Every scouting combine has its share of fascinating quarterback stories, and the 2018 combine was no different. Sam Darnold didn't throw. Lamar Jackson didn't run the 40-yard dash, though he did charm most people at the podium.
For college quarterbacks who aren't prominent names, the combine can be a struggle to get noticed—one of the last chances to get on the NFL's radar before the draft. Throwing sessions play a big part in that, and for lesser-known quarterbacks, sometimes the only way to get on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis is to be a "thrower" for the running backs the day before the quarterback and receiver drills. It isn't glamorous, and your name doesn't show up in lights, but maybe you'll impress in those drills and get a shot at throwing the next day with the "big boys."
That's what happened to Texas Tech quarterback Nic Shimonek, who has gone the hard way to prominence. The one-year starter transferred from Iowa before the 2015 season and spent most of the next two seasons sitting behind Davis Webb and Patrick Mahomes.
Mahomes was the Kansas City Chiefs' first-round pick in 2017 and will be their starter in 2018, but Shimonek's future is far less defined. This despite the fact that he threw six touchdowns in just 58 passing attempts as a backup in 2016, and threw for 3,963 yards, 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as the Red Raiders' starter in 2017.
None of that mattered. Shimonek had to take the dirty work with the potential glory when the combine came calling.
"The combine director [Director of National Football Scouting] called me and told me that I was invited to the combine," Shimonek recently told B/R. "After that, they asked me, 'Would you mind throwing [to the running backs?]' I could have told them yes or no, but I was going to go regardless.
"I'm not sure if I was just an extra thrower—I think somebody else might have been an extra thrower and then said they couldn't do it, but I called my agent and he said, 'Yeah, it's just another opportunity.' So I called them back and said, yeah, sure I'll do it. I'm not going to turn down another opportunity to throw in front of that many scouts."
So, yes, he was invited to throw with the quarterbacks but also asked if he would be a thrower for the other position groups. It's a bit like being invited to a party with a full bar—and told that it would be nice if you brought your own.
Throwing to the running backs Friday may have had a definite effect on a combine performance that turned a lot of heads—despite the fact that he wasn't even named on the numerical listing of quarterbacks given to the media every year.
"I got a feel for the environment and the tempo that everything was operating at," he said. "Also how the footballs felt—were they slick, were they worn down, were they aired up or flat? If anything, it definitely benefited me over the next couple of days."
Shimonek met informally with about 20 teams at the combine, with specific interest from the Tennessee Titans. Overall, the week went about as well as he could have expected.
"I'm a perfectionist, so I thought I could have done better. I felt that I helped myself out, and my agent [Leigh Steinberg] felt the same way. My thing is, I can throw with all these guys; I just don't have the experience they do because I sat behind Pat the last two years. But as far as getting out there and throwing, I think I'm right up there with these guys."
Ah, yes. About the lack of experience. Shimonek originally thought he was going to be Iowa's future quarterback on a full ride, but he was sitting behind Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard. He redshirted in 2013 and before the 2014 season asked head coach Kirk Ferentz for an honest assessment of his playing-time prospects. Unhappy with the answer he got, Shimonek transferred to a school in his home state of Texas, sat out the 2014 season due to transfer rules, and then wound up in the same situation—sitting behind two favored quarterbacks in Webb and Mahomes.
While he acknowledges the cosmic irony of this, Shimonek now sees the positive.
"Sitting behind Pat and Davis, two guys who got drafted, and C.J. and Jake, two more guys who were drafted, I tried to use that to my advantage and take bits and pieces," he said. "Jake and Davis were extremely well-prepared each and every week. Pat and C.J. were also very well-prepared, but also played a lot more on instinct. I tried to take a little bit from each of their games while being myself, but if they're getting drafted, they're doing something right. It wouldn't be smart of me to ignore everything they're doing."
It didn't help that Shimonek wasn't offered a scholarship right away at Texas Tech—he had to wait until 2015, which led him to start a furniture restoration business in his spare time.
"My mom is an interior designer back in Corsicana, Texas. She refurbishes furniture, and she's very successful at it. I'd been around it growing up, and when I transferred from Iowa, I put that financial burden back on my parents. I felt horrible about it, just because I was getting everything paid for and now they had to pay for everything. I wanted to help any way that I could, and that was the way I could help them out a little bit. It wasn't a ton, but it was groceries and bills and gas, things of that nature.
Shimonek stopped that trade as soon as he could.
"I did it for a year-and-a-half while I wasn't on scholarship, and it wasn't like I enjoyed doing it. It served its purpose, and then I nixed it once I got into that backup role and got into courses for my degree."
Perhaps all this adversity explains Shimonek's confidence in himself. He started the 2017 season hot, with 11 touchdowns and just one interception in his first three games. But then, as happens to every quarterback, he struggled to keep up with defenses that were adjusting to Texas Tech's incendiary passing game and far less impressive rushing offense. The more opposing teams rushed three defenders and dropped eight into coverage, the more Shimonek struggled to deal with two defenders on every one of his receivers.
The tipping point came on November 18 against TCU, when Shimonek completed 17 of 33 passes for 137 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. The day after that game, Kliff Kingsbusy went to his quarterback and told him that the next week against Texas, McLane Carter would start. But when Carter could do little, throwing no touchdowns and two interceptions and helping his team to a 10-point deficit, Shimonek exhorted Kingsbury to give him another chance and promptly threw two touchdowns to win the game.
It's the big-time throws he's made that make me think Shimonek has a bright future in the NFL. Yes, he's a one-year starter, and there are rough spots in his game, but he's a great downfield thrower with good mechanics, velocity, touch and accuracy.
According to Pro Football Focus, Shimonek ranked sixth among all FBS quarterbacks with an adjusted completion percentage of 76.6. On passes traveling 20 or more yards in the air, he completed 27 of 54 for 1,049 yards, 13 touchdowns and no interceptions. Add in the game-winning touchdown pass in the East-West Shrine Game, and he starts to look like the sleeper quarterback in the 2018 draft.
He's not a big name, but when I watch Shimonek's tape, I see a cross between Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles and a younger version of Matt Ryan, before Ryan learned to slow things down as he read defenses and started to use mobility as an attribute.
Shimonek sat down with me to watch his 2017 tape, and we went over the good and bad, as well as all the details of five plays.
Play 1: Touchdown Pass Vs. Arizona State
Bleacher Report: This touchdown to Dylan Cantrell vs. Arizona State looks like a great example of your throwing mechanics and quick release. This is a very accurate throw over coverage. Was Cantrell your first read on this play, and what was the design overall?
Nic Shimonek: No, he was the third read.
B/R: Well, that's why I want to ask these questions, because nobody at Texas Tech ever throws past a first read, right?
Shimonek: Yeah, exactly. So, the play is, from left to right—there's a go route furthest on the left, there's a little five-yard out for the second read. Keke [Coutee], the slot to the right, he's running an over route just to grab the eyes of the safeties, and he does a good job against their Cover 4. The safety took Keke up to Dylan's side, and Dylan had the post route behind that. Once I saw that safety drive Keke, and he got a lot of emphasis put on him, I knew there would be a window for Dylan in the end zone.
B/R: What is that play called?
Shimonek: We call it "95."
B/R: What does "95" mean?
Shimonek: It's the entire concept of the play. It's not like a numbering system—a "383" or whatever, like they had at Iowa. "95" is the entire concept. You know what you're doing, and you know your reads on "95."
B/R: So, Kingsbury has it like, a "42" Play encompasses these routes and protections? It's a package of routes as opposed to a "383" means that the receivers run a 3-route, 8-route, 3-route from left to right?
Shimonek: Exactly. That's how it was when I was at Iowa. Here, I would just signal "95" to everybody, and everybody knows their jobs.
B/R: That's interesting to me, because I've heard some systems get maligned because the assumption is that if the play call is simple, the play must be simple. You guys are packing a lot into a couple of numbers. What's the advantage of that?
Shimonek: The tempo we play at—trying to simplify things not so much for the quarterback, but for the receivers, just so we can go fast at all times. It's one signal to everybody, and boom, everybody knows what they're doing.
B/R: Is that a "check with me" to the sideline, or do you have a series of plays that you call for an entire drive? How much control do you have when it comes to play-calling?
Shimonek: I have complete control. [Kingsbury] calls it from the sideline, but if I want to change pass to run or run to pass for any reason… if it's fourth-and-1 and the defense is playing run and I want to check to four verticals, I can, as long as I have a reason.
B/R: When you talk to NFL teams about your short play verbiage but advanced concepts inside those quick calls, do they seem pretty satisfied with the idea that you can grasp advanced stuff?
Shimonek: I think so. And being at Iowa helped me a lot—I had a couple scouts tell me that I should put emphasis on the fact that I was at Iowa and Tech; two completely different offenses. I was under center for every single snap at Iowa, and then I go to Tech and I'm not under center nearly as much. I've seen two different ends of the spectrum as far as offenses go, and that's going to do nothing but help me.
Play 2: Touchdown Pass vs. Arizona State
B/R: This an example of a throw you need to make in the NFL—you're starting to feel pressure up the middle, and you make an off-platform throw to Derrick Willies for a touchdown. You put a nice touch and arc on this pass. This pass and the game-winner in the Shrine game were two examples of good touch passes. Have you always worked on that, as far as varying your velocity and arc?
Shimonek: I think that's more of a natural thing. Some guys just get out there and rip it, and they can throw it really hard, but they can't put the touch on it they need to. I think the touch factor—being able to loft it into places other guys can't—I think that's more natural. You can obviously work on it, but it's one of those things you have a feel for. It's like, you're either fast or you're not, and you can work on it to an extent, but I'm never gonna outrun Lamar Jackson.
B/R: What is the play call here? It looks like you have some vertical routes to your front side. Is Willies your second or third read?
Shimonek: No, there's a cornerback blitz over there [to the offensive left side], and they had tried that before. The safety drove it [the route], but we still got a completion for six yards. So, I came back to the sideline and I said to Derek, 'Damn—that safety tried to make a play on that.' Because when he sees the cornerback blitz, he's supposed to run a little hitch. I don't even think we told Coach Kingsbury about this, but I told [Willies], 'Next time, if the corner blitzes, just run a hitch-and-go.' I'm gonna pump-fake the hitch, because that's what we've shown on film. Sure enough, he ran his hitch, the safety drove it, Derek had a step or two on him, and I just tried to give him a catchable ball.
B/R: So, part of the touch here is the confidence of knowing you've outsmarted the defense.
Play 3: Game-Winning Touchdown Pass Vs. Texas
B/R: The game-winner against Texas was especially interesting in that you had been benched in the game. What was behind that decision, and what got you back on the field?
Shimonek: That was the week after TCU, where they were dropping eight into coverage, and the passes I completed were mostly short passes—we didn't hit any home runs. We were 5-6 at that point, and Coach Kingsbury came to me the day after TCU and told me, "Hey—we need to make a move [at quarterback] at least to start the game." If we didn't win against Texas, we weren't making a bowl game, which was not going to be good for that coaching staff. He didn't say that exactly, but I got the point of it—we needed to win for them.
So, it was late in the third quarter [against Texas], and we weren't doing a whole lot offensively. I told Coach Kingsbury at the end of the third quarter that he was about to run out of time of he didn't make a move pretty quick. He kinda looked at me like I didn't know what I was talking about, but about two minutes later, he sent one of the grad assistants over to tell me to start warming up. At that point, I was like, "You ain't got to tell me twice." I already had a ball in my hand.
B/R: Do you think that brashness tipped the odds in your favor with Coach Kingsbury? Did he want to see that from you?
Shimonek: I think so. Just my confidence—he's had a lot of confidence in me, and I'm the same way with myself. Hearing the assurance in my voice that I was going to do whatever it took to get the job done, I think he kind of felt that. So he said, "Shoot, might as well give it a chance—we're down ten points." He pulled the trigger, and the rest is history.
B/R: The throw to Cameron Batson--there's a lot going on here. You have bunch right and a crosser to the left side, and you make the throw to the receiver on the back side. What is this play concept, and take me through your reads on this one.
Shimonek: I'm really supposed to be giving Keke a chance over the middle, especially since the safeties are split. But I felt that down there [in the red zone], I had already hit Keke a few times on that drive, so pre-snap, I'm thinking, down here at the end of the game, they know I'm going to Keke. It's a Cover 2 look and I know the [right slot] cornerback is sitting in coverage on Dylan [Cantrell]. Cam had one-on-one with the cornerback, and I'm trying to look that cornerback off for a second. I put a little touch on it, gave Cam a chance to go up and get it, and the safety just couldn't get there in time.
B/R: I get what you're saying about the progressions, but you've still got to make a backside fade throw, game on the line and with pressure coming. That's a pretty gutsy throw.
Shimonek: Yeah. The safety helped us out by tripping and falling, too [laughs].
Play 4: Interception vs. South Florida, Birmingham Bowl
B/R: This interception looked like a really quick read and throw—what were you seeing here, and was your target in the right place?
Shimonek: They were in man coverage, and T.J. [Vasher], my receiver there is 6'6". I'm trying to give him a back-shoulder throw—just put it up there, and give him a chance. The cornerback knew it because I had thrown so many of those to T.J., and he just sat on the throw and got a hand on it. The ball bounced off two or three people, and they wound up picking it off.
B/R: So, this is a quick, "It's a three-step route and I'm throwing to my tall guy" kind of thing?
Shimonek: Yeah, Pre-snap, I'm seeing T.J., who's 6'6" out there on this guy who's 5'9", and I like my matchup. I actually threw a touchdown to T.J. against Texas, the game before this, on that same back-shoulder throw. That was being too predictable on my part—they knew it was coming. "I'm in man coverage, expect the back-shoulder throw." It was the right read and the right footwork; I should have given him a better ball.
Play 5: Game-winning Touchdown Pass, East-West Shrine Game
B/R: This game-winner in the Shrine game is another good example of how you use mechanics to get consistent touch and accuracy on downfield throws. How were your playcalls different in this situation, and tell me about this play in general?
Shimonek: It's funny, the better play in that game might have been just before this—it was fourth-and-6, I rolled out to the right, no-looked [faked out] the linebacker and banged the throw for the first down. But this play specifically, we're just going fast down the field. Being there for just a week, you don't install a lot of plays especially in the two-minute drill. But one thing we did install was all vertical [routes]. Steven Dunbar had won on that route earlier in the game, and one of the quarterbacks didn't hit him. I knew all week that he was better at getting a good release off press coverage as opposed to Jake Winneke, the receiver on the other side. As soon as I get up there, I know I'm going to Steven unless something crazy happens. I'm just holding the safety, and [Dunbar] does a good job mixing up the coverage off the line of scrimmage, and he gives me a little window to throw the ball.
B/R: You've got a lot of accurate back-side throws on your tape. Some quarterbacks are far more comfortable making timing throws to their front side, but this doesn't seem to affect your touch or accuracy or velocity.
Shimonek: No, I don't think so. Playing scout team when I was at Iowa and when I had to sit out because of the transfer rules at Tech, I had a mindset to not only get the defense better, but to get better myself. So, I was trying a lot of new things—throwing from weird arm slots or no-looking throws to receivers. You see Pat [Mahomes] make no-look throws all the time, but don't let him fool you—he stole that from me [laughs]. He just made it famous. Next time you talk to him, make sure you ask him where he got that from!
B/R: I don't know what NFL teams are thinking, but media scouting reports tend to project you as a third-day draft pick—maybe a fifth- to sixth-rounder. Why are you better than those projections? Why will you succeed in the NFL?
Shimonek: I think it's my ability to adapt. Being in the Iowa system and then at Texas Tech, I've got a broad range of things I've learned. If you ask around, I take pride on being the hardest-working player on the team. Any time the facility's open, I'm up there trying to be as good as I can. It's a cliché, but a team will get someone who's willing to come in every day and get to work. The only thing I know how to do is to keep going and keep grinding.
B/R: Are you comfortable with being a backup in the NFL if that's the way it goes?
Shimonek: I would prefer that. You see guys insisting on starting right away, and it's not always beneficial. I can't tell you how many times I've told Pat how good it was that he got the chance to sit behind Alex Smith, even though he wanted to play right away. One year did the trick for him—he thinks he's ready, I think he's ready. I would prefer to sit somewhere so that once I do get a chance, I'm in complete control—I'm not out there second-guessing myself. I'm a competitor—if I'm playing, I'm going to do everything I can to win the game—but the perfect situation would be to sit behind a Philip Rivers or Tom Brady or Drew Brees.
It may be a long time--or never--until Nic Shimonek is talked about in terms of those future Hall-of-Famers, but of all the players in this year's class, he might have the best chance of ascending to those kinds of heights.