HokieNation was surprised when, late in the recruiting process, quarterback Chris Durkin switched his commitment from Michigan State to the Hokies. Durkin is a 6-foot-3-inch, 230 pound quarterback prospect who played high school ball at Ursuline in Youngstown, Ohio. He was a late target for Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. Without stepping foot in Blacksburg, Durkin changed his commitment because Loeffler indicated he would have the opportunity to compete for playing time early in his career.
As a junior, Durkin threw for 887 yards and 6 touchdowns and rushed for 722 yards and 7 scores. Despite suffering from turf toe during his senior season, he both passed and ran for more than 500 yards. Durkin (whose father is a Youngstown State Hall of Fame baseball player) is an imposing physical specimen at quarterback. Playing behind an offensive line that allowed significant pass rush, Durkin used his tremendous athleticism to not only be the Ursuline quarterback, but he served as their primary running threat. His offensive system was very similar to the system Scot Loeffler utilized for Logan Thomas (especially against Georgia Tech) and Durkin has remarkable similarities to the last two Hokie signal callers (Thomas and Tyrod Taylor) at the same point in their careers.
Durkin is working hard to improve as a passer, but even the football novice will quickly realize that Durkin is a tremendous threat as a runner. Many will comment about how Durkin trucks several players in his highlight video, but I was more impressed with how elusive he was and how quickly he gets into the secondary when he breaks a run. I don't like making comparisons between incoming freshmen and former Hokies, but as a young quarterback Durkin is remarkably similarity to both Tyrod Taylor and Logan Thomas. Durkin is a powerhouse who runs over defenders on inverted veers and designed power keepers from the shotgun in a similar fashion to Thomas (especially as a sophomore). And like Thomas, he has some mechanical issues that sometimes make him inaccurate. Like Taylor, he is incredibly elusive in the pocket, and despite his size he slips out of pressure where few players could avoid a sack. And, like Taylor he has a tendency to abandon the pocket quickly if his first read is not open, and he has an elongated throwing motion when throwing in rhythm on a standard five step drop.
Expounding upon that last trait, almost until the mid-point of Tyrod's senior year, he would make his first read, and then either run or scramble to get guys open down field. Most often, if any seams opened inside, if the first read wasn't open he was gone. Durkin does the same thing. He can either scramble outside of the pocket, or slip to the inside, and then finish the run off with an emphatic thump.
In both cases he is terrific at identifying seams and changing direction against the grain of the defensive flow in tight spaces. He may not quite have the quite the same amount of quickness, as Tyrod, but unlike Tyrod, when the run comes to an end, he is going to get extra yardage after contact.
Durkin excels at running the inverted veer. Loeffler used the inverted veer to feature Thomas as a rusher for long stretches early in the ACC schedule. The following clip is a great demonstration of both Durkin's elusiveness and his power.
Durkin runs an inverted veer left, reads keep, and plows into the hole. The hole closes quickly. Durkin delivers a jump cut to his right that would make Ryan Williams proud. He then explodes up field and trucks the linebacker.
Again, inverted veer.
He rides the mesh well to get the defense to stretch, uses explosive speed to hit the seam, and then finishes the run by punishing would-be tacklers. The formula for Durkin is: find the point of contact, and then just assume he will get 2-3 more yards.
It is so important to emphasize how elusive Durkin is. Again, here is another jaw dropping jump cut, and it is in the red zone where the Hokies struggled even with the power threat that Thomas provided.
I don't know if he can do that against ACC-caliber talent, but if he can you have to expect that even if he doesn't win a starting job, Loeffler will use him as a short yardage quarterback on specific down and distance situations and in the red zone.
Durkin isn't just a runner. He has tremendous arm strength. When he breaks contain running either left or right, he is as much of a threat to throw as he is to run. This forces secondary players to stay with their man the extra second that allows Durkin to gain extra yardage on scrambles.
Durkin may be more accurate throwing on the run. Here, Durkin runs a designed roll out to his right. The defense runs a Cover 2, with the corner taking the short zone. The receiver runs down field then curls back to the quarterback.
Durkin's ability to run keeps the corner from dropping back in front of the curl route. He fires a laser on the run to hit the receiver perfectly for a good gain. His arm looks even stronger on this highlight running to his left.
On this play, Durkin gets pressure on the inside and is forced to roll out. He breaks contain, and going against the grain of his throwing strength, then he fires to a receiver breaking deep and to the inside. This ball travels an astounding 53 yards without Durkin getting to properly set his feet.
This play also features the area that Chris needs to work on to improve as a pocket passer. His mechanics in the pocket are a work in progress. On this play, he is very slow to get into a throwing position once he takes the snap. The defense does a twist stunt up front, with a linebacker blitzing from the left side. Against the blitz, a quarterback that doesn't have Durkin's ability to break contain would need to make a quick read and throw to the hot receiver against the blitz. If it wasn't for Durkin's ability to get outside of the stunting tackle it would likely be a sack.
You see bits and pieces of this throughout his game film. He doesn't always have good rhythm as he sets to throw. Sometimes he holds the ball lower than you would like to see as he scans down field. On pocket throws, his wind up seems more pronounced, and he has a bit of a slower release. Those mechanical breakdowns tend to be much worse when he is in the pocket making a quick throw on his initial read. These "easy throws" sometimes are inaccurate as result. The most glaring example can be seen on this wide receiver screen.
The most basic principle of throwing as a quarterback is that your front foot will telegraph where the ball goes. From pee-wee football up, coaches teach young quarterbacks to point their front foot where they want the football to go. On this play, Durkin is in such a rush to get the ball out to the receiver that he twists and throws entirely with his upper body. His stance is still set up to throw down field. While the throw gets there on this play, this kind of breakdown takes steam off the throw and causes a significant decrease in accuracy. Logan Thomas also struggled with mechanical issues on wide-open passes, while Tyrod Taylor had similar struggles throwing in rhythm as a young player.
That doesn't mean that Durkin can't be the pro-style passer that Loeffler craves. Durkin often shows the ability to throw from the pocket and do so on difficult throws.
Let's take a look at this play in the red zone. On the left, the slot receiver runs an out to the flat. The split end takes an outside release for a fade. Durkin identifies man coverage pre-snap. The safety should fly up to the flat. If he does, the corner doesn't have help deep and to the outside. If not, Durkin will have a wide open receiver in the flat.
Durkin takes a low snap, and sets his feet to throw to the right. This move is to freeze the safety if the coverage was disguised and they have the safety deep middle. He then resets and throws an accurate ball to the deep corner of the end zone. His receiver is the only player who can catch this ball, as press coverage indicates that the corner will be underneath the route. The throw is in the corner, so if the safety is tracking the throw, it is as far away from the safety as possible with the throw still in the field of play.
Durkin also is sharp to the middle of the field from five wide receiver looks that Loeffler often featured last season. Ursuline uses a trips formation right with twins left and an empty backfield. On the trips side, the middle receiver runs a corner route that is intended to create space for the inside and outside receivers running a post.
The corner route draws the both the nickel corner and the deep safety, leaving the inside post route wide open. Durkin throws a rope on the skinny post and hits the receiver in stride. The throw is perfect, and even if rub isn't as effective, the throw would still be a completion against man coverage.
On Friday, Durkin played quarterback for Team USA at the International Bowl, a high school All-Star game that also featured former Hokie commit Brady Taylor and Virginia signee Steven Moss on the offensive line. Durkin was part of a three-man quarterback rotation, but he was the most effective quarterback for Team USA, leading his team to two touchdowns on three drives before the game got out of hand. He threw a touchdown on a beautiful bootleg (another staple of the Loeffler offense).
Throughout his highlight tape, he looks very comfortable running bootlegs. Passing off misdirection is a critical component in Loeffler's passing attack exemplified by D.J. Coles' touchdown off the bootleg action against Georgia Tech.
Durkin was not utilized much in pass pro situations, which isn't surprising since the team had very little time to practice together. Early on his first full drive, Durkin did have an opportunity throw out of pass pro. Here he takes the shotgun snap and throws a quick curl route.
On this play, the offense utilizes a five wide receiver set. This leaves the quarterback defenseless against a blitz so any throw must be quick. In pre-snap, Durkin identifies the soft spot in the coverage (against a deeper safety). He knows he is going to take a lick, and he has the courage to take that hit to make a play. He steps into the throw and contact from the blitzing linebacker. This is all excellent read and recognition on a typical spread offense stick route. Note, the throw is a tad low and to the outside.
At first I thought perhaps that was the result of the blitz, but watching again I noted that the nearest help was flowing inside-out to the flat from the outside linebacker. A throw to the inside shoulder would be a possible interception against a disguised zone blitz where that linebacker is flying into the flat.
As you should expect by now, Durkin was dominant in the running game. He was heavily featured on the inverted veer and power lead plays and also ran for a touchdown. Here is an example of the power lead. Note the explosion getting into the hole. Again, Chris has Logan Thomas style power, but he can exploit the edge and small seams for big plays because of his straight-line speed.
You see the same strength on a true read option, which VT rarely featured with Thomas.
He has the speed to threaten the edge, and the power to get some extra yardage if the defense reads the play correctly or there is an execution breakdown. Again, in college football, being able to make a play when the scheme breaks down (as it will with 18-22 year old kids) can often be the difference between winning and losing. Durkin may not be the most refined quarterback in this class, but the ability to make a play like this could certainly give him a leg up.
That play prompted the announcer to quip, "He's [Durkin's] not a dual-threat quarterback, he's a health threat." Needless to say, the announcer isn't the next Mitch Hedberg, but Chris Durkin could certainly be the next great Hokie quarterback. With every second of film that I watch, it becomes tougher to handicap the Hokie quarterback race (especially given Travon McMillian's tremendous accuracy coupled with his effectiveness in the option game, as I will discuss in another review). If Durkin can improve his mechanics so his accuracy improves, he adds a physical running dimension that the more polished Ford and McMillian can't provide. This could ultimately give him a leg up in the quarterback battle, but all three options could be very effective ACC quarterbacks.