Heisman favorites exhibit unique skills

Marcus Mariota, Tajh Boyd, and Johnny Manziel make up the top three spots in ESPN’s latest Heisman Watch. All three quarterbacks are off to a strong start, leading their respective teams to a combined 17-1 record and top-seven ranking in the AP Poll.

Mariota leads the nation in opponent-adjusted Total QBR (97.0) and Manziel ranks sixth at 88.3. Boyd ranks 41st in opponent-adjusted QBR, but he has the opportunity to add another signature win to his record when Clemson hosts Florida State on Saturday.

Each quarterback has showcased a unique skill that has given the opposing defensive coordinators fits all season.

What attribute sets each of these quarterbacks apart?

Tajh Boyd – Downfield Passing

Boyd has 138 completions of 20 yards or more since the start of the 2011 season; only Fresno State’s Derek Carr (141) has more such completions. The key to these big plays has been Boyd’s downfield passing

Boyd on Throws of 20+ Yards
Since the Start of Last Season

Boyd is one of four AQ quarterbacks that has completed more than half of his passes thrown 20 yards or longer since the start of last season. He has an FBS-high 23 touchdowns on passes of this distance, including 16 touchdowns after a play-action fake. All eight of his touchdowns on passes of 20-plus yards this season came off play action.

After losing his top target, DeAndre Hopkins, to the NFL after last season, Boyd has shown that he can spread the field on these deep passes.

Last season, Hopkins had more than twice as many targets (30) and receptions (18) on passes of 20 yard or longer than any other receiver. This season, Boyd has targeted six different receivers, and no receiver has more than nine targets or four receptions.

Johnny Manziel – Improvisational Skills

Johnny Manziel has demoralized plenty to opposing defenses with his ability to extend plays. Since the start of last season, he leads AQ quarterbacks in every scramble category by a wide margin. He has 548 more scramble yards and six more scramble touchdowns than any other AQ quarterback during that time.

Johnny Manziel on Scrambles
Since the Start of Last Season

When scrambling, Manziel has also kept his head up to find his receivers. He has completed 58 percent of his attempts while scrambling out of the pocket in the last two seasons, the highest completion percentage among AQ quarterbacks (minimum 20 attempts).

He has 18 more such completion and six more pass touchdowns than any AQ quarterback in that span.

Marcus Mariota – Efficiency

As the anchor to Oregon’s high-octane offense, Mariota leads the nation in opponent-adjusted QBR this season and has yet to commit a turnover. With Mariota under center, the Ducks score a touchdown on 57 percent of their drives, 30 percentage points higher than the FBS average, and average 8.6 yards per play with, second-best behind Baylor with Bryce Petty at quarterback (minimum 100 plays at quarterback).

Mariota efficiency is due in part to his ability to make plays with his arm and legs.

Mariota leads the FBS in yards per rush (10.4) and is tied with Mississippi State’s Dan Prescott for most rush touchdowns (8) by a quarterback.

The Ducks have utilized his running ability in their zone-read scheme. With Mariota at quarterback, the Ducks have called a zone-read play on 44 percent of their carries and have averaged 6.7 yards per rush. Mariota has kept the ball 17 times on such plays, averaging 11.3 yards per rush and scoring five touchdowns.

Mariota is also averaging more than 10 yards per attempt on passes. He throws a touchdown on 10.3 percent of his pass attempts, fifth best in the nation and almost twice the national average of 5.4 percent.

He has a Total QBR of 90.6 on just pass plays, sixth best in the nation and leads the nation in Total QBR (99.6) on rushes.