The crucible continues.
After benefitting from the inaccuracy of Kansas Jayhawks quarterback Carter Stanley last week, the Texas Longhorns will once again face one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in West Virginia Mountaineers star Will Grier.
“This league never gets any easier,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said on Wednesday. “Every week it feels like we go into it and we're seeing one of the top quarterbacks in the country. Grier is along that mold and we're going to have our hands full.”
The 6’2, 214-pounder ranks No. 7 nationally in passer rating, No. 2 in touchdown passes, No. 4 in yards per game, and is tied for eighth in yards per attempt.
The remarkable production by Grier earned him a comparison to Heisman frontrunner Baker Mayfield on Monday, though head coach Tom Herman stopped himself when it seemed as if he might say Grier is the best in the country.
“So I think what he presents might be — well, no, there is a kid in Norman that's pretty good too, and in Fort Worth,” Herman said. “But he's along the lines of Mayfield and Hill in terms of he's really, really accurate throwing the football. He's a tremendous passer. But he can make you pay with his feet too. He's as good as we've played, and we've played some really, really good ones.”
Orlando wasn’t as willing to compare Grier to Mayfield — “Baker Mayfield is Baker Mayfield,” he said — but he did have plenty of praise for the Florida transfer.
“From my standpoint, the one thing I think he can do a good job of is keeping plays alive and being very accurate,” Orlando said. “Grier's got a great release. He keeps his eyes down field and can scramble around just like Baker.”
Part of what makes Grier so dangerous, according to Orlando, is how difficult he is to bring down. When he arrived at Florida, he weighed 188 pounds, but has gained 26 pounds in the nearly four years since then.
Having run a 4.73 40-yard dash in high school, Grier is a good athlete, but scrambling to run is not a big part of his game — he only has two touchdowns and two runs of 20 or more yards this season.
However, what he does extremely well is avoid sacks to scramble and make plays down the field.
“I don’t know his actual weight room numbers, but it seems like nobody can get him on the ground when they have good shots at him,” Orlando said. “He’s really good at keeping plays alive, getting his eyes down field, and they do a really good job of getting open for him.”
On the season, Grier has only been sacked 14 times. Opponents have been able to get to Grier at times on standard downs, but his offensive line ranks No. 4 nationally in passing downs sack rate. So hoping to get the Mountaineers behind the chains in order to tee off on Grier and rack up the sacks probably isn’t a viable game plan this week for the Longhorns defense.
And there will be a lot of pressure put on the cornerbacks if Grier can escape from the pocket and make off-schedule plays. With two back ups playing in senior Antwuan Davis and junior Davante Davis, that concern is magnified.
The wide receiver who should most concern Orlando is junior David Sills V, the former quarterback who left the program for a season and is most commonly known as the guy who was offered by Lane Kiffin when he was 13. Now firmly entrenched as one of the nation’s best pass catchers, Sills is leading the nation with 18 receiving touchdowns and is averaging 15.6 yards per reception.
If there’s one area where Grier has struggled this season, it’s in protecting the football — he’s thrown 12 interceptions and fumbled the ball five times. In a loss against Oklahoma State, Grier was picked off four times. The Wildcats had two interceptions last week against him. And he’s been lucky to only lose one of his five fumbles.
So the Texas defense will have to remain opportunistic and keep finishing plays with interceptions. Pass rushers need to stay in their rushing lanes to keep Grier in the pocket, but if they do get to the quarterback, will need to capitalize by bringing him down, while also focusing on trying to strip the football.
None of those tasks will be easy, but as Orlando said, the task of playing defense in the Big 12 against some of the nation’s top quarterbacks doesn’t exactly get easier from week to week.