Every year, there seems to be the “sleeper” quarterback: a guy that doesn’t have a lot of draft buzz but has traits that easily translate to the NFL. This year, my pick for that role is Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald. McDonald has been a polarizing prospect among analysts, but he’s one of the guys I keep coming back to. The tools he brings to the table make him an excellent fit for how the game is transforming. McDonald’s skillset is a perfect fit for the modern NFL.
A two-year starter under Nick Rolovich, McDonald operated Rolovich’s Run & Shoot offense with aplomb, compiling over 8,000 passing yards and 70 touchdowns with the Rainbow Warriors. The Run & Shoot was a double-edged sword for Cole McDonald, as he wracked up 24 total interceptions in his career, with double-digit INTs in both of his seasons as a starter.
Those interceptions are a startling number and would suggest a quarterback who either can’t read a defense or one who trusts his arm too much. McDonald is a combination of the two, but I think there is some necessary context to the interception totals that a lot of people are either ignoring or are ignorant of.
As mentioned previously, the Run & Shoot has a penchant for being a double-edged sword. It puts up gaudy numbers but can lead to turnovers. This offense has been around for decades, going as far back as Andre Ware with the 1989 Houston Cougars. Here are the interception totals for prominent QBs in the R&S system throughout the years:
-Andre Ware: 28
-David Klingler: 38
-Kevin Kolb: 31
-Timmy Chang: 80(!)
-Colt Brennan: 42
-Cole McDonald: 24
As you can see, the R&S has precedence for high interception totals. I broke down this offense a little further in my piece about Washington State’s hire of Nick Rolovich, but in layman’s terms, the Run & Shoot offense relies on a lot of adjustments on the fly by the wide receivers. If they read the coverage a certain way in a play, they adjust which route they run. However, the quarterback and receiver can read the defense in two different ways, and without proper communication, this can lead to a high number of turnover-worthy plays. With this additional context in mind, McDonald’s tape becomes a little easier to understand.
McDonald runs an offense that requires cerebral play and understanding of defensive leverages and coverage keys. Many think the offense is wide-open and straightforward just because it is run primarily from the shotgun or pistol with four wide receivers, but this is not the case. The run-and-shoot has been around for decades, and even the Patriots use R&S concepts in their offenses. Cole McDonald has to make the right reads and be decisive with the football, something that a lot of modern collegiate quarterbacks in simpler schemes struggle to do. It won’t be an extremely difficult transition for Cole McDonald to take from Hawaii to the modern NFL, especially since his skillset is a great fit.
You’ll watch a highlight reel and see uncanny throws downfield from Cole McDonald, but it’s the underneath stuff that goes unnoticed. McDonald throws with rhythm underneath, far from being a simple point and shoot kind of player. He’s accurate in the red zone and the 1-10 yard range.
The best thing about McDonald’s game are the physical traits he displays. In terms of pure arm talent, McDonald is among the top of this draft class, if not at the very top. There isn’t a throw Cole McDonald can’t make at any level of the field. The downfield threat that McDonald provides with the juice he puts on throws is uncanny.
My friends, we call this absurd. pic.twitter.com/ytaJ62a9AN
— AJ Schulte (@AJDraftScout) February 10, 2020
There’s plenty of examples of McDonald throwing with touch downfield, which is difficult to teach and develop.
Downfield ability isn’t the only threat Cole McDonald offers, as he’s also a great athlete and can throw off-platform. McDonald ran track in high school, competing in both the 100 and 200 meters, as well as the relays. This speed shows on his tape, as Hawaii often used him on read-option looks to great effect. When the play breaks down and nothing is open, McDonald can extend the play with his legs, whether it’s picking up the first down or buying time to make a throw downfield.
One specific trait I look for in a quarterback is how a QB plays under duress. While McDonald still has plays on tape where he rushes his process against the blitz, I can respect his toughness and willingness to take a hit while delivering a strike.
All of these traits that Cole McDonald displays are part of an NFL skillset that translates well to the modern style of play. He’s got traits that will appeal to many coaches in the NFL. McDonald is far from being the perfect quarterback prospect, but the accuracy, arm talent, and mobility are high level. Add in the ability to throw off-platform, understanding of leverage and timing, and decisiveness, and McDonald has an impressive array of traits to be excited about. When he throws an interception, he doesn’t start to see ghosts and panic; he just bounces right back.
If McDonald lands on a team that will work on fixing his mechanics and is willing to develop and fit him into their passing scheme, McDonald can become a franchise quarterback. Cole McDonald’s skillset fits right in with the way the NFL is evolving.
AJ Schulte is a Draft Analyst for PFN. You can follow him on Twitter @AJDraftScout.