Riley Leonard became a hot-button name in the 2023 draft, with some labeling him as the QB3 behind Caleb Williams and Drake Maye. We want to answer how much of this can be attributed to Kevin Johns and how much to Riley Leonard himself.
Kevin Johns’ System
Kevin Johns joined the Blue Devils last season from Memphis and found immediate success in Duke last year. In his first season as offensive coordinator, he led the offense to the best season in the 21st century. Duke’s 0.235 EPA/Play ranked 43rd nationally after ranking 94th in 2021. The strides that were made in only his first season turned the offense around despite essentially no change in personnel and losing their 2021 top receiving option Jake Bobo to UCLA.
His system uses spread formations with RPO-based schemes. Leveraging pre-snap motion, Johns has consistently shown the ability to create mismatches in the receiving game, making easier throws for his quarterback. The utilization of the inside zone scheme opens the offense through rushing more than his passing to open the rushing game. Predicated mostly on the inside zone, he uses 11-personnel (1 RB and 1TE on the field) to have tight ends in blocking positions to provide a de facto sixth lineman more often than not, often lining up as the H-Back.
In the passing game, the heavy RPO leads to a short(er) passing game with bubble screens and passing behind the line of scrimmage. Part of this is a scheme and the players he’s worked with, but he does like to leverage receivers in the screen game more often than the average play-caller. He led a balanced attack, ranking 81st in neutral game script pass rate, again using the run to set up the pass from the same formations.
Johns, who spent half a decade at Indiana as offensive coordinator, learned from Kevin Wilson, now the Tulsa head coach. Wilson gained notoriety as an offensive coordinator at Oklahoma during the 2008 season, leading one of the greatest offenses of the last two decades and one that revolutionized the concept of tempo. His utilization of the spread offense with a historically talented group of skill position players led to massive changes to the way football was played over the next decade-plus.
Kevin Johns and Previous Quarterback Performance
At Memphis, Johns was offensive coordinator for three years from 2019 to 2021 but only called plays in the final two after Mike Norvell left. In his first season, he had quarterback Brady White under center. In 11 games, He totaled 3,380 yards and 31 touchdowns, and while not a rushing threat, averaged 23.6 fantasy points per game in 4PT per touchdown leagues. In the same year, White averaged a 10.4 average depth of target and a 68.2% adjusted accuracy percentage. At the time, White was an experienced veteran of the program, pushing the ball downfield under Johns at a high rate.
Kevin Johns Quarterback Performance as a Play Caller (Post 2014)
His development of true freshman quarterback Seth Henigan highlighted his final season at Memphis. In Henigan’s first year, he averaged 302 passing yards per game with a 25-to-8 TD-to-Interception ratio. As a true freshman in Johns’ system with a double-digit average depth of target is impressive in itself, but Henigan’s breakout performance was a testament to Johns’ ability to develop quickly, something we saw in year one at Duke.
We can take away from Memphis that Johns is willing to be aggressive in pushing the ball downfield and scheming receivers in intermediate and deep parts of the offensive game plan. At Memphis, Johns did have Calvin Austin III to stretch the field, but Austin was used on routes close to the line of scrimmage, screens, and much more as the primary option. He also had Sean Dykes at tight end, who operated at the primary option in the short-to-intermediate range.
Going back even further, Johns has had a quarterback average of over nine yards per target in five of six years prior to his experience at Duke. The only quarterback under that mark was true freshman Alan Bowman (who is questionable in his own right.) Essentially this tells us Johns wants to push the ball downfield where possible. On his last stop, he averaged 10.3 yards per target with a true freshman Seth Henigan included.
Riley Leonard – Analytically
This leads us to Duke’s Riley Leonard. An impressively athletic quarterback, Leonard improved massively over his true freshman season but still lags behind in terms of NFL upside. I don’t mean to sound like a hater because he’s a spectacular collegiate quarterback, and Duke is lucky to have him. However, with the recent draft discourse, a critical examination of his profile is needed.
Referenced above, Leonard brings the second-lowest average depth of target of all Kevin Johns’ quarterbacks going back to his playcalling time at Indiana. Given the history, the best estimation is that Leonard is likely unable to push the ball downfield aggressively compared to his Johns-led counterparts. Only 13% of his throws were beyond 20+ yards, ranking 109th among quarterbacks in 2022. To expand, his 19.4% intermediate passing rate was 121st. The offense simply didn’t leverage deep passing in any capacity.
While we’re having first-round quarterback discussions, he should be judged on a similar scale to the top two. Of Leonard’s 2022 pass attempts, 32.4% were beyond 10 yards on a 51.8% completion percentage. Compared to both Caleb Williams and Drake Maye, he attempts 8% fewer passes beyond ten yards and at least 7% behind in-depth adjusted accuracy. Riley, when compared to the consensus top two are not close. He is less accurate in every area of the field and makes consistently less challenging throws.
Even when we compare him to other names you see at the top of draft boards, such as Bo Nix and Michael Penix Jr., Leonard fails to keep up with his counterparts. I do not believe that the upperclassmen are going in the first round of the draft, but their 2022 seasons were at least on the same or better scale than Leonard’s, at least in the passing game.
Rushing is the deal-breaker, and why Leonard is considered in the first round. He doesn’t measure up as a pure pocket passer, but his rushing at his size (6’4″, 205 lbs.) is among the best in the class and all of college football.
Credit where credit is due. Leonard has not only consistently outperformed in the rushing department, but as his career has gone on, it’s raised his offensive floor from concerning to workable. The question becomes whether or not that’s enough to make up for his questions in the passing game. In 2022, he had 699 yards (including sacks) and 13 touchdowns. Don’t expect the same touchdown/yards rate, but he is a quality rusher who delivers college fantasy upside. That model seems to be less attractive to NFL teams in recent years, with Will Levis going in the second round, Malik Willis falling to the third, and a handful of other quarterbacks falling into the same profile of “good build, good rusher, questionable passer.”
Riley Leonard – Film Watching
I prefer to rely on analytics when evaluating quarterbacks, at least to the extent that I can gleam obvious insight. However, there are some clear takeaways from watching Riley’s film.
First, his mobility is far more prevalent in the rushing game than using it to extend plays correctly. When I say correctly, I think he bails on the pocket too early and relies on his athleticism to make plays that he should be trying to stay in the pocket to accomplish. Our Campus2Canton Devy Guide also highlights this concern and chalks it up to abandoning the pass after his first read: “Leonard tends to drop his eyes against the rush if his first read isn’t there.” Ultimately his refusing to go through progressions is part of the reason he abandons the pocket too early, along with leveraging his athleticism. Something easy to accomplish against ACC defenses but won’t translate at the next level.
Second, his arm strength is average at best, and he would be on the lower end of NFL starters almost immediately. Through two years, his arm strength has been his biggest question. Going back to his 247 profile, his arm had been the biggest knock on him as a high schooler. This is part of the reason that his average target depth has also lagged behind quarterbacks in Johns’ system. At his size and strength, this could be something that improves over the course of the next year or so if his mechanics improve, as he also has a slow release. It’s most evident on throws outside the numbers where delivery is slow and heavy. As of now, it remains his biggest question.
Finally, and something that’s been noted both on 247 and among our own analysts at Campus2Canton. He’s consistently late on throws. C2C founder Austin Nace has been incessant on this point. He’s always a step or too late when delivering the ball. It doesn’t matter as much in college – especially the ACC – but that half-second is gone in the NFL. Again, an issue that 247’s Charles Power noted on his recruiting profile. Schematically, Kevin Johns’ offense has been able to cover these flaws, but this is about translating to the league.