Film Room: Breaking down new Auburn QB Payton Thorne... as a runner
The stats say Thorne averaged a statuesque 1.6 yards per carry at Michigan State. But the film doesn't lie — he can make plays on the ground.
QB Payton Thorne (Instagram)
In a lot of ways, college football has a lot of advantages over the NFL. But one of the things that the pro game does better is how it tracks certain statistics involving quarterbacks.
When a quarterback gets sacked in the NFL, the lost yardage doesn’t get taken away from their individual rushing stats. It’s counted as negative team passing yards, which makes sense — it’s not a real rushing attempt, and a sack isn’t all on the quarterback.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case in college. If a quarterback breaks off a 10-yard run and then gets sacked for a loss of 10 yards on the next play, that player now has a total of zero rushing yards.
This can really warp the perception of how effective a college quarterback actually is at running the ball.
For example: New Auburn quarterback Payton Thorne was marked down for 167 rushing attempts and 270 yards during his time at Michigan State.
That’s an average of 1.6 yards per carry, which makes it sound like Thorne is a statue in the pocket. But, in the NFL last season, the lowest yards per carry for any starting quarterback was Mac Jones at 2.2.
Sacks matter, even for a Michigan State team that allowed just 18 sacks in 2022 and 21 in 2021. Both of those numbers were good enough for top 30 nationally.
If you measure Thorne’s actual rushing attempts during his time at Michigan State, though, the real measurement is more than 5 yards per carry. By comparison, that’s a similar rushing average to Geno Smith, Marcus Mariota, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson in the 2022 NFL season.
Thorne’s top competition for the Auburn starting job this fall will be Robby Ashford, who started most of the 2022 season. While Ashford ranked toward the bottom nationally in passing efficiency and accuracy, he rushed for 709 yards — the fourth-most among FBS quarterbacks. (And, again, sacks matter. Ashford’s yards per carry was somewhere in the neighborhood of 6.4, per Pro Football Focus.)
So, while Thorne might not be Ashford as a runner, he definitely looks like a quarterback who can be effective enough with his legs to hurt defenses. Pair that with some strong passing work during his time with the Spartans, and it’s easy to see why Hugh Freeze and Philip Montgomery wanted to add Thorne into their offense.
After all, Thorne’s first touchdown at the collegiate level came on the ground — a 20-yard score against Ohio State where he beat a safety to the pylon and powered his way in for six.
In this special summer edition of the Film Room here at The Auburn Observer, I went back and rewatched as many of Thorne’s actual rushing attempts from his 2021 and 2022 seasons as a starting quarterback at Michigan State.
The results show a quarterback who won’t sign up to excel in the triple option anytime soon, but one who can still make some much-needed plays for his team on the ground.
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