All North Dakota State GIFs in this post courtesy of JustBombProductions.
When Chris Klieman arrived at North Dakota State in 2011 as the team’s defensive backs coach, he would watch the scout team offense run against his players during practices. One player, a big, rangy freshman quarterback named Carson Wentz, kept making plays that stuck with him. He could extend plays with his legs, running past defenders with ease and, occasionally, running right over them.
"Even as a scout team quarterback," Klieman told Bleeding Green Nation, "I knew he had tremendous mobility and athleticism."
Three years later, Klieman was hired as North Dakota State’s head coach, and Wentz was entering his junior year as the Bison’s starting quarterback. Klieman had hired Tim Polasek as his offensive coordinator with a purpose.
Polasek, who had worked with Jordan Lynch, another hyper-mobile quarterback at Northern Illinois, thought he could bring some of his offensive ideas to North Dakota State to use with Wentz and the Bison’s power run game. He was right.
In 23 games as a starter, Wentz ran the ball 201 times for 936 yards, a 4.7 yards per carry average, and scored 12 touchdowns on the ground.
On Wednesday, Doug Pederson told reporters the Eagles’ move to Wentz as the team’s starter opened a section of his playbook that, with Sam Bradford, wasn’t previously available.
"Utilizing Carson's strengths (and) obviously his ability to run," Pederson said, "we know him over Sam, there's the ability to run and it may open up a run or two there that we can utilize."
In order to get a sense of the way Wentz could be used on the run, I talked to Klieman about the way he used Wentz as a running quarterback at North Dakota State.
The team’s favorite way to get Wentz on the move, he said, was what they call the power sweep play. Here’s an example:
"The biggest way we took advantage of it was with our designed run plays, where we were giving it to the running back out of the shotgun," Klieman explained. "We made those same pictures, and then were able to fake that run. Against Montana a couple times last year, the first game of the season, we would show run by pulling the guard and giving it to the tailback. Well, then we’d fake giving it to the tailback and pull the guard the other way, or pull the tight end the other way, and go around the corner and around the end with Carson."
Here’s another example of the power sweep play Klieman was talking about, in that Montana game:
And now, this second play was designed for Alex Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs last season, when Doug Pederson was the offensive coordinator:
Maybe it’s just me (it’s not), but those plays looked mighty similar.
Doug Pederson was the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator last season, when Smith ran that ball in for a touchdown against the Bills. Last season, as Rachel G. Bowers of the Boston Globe pointed out in January, Smith piled up the fourth-most rushing yards of any quarterback in the league. He finished the year with 84 carries for 498 yards, amassing an excellent 5.9 yards per carry average.
As Bowers pointed out, Smith had plenty of success running on the edge last year:
More than 41 percent of Smith’s runs came on the ends, which resulted in 222 yards and included nine of his 14 runs that went for 10 or more yards. Though the majority of his runs were between 3 and 5 yards, Smith averaged 7.4 yards on the end, which is also where one of his two touchdowns came from.
Smith was slightly quicker coming out of college (4.71) than Wentz, but it’s fair to guess 31-year-old Alex Smith isn’t faster than 23-year-old Wentz. The kinds of runs Pederson and Andy Reid were drawing up for Smith last season can be used for Wentz, too.
"He had the speed, at the college level, to be able to get outside," Klieman said. "I think in the NFL it’s going to allow him to keep some plays alive, whether it’s by scrambling, or being able to pick up a third-and-short by being able to run the football."
When talking about having a quarterback run, of course, you’re also talking about exposing him to injury. Pederson was quick to address that potential problem on Wednesday.
"[Wentz] understands that in this day in age the football game, and especially with the run-pass options that teams are doing, defenses are attacking quarterbacks in that manner, and that's just the style that you're seeing," Pederson said. "We've communicated that to him – myself, John [DeFilippo], Frank [Reich] – that you have to protect yourself at all costs, whether it's a run or a pass."
Klieman, who watched Wentz out-muscle and out-run opponents in college, knows Wentz won’t be able to do the same thing at the next level if he wants to stay healthy for an entire season.
"In the college game he probably could out-run some of those guys. He’s not going to be able to do that at the NFL level," Klieman said. "He even ran through a lot of people at our level, and that’s not going to happen at that next level.
"I know Carson’s a smart enough kid, and understands how valuable the quarterback position is in the NFL. I think he will get down, I think he will slide, and I think he will go out of bounds to protect himself."
Still, Wentz has shown too much promise as a quarterback on the move to not experiment with it was a weapon in Pederson’s offense.
"We knew [Wentz] had tremendous speed, because we see him every day, and I saw him every day for five years. When he got in the open, nobody caught the kid," Klieman said. "For his size, at 6-foot-5, 237 pounds, you just don’t see that very often where somebody can out-run you. He was always able to do that."
Last year, in a story from the Kansas City Star’s Terez A. Paylor, Pederson said he likes a quarterback who scares defenses with a running threat because it helps the quarterback, and the offense, with their run-pass options at the line of scrimmage.
The Eagles were bullish on Wentz during the draft process for plenty of reasons. I’d bet his potential as a quarterback with the ability to run the ball was very, very high on Doug Pederson’s list. Now, we’ll get to see that ability deployed.