transfer portal and NIL money, quarterbacks are staying in school longer, transferring more and amassing a higher volume of reps, which allows them to build a larger Rolodex of on-field occurrences to draw on at the next level. They have to win over new coaches and players at a faster clip, similar to life they will experience in the NFL, and they are exposed to a wider variety of offensive schemes and play calling styles. 
  • And, finally, at the NFL level, coordinators and head coaches are becoming quicker to adapt their own schemes to fit what a quarterback does well. Baker Mayfield and Geno Smith, both players who were seemingly headed to eternal backup purgatory, signed huge over the last two seasons due to friendly concepts that reenergized their careers. “[Coaches] are not being quite as rigid,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid says. “We’re all happy that guys are throwing more at the college level, so once they get into the league, you want to find some things you know they can do.”  

Now ask yourself: If you’ve missed out on the supposed generational quarterback at the top of the draft, how much are you really missing out? Sure, Patrick Mahomes was the No. 10 pick in 2017, but his counterpart in Super Bowl LVIII was Purdy, the last pick in ’22. In an effort to explain the phenomenon, Sports Illustrated met with Bo Nix of Oregon, Michael Penix of Washington and Jayden Daniels of LSU, along with trainers, NFL coaches and general managers in an attempt to patch together the burgeoning story of the modern college quarterback. Across the country, there are plenty of signal callers not named Caleb Williams who have mastered the elongated, serpentine route to the NFL, riding a tailwind of hard-earned experience, technology and complementary coaching, the full power of which we may finally start to realize at the next level. 

It’s fair for them to start wondering: Why not us? 

Kohjiro Kinno/Sports Illustrated

Michael Penix slides a cell phone across a steakhouse table, avoiding the remnants of an elite burger—medium well, add bacon, no veggies—he has just devoured. On his phone is a video of the Washington-Oregon game from 2022. Penix has already cued up the exact play: third-and-7, with a little more than three minutes to go, the Huskies trailing by a touchdown on their own 38-yard line. Penix called a play that Washington had run two times earlier in the game. He had never once—not even in practice—thrown the ball deep on the play. Against Oregon, he had twice thrown a quick out to the inside slot receiver. 

But this time, Penix noticed the cornerback guarding the wide receiver all the way to his left in a “bail” technique (a cornerback’s backside is facing the sideline, which helps them cover deep routes and keeps the wideout in front of them). As he took the snap, Penix noted how the cornerback’s shoulders squared towards the backfield, signifying a change in intention. Instantly, he knew he would have a short window of time to connect with the streaking receiver he’d never thrown to on the play before. 

The ball he threw passed low over the safety’s head like a city pigeon, forcing the defender to awkwardly torque his body and start trying—unsuccessfully—to prevent a touchdown.  

This moment is a great example of how Penix’s six-year college career with multiple stops—at Indiana before Washington—led to a point where he could read defenses naturally, despite having little background in football schematics coming out of high school. In the past, a quarterback with Penix’s athleticism and arm talent may have been able to simply crowd surf his way to the NFL without learning the subtleties of the game, and then suffer for it. 

Penix began his high school football career at Tampa Bay Technical High where he says his athleticism curbed the necessity for much of a playbook. Unlike many of his peers, he didn’t have a personal trainer (his dad used to make him do power cleans). He saw two different defensive coverages in four years. “Backyard football,” Penix says. “We had plays but I can count them on both hands. We didn’t study. We didn’t watch film in high school. We went out there and played. We didn’t have the resources to watch film.” 

With the Hoosiers, Penix compensated for that lack of knowledge by getting to know his receivers. The playbook was still spartan, but he began to piece together ideas based on what he knew about his best pass catchers. Four verticals? I’m going to this guy. Crossers? I’m looking somewhere else. 

Penix led Indiana to its highest AP poll ranking since the 1960s and was named the team’s MVP in 2020. In 13 games in his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons, he threw for 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions with a quarterback rating in the 140s. None of his wide receivers during that time were drafted. 

That experience was a valuable precursor to his time at Washington, where he learned how to watch film and begin diagnosing plays like the one against Oregon. “I learned that the film just shows you the tendencies,” he says. “Things that defenses do to give you a better chance. It’s a head start, really.”

The Huskies’ offense wasn’t nearly as run-dependent and the team around him was better: Three of Penix’s wide receivers, two of his tight ends, one of his running backs and both of his offensive tackles were invited to the 2024 scouting combine. (But he says with confidence, “I helped elevate their game, too.”)

Like someone who was dropped into another country and forced to learn a language, Penix came out of his new environment more well-rounded. Six seasons. Four offensive coordinators. Forty-nine games. One thousand, six hundred and eighty-five passing attempts. Call it a graduate football education. 

Kohjiro Kinno/Sports Illustrated

Bo Nix has a favorite NIV bible verse for adversity.  

Colossians 3:23 says: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, for we are working for the Lord, not human masters.” 

There is a difference between having a verse to call on, and needing one to develop. Nix uses this as a kind of personal ethos when the squeeze of Football, Inc. becomes too tight. When asked about the most difficult stretch of his college career, and hearing it through Nix’s Southern twang, one might think they are listening to an NCAA country song. “Was benched my junior year, then started playing good, beat LSU for the first time [in Death Valley since 1999], broke my ankle and transferred,” he says. “So, there’s a lot.” 

Nix turned 24 following the completion of his final year at Oregon, bookending a career that began at Auburn with a start against the Ducks’ Justin Herbert, who has four seasons of NFL experience. He talks about his quarterbacking path with perspective. 

Last season Nix threw for 45 touchdowns, three interceptions and a quarterback rating of 188.3, while breaking the NCAA single-season record for completion percentage (77.4). He leaves behind an archive of wild, theatrical plays, including a final-play, 26-yard touchdown to beat Herbert. 

Nix has been working in the elite quarterback camp circuits since his sophomore year of high school and has been with the training group QB Country for the past few offseasons, where he spends at least an hour a day looking at what private coach David Morris calls his “stroke.” Nix has every throw filmed from multiple angles and the speeds cataloged. The upshot of the yearslong process was that he completely reformed himself from a big “ripper,” who would lock his lead leg and foot during a throw. The change helped him develop an uncanny short-range accuracy, which could be seen in a 19.8 percentage point increase in his completion percentage between his first and last college seasons. Nix went from being a 5-star wunderkind known for his cannon, to the collegiate equivalent of Drew Brees. “I don’t know if there’s ever been another quarterback that made that kind of jump in accuracy,” says Morris, whose professional client roster includes Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe, Davis Mills and Daniel Jones. 

Nix got so good at identifying different coverages after six years in the NCAA that, he says, he can almost sense a Cover 0—a defense that removes deep safeties over the top of a defense, often by a rotation just before the snap—simply by observing a cornerback’s demeanor. How are they standing? Where are their eyes moving? Morris says that Nix has seen so many plays that he’s developed an almost superhuman ability to avoid chaos in the pocket while keeping the play timing down. During Nix’s pro day, Morris specifically scripted a bunch of awkward-looking movements to showcase Nix’s strange arsenal of dodges and jukes. 

But it’s hearing about Nix’s personal revelations that make his journey seem so valuable. Keep in mind that, during Nix’s final season at Oregon, he was almost six years older than the school’s incoming freshman class. Such age disparity produces plenty of, as Morris said, “come-to-Jesus moments where you question things.”  

“It was important for me to understand what someone’s background was,” Nix says. “They might be freshmen and have a completely different perspective than me. I didn’t talk to someone who gave me all the answers. I learned a lot myself. And I saw in myself other guys who had been there, transferred, moved and started from scratch.”

Nix had to learn elements of emotional intelligence that many adults don’t know. Chief among them: knowing when people don’t want you around. 

“They don’t necessarily want to hang out with me,” Nix says. “They want to do fun things. They want to have a blast. They don’t want to hang out with the old guy. That’s how I felt when I was their age. Experience campus. But when you’ve been in it like me, you want to hang out, get your work done, be mellow, be low key.” 

This process of connection would manifest itself in different ways. Nix, for example, almost exclusively listens to Christian worship music. He embraced the Ducks’ changing soundtrack because it produced a comfort in others.

“Some guys like rap music, R&B, some of it’s good and some of it I don’t necessarily care for,” Nix says. “But if it’s good for them and helps them get going, let’s do it. We can be on the same page with that.” 

It’s Nix’s belief that most natural born quarterbacks have some innate ability to care about the greater good and a curiosity about human dynamics. He started feeling that pull within himself in middle school, following his father, Patrick, a former Auburn quarterback and football coach, through eight different stops before the tandem worked together at Pinson Valley High School. Fitting in was a survival mechanism that he had time to hone through his college experience. Five seasons. Four offensive coordinators. Sixty-one games. One thousand, nine hundred and thirty-six passing attempts. One broken ankle. One public benching. Call it a lesson in humility and grit. 

Kohjiro Kinno/Sports Illustrated

Jayden Daniels sat back on the sofa and extended his hands as he tried to explain the virtual reality goggles. The tech was called Cognilize, and, as Daniels understood it, LSU was the only team in the country with access to it. The German-crafted specs looked like Tesla was making metal shop protective eyewear. Attached was a handheld controller. Most afternoons, he would stand inside the Tigers’ practice facility and disappear into a simulation, while another staffer plugged scenarios into an iPad. Inside the headset was a Tigers huddle. Daniels saw through the eyes of his digital avatar, and looked out into an exact replica of the stadium he’d be playing in that coming weekend. He saw his teammates. He saw the defense, shifting and aligning just like his opponents. He fielded the play, took a snap, starting a clock that gave him two seconds to make a read. Daniels always had the tech dialed up to the hardest setting. All that was missing was the pain rippling through his body when the virtual defender blind sided him.  

“Very realistic,” he says.  

At that moment, it’s impossible not to see it. Sitting next to Daniels, one cannot help but believe they are in the presence of someone who has already experienced a lifetime of football. The transition from college to the NFL is like hitting a brick wall at 160 miles per hour for some. For Daniels? It’s going to be one of those residential speed bumps installed by the HOA. His journey has produced someone who can walk coolly like an old Western sheriff, disarm like a skilled therapist and hang out like your high school lunch table.

Among the habits he developed on his own, out of necessity, over a collegiate career that spanned two schools (Arizona State being the first) that directly correlate with early success in the NFL: 

  • Daniels regularly takes his offensive linemen out to dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
  • He wakes up at 5 a.m. in season (6:45 now during the pre-draft process) each morning to take in an early film session before a set of pre-programmed meals, meetings, naps and body recovery sessions. 
  • He learned the interpersonal skills it took to relate to a group of players at LSU who, he felt, were completely different from those at Arizona State—while also negotiating other drastic changes, like the weather and the intense fans and the inability to hop in a car and drive home to San Bernardino, Calif., when he needed comfort. “I was getting used to different people,” Daniels says. “The guys at LSU were intense. They had a lot of energy. They were raised differently. Out in the West Coast, everyone is cool and calm. There was a big difference.

“I had to grow more as a man. I was getting comfortable being uncomfortable. I was by myself. In the South, no one is going to drive out there to see me. Ticket prices are high. I had to figure out who I was, and I had more time to reflect out there.”  

  • He developed an NFL-style collaboration process with LSU offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock that streamlined play calling and highlighted his best throws: routes outside the numbers, in-cuts and deep shots.  
  • He implemented a mechanical tweak to his throwing motion discovered by a stop motion camera, which identified Daniels leaning too far forward at the time of release. By fixing it, he could unlock a more violent, catapulting follow through. His passes no longer died in midair. 

Daniels was quick to recall the moment it all came together for him. The moment he knew the value of the path, of the tech, of the loneliness, of the studying, of the endless slog of Saturdays. Mississippi State. Second quarter. LSU is leading 10–0, and going for it on fourth-and-7. 

When Daniels was 18, he said he was just waddling to the line of scrimmage hoping to survive. Now he was diagnosing. He was instilling fear, not receiving it. Over the past half decade, football had changed the way he threw, thought, ate, slept and acted when he was around other people. After he underwent the technological throwing assessment a few years back, fixed his mechanics and felt his first perfect release, he said he knew what it was like to be Steph Curry during those logo three point attempts that seemed so perfect that he’d turn away from the basket, not needing any confirmation that the shot was good. 

Daniels sees man coverage and quickly internalizes the thought that he’s about to take a body shot from a Bulldogs defensive tackle. He plans to use his peripheral vision to track the progress of his impending pain and the rest of his sightline on his receiver, Malik Nabers, who will dominate man coverage in almost any situation. 

As he clapped his hands, received the snap and took two steps backward, as his right arm whipped skyward, we saw the culmination of a process—even if Daniels didn’t, having been smashed to the turf as Nabers hauled in a perfectly thrown ball in the Bulldogs’ end zone.

That process seems like the new normal to many NFL general managers. But there are a few who aren't convinced the path taken by Daniels so many of his cohorts is the KOMINGest (best?)

Says Packers GM Brian Gutekunst: “Certainly, the amount of time and games you’ve played in college does equate to success at times, and over my time in the league that's gone down a lot. Quarterbacks are coming out earlier and with less starts. Exposure to different schemes can be helpful, but knowing one scheme inside and out at a high level would be more important.” 

And Eliot Wolf, the new general manager of the Patriots: “I don’t know that there’s a benefit or a hindrance. Every person and every situation is different. There’s something to be said about a person who has grown and developed in the same scheme for four or five years . But, there’s something to be said for those who have had all that exposure, and had to deal with changing schemes and changing staffs.” 

The definitive proof may end up being in the class of 2024, in Reed, in Penix, in Nix, and in Daniels.

Here’s to science, the chipped balls and the cameras. Here’s to the pile of playbooks, all different team colors, piling up in the corner of the room. Here’s to embracing the car wash of discomfort the NCAA now shuttles them all through. Here’s to the people standing—literally and figuratively—behind the one prospect everyone blesses and anoints patiently waiting their turn, no one understanding what it took to get there.

Five seasons. Three offensive coordinators. Fifty-five games. One thousand, four hundred and thirty-eight passing attempts. Call it the new normal.

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Clare Brennan