Pocket Presence: Learned skill or innate ability?

Oct 9, 2019 | 0 comments

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In his brief time as the Gators’ starting quarterback, Kyle Trask has done a lot of great things. He led them from 11 points down in the fourth quarter to win at Kentucky. The next week, he threw for more than 200 yards in the first half in a blowout defeat of Tennessee. Most recently, he battled through a knee injury to lead the Gators to a 24-13 upset of then-No. 7 Auburn.

Still, there’s one flaw in his game that is noticeable to everyone, from Steve Spurrier to the casual fan: his pocket presence or, more precisely, his lack of it.

He’s been sacked nine times and has lost four fumbles in his three games as the starter. Some of the blame falls on the offensive line, but it appeared that he had enough time to throw the ball away or tuck it and run on most of the plays. Instead, he didn’t sense the pressure closing in on him and thought he still had time to scan the field.

While the terms “pocket awareness” and “pocket presence” are often used interchangeably, there is a distinction between the two, said Denny Thompson, the owner of 6 Points, a quarterback training organization in Jacksonville. Pocket awareness is knowing the blocking assignments and how that affects the pocket they’ll have to throw in, while pocket presence has to do with “spatial awareness” and moving in the pocket to create the best throwing lanes and escape pressure without bailing out of the pocket unnecessarily.

There’s a bit of a debate in football circles as to whether the mental clock that coaches and players talk about is something that can be taught or if it’s just something a quarterback either naturally has or doesn’t. Even the gurus disagree on the topic.

Thompson believes that some guys are blessed with naturally better pocket presence than others, but it is a coachable skill. However, because quarterbacks wear non-contact jerseys and aren’t allowed to be hit in practice, they don’t face pressure like they do in games. So, he thinks pocket presence is primarily improved through game experience, which bodes well for Trask.

“You’ve got to make a couple of mistakes or you’ve got to make a couple missteps to really learn the lessons about why I need to stay in the pocket or why I need to move this way or that way or the timing of this defensive end’s closing in on me, and maybe I have more time than I think, or maybe I don’t have as much time as I think that I may,” he said. “It’s very much a rep-driven, experience-driven type of skill.”

On the other side of the debate, Quincy Avery, the president of Quarterback Takeover in Atlanta who’s worked with UF redshirt freshman Emory Jones in the past, said quarterbacks can work on the fundamentals and mechanics of moving around the pocket to put themselves in the best positions to make throws under pressure, but the ability to feel the pocket collapsing around them without actually seeing it is more of a natural instinct that a quarterback’s either blessed with or not.

“You can work on it and get better,” he said. “Similar to boxing, how they counter-punch. Everybody’s a naturally great counter-puncher, but you get to see and feel enough, you become better. But there’s just limitations on how good you can be if you have poor spatial awareness.”

He believes quarterbacks can improve their pocket presence in practice; they don’t necessarily need game action to improve.

“The places I’ve been, they may have a non-contact jersey, but they’re still aware of when they would have or would not have been sacked or at least would have made contact with them,” Avery said. “I don’t think non-contact jerseys prevent you from being able to develop pocket awareness.”

The only thing that matters for the Gators is that Dan Mullen believes better pocket presence comes with more game experience. He agrees with Thompson that with the way modern practices are conducted, it’s difficult for a quarterback to improve his ability to anticipate pressure other than through game reps.

In practice, the quarterbacks wear red non-contact jerseys. When a defender gets close to them or even bumps them, they’ll often continue the play as if nothing happened. This could lead to career backups like Trask developing a false sense of security and overestimating the amount of time they’ll have in the pocket once they get in games.

Trask said Mullen has worked with him on his pocket presence and ball security in practices and meetings.

“You can’t hold on to it forever, so once you take a couple of hitches and nothing’s there, you got to do something with the ball because someone’s coming after you,” Trask said. “Get that ball out of your hands, or they’ll knock you out or whatever, so you got to have that clock in your head at all times.”

The best drills for improving pocket presence are those that force quarterbacks to react to movement or a visual stimulus while maintaining their balance, Avery said.

Thompson said he focuses a lot on spatial awareness with his quarterbacks. They simulate pressure by running people at them from different directions in waves. The quarterbacks have to identify where the pressure is coming from without looking and move in the pocket accordingly. However, just because a quarterback exemplifies good pocket presence in practice doesn’t mean it will translate to games.

“Part of the maturation of being a quarterback is how do I hold the ball, how tight do I hold the ball, when do I have to start my separation to throw to keep me from fumbling, to be able to brace for that contact?” he said. “That’s just something that, unless you’re going to take the red jersey off the guys, that’s something you really can’t simulate through training or practice.”

Thompson believes that Trask will clean up the fumbles as he gains more game experience and develops his mental clock. While a lot of people think of the mental clock as being the amount of time a quarterback has to throw the ball, it’s actually the amount of time a quarterback has until they have to take one hand off the ball and start their throwing motion. Quarterbacks are most susceptible when they only have one hand on the ball, and it’s not uncommon for less experienced passers to struggle to find the correct timing because the amount of time it takes to throw is different for every quarterback based on their throwing motion. He thinks Trask is close to finding what works for him.

“I think Kyle is starting to learn now, ‘OK. As I’m feeling that pressure, I need an extra two-tenths of a second to really get that separation process and to get it gone,’” Thompson said. “While that seems like it’s so minute, it is something that a quarterback learns very quickly on the fly.”

The Gators could really use for him to learn it by this weekend.


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