Courtesy of Yale Athletics
The Yale football team are used to having a vibrant quarterback room. One can look back nearly three years to see this unfold on October 19, 2018, when the Bulldogs found themselves in a fierce battle against Penn.
Needing 10 yards to get a first try, star quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 rushed elusively to the sideline. Before he could get out of bounds, Rawlings was greeted by a charging Quaker who awkwardly tackled the Maryland native to the ground. The Yale starting quarterback had just suffered a season-ending leg injury.
The state of mind of the next Bulldogs player, who had already kept the Blues and Whites afloat before Rawlings fell out of the way of running back Zane Dudek ’22, would be fully visible in the games to come. After experiencing Jimmy Check ’21 and Patrick Conte ’22 as quarterback, head coach Tony Reno decided to hand the offensive reins to then-rookie Griffin O’Connor ’23 for the three last games of the season.
O’Connor then amassed 1,229 passing yards and eight touchdowns, breaking a school one-game Yale record with 465 passing yards in a clash against Princeton undefeated in the process. For that, the native of California took home the honors of the rookie of the year of the Ivy League. Despite O’Connor’s Herculean effort, the Bulldogs only went 1-2 in his three games and finished the year 3-4 against opponents from Ancient Eight.
After a successful rehab in the offseason after his leg injury, Rawlings entered 2019 as the squad’s undisputed starter, where he then rewrote Yale’s record book himself en route to securing a second. Ivy League title in three years.
“Kurt has been such a great role model and a great friend to me over the past few years,” said O’Connor. “Particularly during my second year in 2019, I felt that the competition in this [quarterback] room served the team extremely well. … I think you saw it in my freshman year, when I had to replace Kurt after his injury, and I still have the same mindset and motivation to compete this year.
This year, O’Connor made his highly anticipated debut as a full-time starting quarterback for Team 148 against Holy Cross. Reno, however, had something new up his sleeve. Alternate quarterback Nolan Grooms ’24 saw extended playing action, leading a field goal in the third quarter to tie the game. Grooms finished the game with three attempted passes, six rushes and a number of other snaps from the field, including one on wide receiver.
The following week against Cornell, Grooms appeared in just four games throughout the match. All of his shots came in the first offensive possessions of the first quarter and only one was a passing game. After O’Connor appeared to settle into the game in the second quarter, Grooms never returned.
“With that in mind, as I look at the quarterback now, we have some great players like Nolan Grooms that you will see a lot on the pitch this year,” said O’Connor. “I think that will prepare us to always have a guy ready.”
A double quarterback program is relatively new to the NFL, but it has clearly sparked the interest of Bulldogs coaching staff. A fitting comparison, first made by coach Reno at a post-Holy Cross press conference, is the New Orleans Saints’ package with Taysom Hill and now-retired Drew Brees, who took shape during the 2018 NFL season.
“We looked at our roster and said, ‘How can we better present the guys that we have who we think can really help the team succeed? ”Reno said. “We looked at Brees and Hill and said, ‘Okay, it’s pretty interesting what the Saints are doing with these guys, where they don’t run quarters but they use them in situations where they feel like. their skills can better help the team. “
To that end, the Elis made sure their wide receivers were exposed in both quarters.
“In practice we are able to feel comfortable with both quarterbacks,” said wide receiver Mason Tipton ’24. “We’re getting a lot of reps with these two guys. These two guys are ridiculously talented to be on the pitch. I think it actually helps the flow of the offense when you consider what the two can do. Especially as a receiver, I know both can really get the job done. I think over time it will get a lot better as both will get more experience just by being there. I think over time it will work very well for our attack.
Hill first signed with the Green Bay Packers in 2017 as an undrafted free agent from Brigham Young University. He was unable to stay at Green Bay and was removed on September 2 as the Packers reduced their roster to 53 players. The Saints demanded waivers from Hill the next day.
Over the following seasons, the Saints began to deploy Hill in a variety of unique roles. He played on special teams, blocking a punt in 2019, caught a Brees touchdown as a tight end and got some opportunities as a passer.
The most unique part of what Yale has shown so far is the lack of time the quarterbacks have shared on the pitch. In two games, Grooms and O’Connor rarely took the field together, but the Bulldogs featured a play in the Holy Cross game with Grooms sidelined and O’Connor under center.
The Elis have two quarterbacks on the field together, with Nolan Grooms lined up as the slot receiver on the left side.
The Saints started the trend, but the rest of the league quickly started to catch up. Comparisons might be better made with the Eagles’ use of Jalen Hurts and Carson Wentz in 2020, which has extended to the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears this year.
The Eagles controversially drafted Hurts in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. The team had just committed $ 128 million to Wentz, whom they had drafted second five years earlier.
“With Jalen Hurts he has a unique skill set,” former Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said after the selection. “You see what Taysom Hill did in New Orleans, and now he and Drew Brees have a connection there and a connection there, and you even watch when [Joe] Flacco and Lamar [Jackson] in Baltimore in no time – how they gelled. It’s just something we’re going to explore.
Pederson and the Eagles coaching staff slowly began to turn Hurts into games, ultimately giving him action without Wentz on the field. As the season progressed and Wentz’s game waned, Hurts started to see more game action and eventually took over. Wentz called for a trade in the next offseason and the Eagles transferred him to the Indianapolis Colts.
Hurts played in nine of 12 games before replacing Wentz full-time, but only threw the ball three times. The Eagles preferred to take advantage of his ability to run with football, giving him 12 chances to do so while still the substitute and targeting him once in the air. The bride and groom, like Hurts in 2020, were more likely to run the ball this year than to wreak havoc with her arm.
This year, other NFL teams have followed the Eagles’ lead and started turning backup quarterbacks into action. Namely, the 49ers with Trey Lance.
The Niners drafted Lance from North Dakota State with the fourth overall pick in last year’s NFL Draft. In an almost identical situation to the Bulldogs’ use of Grooms, the 49ers sprinkled Lance into their offense during the opening quarter of Game 1 of the season. Lance had three rushed runs and threw his team’s first touchdown in 2021. The 49ers held him off the field the following week.
After the Niners’ game opener, former NFL quarterback and Fox Sports colors commentator Mark Sanchez sympathized with 49ers starter Jimmy Garoppolo. “It’s one of the hardest things for a quarterback, I have to say. When you convert on a first try and your replacement comes in, you can’t get into a rhythm. It ended up being Lance’s only assist of the game.
“It’s always an option throughout the game,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said after week two. “It’s been two games and I’ve never had it in the first few games and I’ve never had it at one point. I plan to do this week after week and whenever I feel like putting it on. You saw it when I did it the first week and I never had that urge the second week.
Reno gave a similar rationale for his double quarterback schedule after Elis’s victory over Cornell.
“There are a lot of things that come into play, a lot of situational things,” Reno said. “When you’re in some of these situations where we can really take advantage of what Nolan can do on the pitch, we will. If we don’t find ourselves in these situations, we are not going to force them. So some games you could see more of it, some games you could see less. Nolan is a hell of a player and has made a huge contribution to the team and these opportunities and situations will arise. We’ll just take them in stride.
O’Connor, Grooms and the Bulldogs take on Lehigh this Saturday at 12 p.m. in Bethlehem, Pa.