FOOTBALL: The inspiration behind Team 148’s creative offensive scheme
Yale’s usage of backup quarterback Nolan Grooms ’24 was inspired by the New Orleans Saints’ use of a Drew Brees-Taysom Hill package that lasted from 2018 until Brees’ retirement at the conclusion of the 2020 season.
Courtesy of Yale Athletics
The Yale football team is familiar with having a dynamic quarterback room. One can look back nearly three years to see this play out on Oct. 19, 2018, when the Bulldogs found themselves in a gritty battle against Penn.
Needing 10 yards to secure a first down, star quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 elusively scrambled towards the right sideline. Before he could hustle out of bounds, Rawlings was met by a charging Quaker who awkwardly tackled the Maryland native to the ground. Yale’s starting quarterback had just suffered a season-ending leg injury.
The Bulldogs’ next-man-up mindset, which had already kept the Blue and White afloat prior to Rawlings going down with the earlier sidelining of running back Zane Dudek ’22, would be on full display in the games to come. After experimenting with Jimmy Check ’21 and Patrick Conte ’22 at quarterback, head coach Tony Reno decided to give the reins of the offense to then-rookie signal-caller Griffin O’Connor ’23 for the season’s final three games.
O’Connor went on to amass 1,229 passing yards and eight touchdowns, breaking a Yale single-game school record with 465 passing yards in a matchup against undefeated Princeton in the process. For this, the California native won Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors. Despite O’Connor’s herculean effort, the Bulldogs went just 1–2 in his three games and finished the year 3–4 against Ancient Eight opponents.
After a successful rehab in the offseason following his earlier leg injury, Rawlings entered 2019 as the team’s unquestioned starter, where he went on to rewrite Yale record books himself en route to securing a second Ivy League title in three years.
“Kurt has been such a good role model and great friend for me over the past several years,” O’Connor said. “Particularly during my sophomore year in 2019, I felt that the competition in that [quarterback] room served the team extremely well. … I think you saw that during my first year when I had to step up for Kurt after his injury, and I still have that same mindset and drive to compete this year.”
This year, O’Connor made his much anticipated debut as Team 148’s full-time starting quarterback against Holy Cross. Reno, however, had something new up his sleeve. Backup quarterback Nolan Grooms ’24 saw extended game action, leading a field goal drive in the third quarter to tie the game. Grooms finished the game with three passing attempts, six rushes and a number of other snaps on the field, including one at wide receiver.
The following week against Cornell, Grooms appeared in just four plays throughout the game. All of his snaps came within the first few offensive possessions in the first quarter and only one was a passing play. After O’Connor appeared to settle into the game in the second quarter, Grooms never reentered.
“With that in mind, as I look at the quarterback room now, we have some great players like Nolan Grooms who you’ll see on the field a lot this year,” O’Connor said. “I think that it will prepare us to always have a guy ready.”
A dual-quarterback scheme is relatively new to the NFL, but it has clearly piqued the Bulldogs coaching staff’s interest. An apt comparison, first made by Coach Reno in a press conference after the Holy Cross contest, is the New Orleans Saints’ package with Taysom Hill and now-retired Drew Brees that took form in the 2018 NFL season.
“We looked at our roster and said, ‘How do we best showcase the guys we have that we feel can really help the team to be successful?’” Reno said. “We looked at Brees and Hill and said ‘Okay, it’s pretty interesting to see what the Saints are doing with these guys, where they aren’t rotating quarterbacks but they are using them in situations where they feel their skillset can best help the team.”
To that end, the Elis have been ensuring that their pass catchers get exposure to both quarterbacks.
“In practice, we’re able to get comfortable with both quarterbacks,” wide receiver Mason Tipton ’24 said. “We get a lot of reps with both of those guys. Both of those guys are ridiculously talented to be on the field. I think it actually helps the flow of the offense when you consider what both can do. Especially as a receiver, I know both of them can really get the job done. I think that in time, it’s going to look a lot better as both get more experience just from being out there. I think in time it’s going to work really well for our offense.”
Hill first signed with the Green Bay Packers in 2017 as an undrafted free agent out of Brigham Young University. He was unable to stick in Green Bay and was cut on September 2 as the Packers trimmed their roster to 53 players. The Saints claimed Hill off waivers the next day.
Over the course of the next few seasons, the Saints began to deploy Hill in a variety of unique roles. He played special teams, blocking a punt in 2019, caught a touchdown from Brees as a tight end and got some opportunities as a passer.
The most unique part of what Yale has showcased thus far is the lack of time the quarterbacks have shared on the field. In two games, Grooms and O’Connor have rarely taken the field together, but the Bulldogs did feature one play in the Holy Cross game coming with Grooms split out wide and O’Connor under center.
The Elis feature 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 began to catch up. Comparisons might be better made to the Eagles’ use of Jalen Hurts and Carson Wentz in 2020, which has extended to the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears this year.
“With Jalen Hurts, he has a unique skill set,” former Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said after the selection. “You see what Taysom Hill has done in New Orleans, and now he and Drew Brees have a connection there and a bond there, and you even look at when [Joe] Flacco and Lamar [Jackson] in Baltimore in the short period of time — how they gelled together. It’s just something we’re going to explore.”
Pederson and the Eagles’ coaching staff slowly began rotating Hurts into games, eventually giving him action without Wentz on the field. As the season progressed and Wentz’s play declined, Hurts began seeing more game action and ultimately took over the starting job. Wentz demanded a trade in the following offseason and the Eagles dealt him to the Indianapolis Colts.
Hurts played in nine of 12 games prior to taking over for Wentz full time but only threw the ball three times. The Eagles preferred to take advantage of his ability to run with the football, giving him 12 opportunities to do so when he was still the backup and targeting him through the air once. Grooms, like Hurts in 2020, has been given more chances to run the ball this year than do damage with his arm.
This year, other NFL teams followed the Eagles lead and began rotating backup quarterbacks into game action. Namely, the 49ers with Trey Lance.
The Niners drafted Lance out of North Dakota State with the fourth overall pick in this past year’s NFL draft. In an almost identical situation to the Bulldogs’ use of Grooms, the 49ers sprinkled Lance into their offense in the first quarter of the season opener. Lance had three rushing carries and threw his team’s first touchdown of 2021. The 49ers kept him off the field the following week.
Following the Niners’ first game, former NFL quarterback and Fox Sports color commentator Mark Sanchez empathized with 49ers starter Jimmy Garoppolo. “That is one of the toughest things for a quarterback, I gotta say. When you convert a first down and in comes your replacement, you can’t get into a rhythm.” That ended up being Lance’s only pass 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 him in the openers and I’ve never had him at a designated time. I plan on doing that week-to-week and whenever I feel like putting him in. You saw when I did in week one and I never got that urge in week two.”
Reno gave a similar justification for their dual quarterback scheme following the Elis win over Cornell.
“There’s a lot of things that go into it, a lot of situational things,” Reno said. “When you’re in some of those situations where we can really take advantage of what Nolan can do on the field, we’ll do it. If we don’t get in those situations, we’re not going to force them. So, some games you could see more of him, some games you could see less. Nolan is a heck of a player and made a huge contribution to the team and those opportunities and those situations will come. We’re just going to take them in stride.”
O’Connor, Grooms and the Bulldogs will take on Lehigh this Saturday at 12 p.m. in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.