Arizona State’s true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels helped the team to its third-consecutive bowl game and best AP Top 25 ranking in five years.
He also provided something of a roadmap for Colorado to use when building an offense around true freshman Brendon Lewis.
Here’s the painful truth: Jayden Daniels was a better prospect out of high school than Brendon Lewis is.
Daniels was a .9832-rated recruit, per 247sports’ composite, making him a second-best dual-threat quarterback in his class and the 35th-ranked overall prospect in the entire country.
Lewis, on the other hand, is rated at .8873, making him the 16th-ranked dual-threat quarterback and 391st overall prospect nationally.
Of course, stars don’t mean much when you’re actually out on the field, but there’s a reason for the difference in these ratings.
Take a look at their senior-season, per-game stats:
Okay, all of the most painful parts of this process are out of the way and now it’s time for the good news.
First of all, Daniels was in a much better situation than Lewis.
Not only was Lewis facing better competition in Texas, but Lewis also had the better weapons, at least from what I’ve seen on tape. His star wide receiver, Darren Jones, was a four-star football recruit and three-star basketball recruit, and he was essentially a cheat code on the high school gridiron.
Take a look at this:
When you have a 6-foot-8 burner who can outrun anybody on the field, life is a lot easier. To Daniels’ credit, though, the ball hit the window even though the window was fairly large.
The point is, take the numbers with a grain of salt because it’s hard to compare high school football programs across states.
Not all dual-threats are created equal.
Just because a quarterback can run the ball and throw it doesn’t mean that they fit in the same style offense.
The biggest difference between Jayden Daniels and Brendon Lewis is that Daniels isn’t built as thickly as Lewis and the size disparity shows in their running styles.
Daniels is listed at 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds on ASU’s 2020 roster and Lewis is listed at 6-3, 210 pounds by Colorado. Plus, there’s a lot more room on Lewis’ frame for bulk, so he could sneak up to 215 pounds or more before the season starts.
Daniels, who is 35 pounds lighter, keeps his weight on his heels and runs more upright, allowing him to stop at a moment’s notice. Since he isn’t as much of a threat to run with power, he turns himself into a joystick who can change direction and get up to full speed quickly.
Pay particular attention to the separation he generates when cutting.
Daniels is blazing fast, so whenever he changes direction—which he does fluidly, without losing speed—defenders have no chance to adjust. Most defenders wind up on the ground.
Nearly every quarterback is going to run with more speed than power—outside of Tim Tebow, who was pushing 250 pounds at Florida—but Lewis leans closer to power running style than most.
Unlike Daniels, Lewis keeps his center of gravity fairly low. This makes it tougher to stop on a dime or squeeze through tight gaps, but it allows him to break through arm tackles more easily. He’s still fairly agile, but the separation he generates isn’t quite as wide as Daniels’.
His strength and balance make up for it.
For context, remember that Colorado’s top two running backs are Alex Fontenot (6-0, 195 pounds) and Jaren Mangham (6-2, 215 pounds). That makes Brendon Lewis (6-3, 210 pounds) fairly comparable in size.
The question for Lewis going forward is whether his running style will hold up against Power 5 competition. He gets low behind his pads and allows his impeccable balance to shine through.
The good news is that everything Daniels has done in the ground game has translated to Arizona State.
This is the type of play that made Jayden Daniels such a highly-touted recruit:
He feels the pressure coming off the right edge and flushes out of the pocket. He feels a pocket of space develop just behind the line of scrimmage, so he takes it, sets his feet quickly and uncorks a deep ball.
There’s so much to like, particularly his feel, on this play. An interior rusher is in his face, so he lets him run by, instead of curling out toward the sideline and letting the rusher tail him. By staying near the middle of the field, Daniels stays in position to distribute the ball to any of his receivers. If he was closer to the numbers, he wouldn’t want to throw back across the middle.
All of this happened because he sensed the pocket of space developing.
And don’t forget the arm strength and ball placement.
Brendon Lewis can do a lot of things, but Daniels puts more “magician” moments on tape.
Take a look at this clip:
Lewis is often successful on deep balls but he doesn’t have the whip-like arm that Daniels does. Daniels can fling balls in the bucket from 50-plus yards out, while Lewis labors just a little more.
Lewis profiles as a strong-armed quarterback but, at this point in his development, his velocity is much higher when he throws on the run. Putting his body weight behind the ball when his feet are set is one key improvement he needs to make.
Throws to the sidelines are very difficult, especially for young quarterbacks. Lewis shows very good velocity for a prospect in the above clip, but he shows well below-par velocity for a Power 5 starter, which he likely will be this fall.
The velocity will come with time, the question is whether the Buffs can fast-track it.
Lewis also has a tendency to throw behind his receivers. This tendency rarely gets him into trouble but his receivers sometimes struggle to maintain speed as they catch the ball, reducing their potential to pick up yards after the catch.
A lot of the time, the decision looks intentional. That includes the clip above.
Lewis didn’t give his receiver much of a chance to pick up extra yards, but he made the catch as easy as possible. His receiver created separation and Lewis used it as a wider throwing lane, rather than still trying to hit the receiver in stride and letting him try to turn the corner.
There’s nothing wrong with Lewis’ decision, but the equation could change at the next level.
Imagine the cornerback was trailing on the receiver’s back hip. Then Lewis would have to hit his man in stride to complete the pass, not just to give him a better running lane.
It’s very possible that Lewis would have been able to complete the pass, but he has a tendency to rely on his receivers’ separation when making throws.
Another question is how Lewis will pass the ball in the red zone.
Most young quarterbacks struggle to get the ball into the end zone because of how tightly the defense packs it. In a base defense between the 20s, the seven pass defenders have to cover the entire length of the field.
In the red zone, those seven players compact into a much smaller space.
Lewis’ offenses ran the ball a lot in the red zone, using plenty of option plays. Expect Colorado to do the same. However, Lewis has shown some ability to make plays with his arm near the end zone.
Notice the linebacker mirroring Lewis (circled below). That’s the spy assigned to follow Lewis around and not let him run into the end zone. Since Lewis is a threat, the defense takes one of its seven players in coverage and has him stop the QB.
Typically, when near the end zone, defenders spread out across the goal line. Lewis can identify the spy for two reasons. First, he’s moving away from the end zone. Second, because when Lewis rolls right, the spy follows him even though the spy is moving against the grain of the receivers.
The question here is whether Lewis knew that he was pulling the spy out of the passing lane, which was likely by design, and that he could take advantage? Or, did he just notice a receiver coming open and throw the ball?
(It wouldn’t have hurt to set his feet, by the way.)
There’s a lot to like about what Lewis did in high school, but he won’t have the same windows at the next level. He shows signs of being able to manipulate a defense, but he’ll need to show that more consistently before we can believe it’s real. Lewis also needs to learn how to convert his size and strength into arm strength when he isn’t on the run.
It’s a great sign for Colorado that a freshman dual-threat quarterback found success in the Pac-12 this year, but there are still plenty of differences between Jayden Daniels and Brendon Lewis.
Daniels entered his freshman campaign with more hype, which was mostly deserved. He showed that his elite ability to create separation between himself and potential tacklers translated from high school to college football. He also improved his playmaking ability as a passer.
Lewis is a spectacular prospect and should be a successful Power 5 quarterback, but Daniels was more polished at this stage of his career.
Luckily, what matters is what happens on the field this fall.