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Did Seahawks hire Greg Olson to fix Will Levis?
Seattle could be lining up as the perfect landing spot, but is he worth an early draft pick? The results are polarizing: 3/3/2023
If Will Levis plays as well in the NFL as he did in college, he will be a bust. Even the most ardent Levis believers, whether that be Mel Kiper or Rob Staton or yourself, have to admit that as a fact if they’re going to gain trust with the people who they promote him to as a high draft pick: Will Levis needs to hone his size, his tools, and his arm strength into a degree of decision-making and accuracy that is much more elite and consistent than what we saw from him at Kentucky over the past two seasons.
A college football journey that started at Penn State in 2018, making his chances of development that much more questionable.
But not impossible.
It is common for fans and people in my position to come to a conclusion about a player or an aspect of football—without really questioning why they believe it—and then to keep finding reasons to confirm that belief.
That’s why when I write that my favorite quarterback prospect is Bryce Young or Grayson McCall, which is me presenting my research, sometimes an opinion, and then letting the reader come to their own conclusions, and someone leaves a comment or a message expressing disbelief in Young, I’m not going to argue back. For two reasons:
I learned as far back as 2012 that it’s a waste of time for me to argue with Seahawks fans about the merits of the Colts quarterback—or any other team besides the Seahawks
For every 3 reasons I give to support Young, I’ll get 3 reasons back for why those are wrong or do not matter
Let’s not waste our time in an argument circle, okay?
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A third reason that it’s a waste of time is that I can never be sure when I’m wrong: I argued that Russell Wilson shouldn’t and wouldn’t start in 2012, I argued that Geno Smith shouldn’t and wouldn’t start in 2022.
Not a great track record, Joe!
So after many years of always trying to prove myself right, I discovered that it’s more fulfilling and rewarding to try and prove myself wrong.
At worst and at best—in all scenarios—I will come out more well-informed about the topic if I try to prove myself wrong than if I just keep telling myself that I’m right:
At no point have I ever said that Will Levis will fail in the NFL. I’ve said that I’m skeptical that he’s a lock to go in the top-10, and just now I’ve said that if he doesn’t get better in the NFL that he will be a bust. Neither of these statements should be controversial.
But I do think it’s important for me to have as much information as possible on Levis before getting too bold, even though I now believe that Seahawks writers and content creators can waste too much time talking about all the prospects in a given draft class. I want to assess the landscape, be prepared, sure. But this year we’re going to focus a lot more on the Seahawks going into the draft—needs, depth chart, salary cap, future, scheme, coaches—and then let the draft fall into place before spending a lot of time diving into the rookies.
Let’s wait until we know who those rookies are before doing a bunch of mock drafts and “What ifs” for players who will never be Seahawks.
Of course, this post is a mini-exception: It’s a closer look at Levis because I’m spending more time getting familiar with the top-ranked quarterbacks in the 2023 class. But it’s also based on the current Seattle Seahawks: The team could draft a quarterback at pick five, but also at pick 20 or on day two or on day three.
It’s also based on a recent coaching staff hire, a role that I’ve been looking at since the end of the season when it became apparent that Pete Carroll could be making a change at quarterbacks coach at the most interesting of times.
Is Greg Olson the exact right coach to make sure that Will Levis is better in the NFL than he was in college? Become a Regular Joes subscriber to read a deep dive on Levis and MANY MORE bonus articles for the 2023 draft!
Why did Will Levis transfer away from Penn State after 3 years?
The question of why Levis couldn’t beat out Sean Clifford at Penn State shouldn’t be overlooked or disregarded as much as it’s being dismissed right now, especially when talking about quarterbacks who are going to be drafted that highliy and touted as a “franchise” player. That means a lot more than if Levis was going outside of the top-20.
At worst, a person touting Levis as a top-five pick shouldn’t run away from the question and doesn’t necessarily need to make excuses for it. Address it and let fans decide for themselves.
Penn State reporter Audrey Snyder answered the question in a post for The Athletic in May of last year (emphasis is my own, except for the question):
In hindsight, did James Franklin choose the wrong QB to hitch his wagon to? Will Levis’ name is being bandied about as a top 2023 draft pick. — Lee Y.
We’re in the midst of what feels like Will Levis mania. Kentucky’s quarterback is appearing in the first round of many early 2023 NFL mock drafts. He also walked the red carpet at the Kentucky Derby last weekend and will be a camp counselor at the Manning Passing Academy next month.
Personally, I don’t know if Levis will become a first-round pick. I was surprised when I saw his name mentioned so often, but there’s always a lot of intrigue with big quarterbacks who have big arms. He certainly is that. That big arm was part of what made him so appealing to Penn State’s staff when they recruited him, before they turned him into a battering ram while it cycled through offensive coordinators during his time in Happy Valley.
For the time being, it does look like Penn State let a good one get away. If I had to pick between the two right now for this upcoming season, I’d pick Levis. How Penn State used Levis in his final season was baffling, making it understandable that he left. As Levis told me at the time of his transfer: “I don’t want to be known as the guy who goes in and puts his head down and runs the ball.”
He exited Penn State with 133 rush attempts and 102 pass attempts. For all that was made of his arm, Penn State didn’t give him much of a chance to throw the ball in games. Levis made a spot start against Iowa in place of Sean Clifford when Penn State bottomed out at 0-5, but he fumbled and was replaced by Clifford later in the same game. Clifford kept his starting job from there on out.
At the time, the entire narrative surrounding the program was that the 4-5 season was a product of the lack of spring practice and the oddities and challenges of the COVID-19 season. Knowing what we know now, with a 7-6 record in 2021 to add to 4-5, it certainly feels like Penn State should’ve given Levis more of a shot even after he struggled in the spot start and was benched. At the time, though, coaches were banking on Clifford jumpstarting the offense, which he did as the Nittany Lions finished with four consecutive wins. Add in a stellar start to last season, and nobody was second-guessing the Levis departure for a chunk of 2021.
But now, with all that is known about the two, it’s a valid argument that Penn State might have picked the wrong quarterback.
As I’m reading this answer from Snyder, she feels that the hype around Levis as a first round pick is baffling based on her experience of covering him as a backup and spot-starter quarterback over three years at Penn State. But also that Levis eventually proved to be the better talent than Clifford and that Penn State probably should have given him the job sooner and built the offense around him to highlight his unique athletic attributes.
“Everyone always asks what happened and why Penn State didn’t start Will over Sean,” Rahne said to ESPN. “When we first picked Sean, Will wasn’t ready to start yet, and then it became hard to replace a guy who had won 11 games. People kind of forget that.”
So yeah, it’s not unusual for a QB to not start as a true freshman. Neither Bryce Young nor C.J. Stroud started as true freshman. Clifford was a four-star recruit in 2017, Levis joined the program in 2018, and then Clifford took over for Trace McSorley in 2019. That year, with future NFL players K.J. Hamler, Jahan Dotson, and Pat Freiermuth, Clifford is a top-3 passer in the Big 10 for a team that went 11-2.
In 2020, there are complications all year with regards to Covid-19 and though Clifford regresses, Levis gets two starts (14/31 passing, 18 carries against Nebraska & 13/16 passing, 15 carries against Iowa) and doesn’t do enough to keep Clifford on the bench. The team does see Levis as a rushing threat, giving him 47 carries in the last four games, all wins.
The next year, Levis knows that Sean Clifford is going to keep the job and maybe worse yet, the NCAA gave every college athlete an extra year of eligibility because of Covid; it means that Clifford has two more seasons left, not one. Plus, as Levis said to ESPN in 2022, he just needed to go somewhere to get passing reps and he wasn’t going to get that at Penn State.
“I’ve always had confidence in myself. I always thought I was the best quarterback in the country, and nobody else was going to tell me otherwise,” Levis said in a story published by ESPN recently. “I just needed the platform to prove it. I needed the opportunity to get comfortable with playing the position at this level, and I feel like that’s something I didn’t have at Penn State.”
I don’t think any fan should completely disregard that Levis wasn’t that “pop off on the field-WOW” player before, during, and after his time at Penn State. His ARM STRENGTH pops off the field. But instead of pushing Clifford to a transfer, Clifford did push him into the transfer portal. That DOES matter.
However, I also think there are some valid reasons to explain Levis’s transfer in a way that doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative. It’s understandable that in college football, it’s hard to replace a quarterback when the team is winning. Once Levis fell behind Clifford, and after his two opportunities in 2020 fell short (keeping in mind that Iowa has an elite defense), he had to go somewhere else.
Though they were 5-6 the year before, Levis couldn’t have asked for much better at the time than Kentucky.
Levis connected to the Sean McVay offense
Will Levis was born in Massachusetts in 1999 and he went to high school in Middletown, Connecticut. Liam Coen was born in Rhode Island in 1985 and he played quarterback at UMass from 2004 to 2008, where he is now in the school’s Hall of Fame. As a Northeasterner, Coen started his coaching career at Brown in 2010, then Rhode Island in 2011, back to Brown from 2012-2013, UMass in 2014-2015, then Maine in 2016-2017.
It should be around his time at UMass and Maine that Coen first got a look at Levis as a high schooler:
“I remembered him from high school, and I remembered what he looked like,” Coen told KSR on the 11 Personnel podcast. “Stature wise, size and then when that video came out of him throwing the football in that indoor facility in Massachusetts — where I know where that is. I’m like ‘there’s not a lot of guys that throw the football like this in the country’.”
In 2018, Coen accepted a job on Sean McVay’s staff, assisting with wide receivers on the L.A. Rams. That would include Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp. In 2020, Coen was moved to assistant QBs coach, working with Jared Goff. Then in 2021, around the time that Levis transferred to Kentucky, Coen interviewed and got the job for offensive coordinator by showing head coach Mark Stoops a bunch of plays from the Rams playbook that they could use.
“Liam has been really good for me and my development,” Rams quarterback Jared Goff, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, told The Athletic. “I think the No. 1 thing about him that I like is he played the quarterback position and he really understands it and how to coach it. He’s smart, does a lot of our breakdowns through the week and has great ideas that we use all the time in games. We’ll miss having him for sure, but Kentucky got a great one.”
At the time, there was no mention of Will Levis. Stoops and Coen thought they were either turning the offense over to Joey Gatewood or Beau Allen. But Levis blew them out of the water from the start of camp, according to Coen.
"Will's work ethic and the way he came in and ran the show," Coen said about Levis after he was named starter. "His personality is one of which that guys naturally follow. I think that obviously you guys can see some of the arm strength talent and some of the things that he can do throwing the football ... I do think that right now he gives us the best chance to win."
Running a “Rams offense” with future second round receiver Wan’Dale Robinson as his number one, senior Josh Ali as his number two, and running back Christopher Rodriguez adding 1,378 yards on the ground, Kentucky’s offense went from 22 passes and 121 passing yards per game to 28 passes and 225 yards per game.
From what I remember watching that season, I still don’t think that Levis had the “incredible year” worthy of a top-10 selection like some others have promoted. However, if we give him a little leeway for the misfires (233/353, 2,826 yards, 24 TD, 13 INT, poor accuracy, questionable decision-making, missed opportunities and points left on the field) we could say that he’s a quarterback who was a backup for three years out of high school and spending his first campaign in a new offense, new scheme, new teammates, and new college.
Kentucky had talent around Levis, but not enough to mask or overcome his shortcomings as he grew into the role and became accustomed to new surroundings.
The Wildcats started 6-0, beating Florida and LSU, then lost three in a row, then won their last four. In Kentucky’s final game of 2021, Levis beat Iowa in the Citrus Bowl, something he took personally because he was benched against Iowa the previous year at Penn State.
Kentucky went from 21.8 points per game in 2020 to 32.3 points per game in 2021. It was enough for McVay to call Coen back to L.A. to replace Kevin O’Connell as the Rams offensive coordinator the year after winning the Super Bowl.
It turned out that the departure would be bad for everybody: Levis, Coen, Kentucky…and the Rams.
Coen meets Olson
Getting a job as McVay’s offensive coordinator is like a fast pass to an NFL head coaching opportunity: Matt LaFleur, O’Connell, and Zac Taylor was the QBs coach in 2018.
Shane Waldron hasn’t gotten the same recognition, going from McVay’s passing game coordinator to the Seahawks offensive coordinator in 2021, but he’s done a lot better than former colleague Coen.
The Rams dropped from 27.1 points per game to 18.1 points per game and though Coen isn’t responsible for all the injuries that hit L.A.’s offense last season, but he was thrown under the bus after he went back to Kentucky at the end of the year.
According to Jourdan Rodrigue of The Athletic, "The low point came when the Rams traveled to Kansas City in Week 12. McVay gave up play-calling, handing off duties to [offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Liam] Coen. McVay wanted to see if ceding control could ease some stress, and at [3-7], the Rams had nothing to lose by trying it out."
It didn't work—the Rams lost to the Kansas City Chiefs 26-10, and it perhaps taught McVay an important lesson.
"I think it made him more miserable," Rams COO Kevin Demoff said. "But I also think it was really empowering for him to know, 'OK, that is not a solution to this.'"
Another person on the Rams staff in 2022, another person who left and returned to McVay, and like Waldron another person who now works for Pete Carroll is Greg Olson.
It’s a semi-interesting connection actually.
I wrote about Olson’s history when the Seahawks hired him to replace Dave Canales as the QBs coach last month. And I was covering the Canales exit—well before it happened—for a very specific reason: Canales has no experience developing quarterbacks. He worked in the job when a veteran Russell Wilson and a veteran Geno Smith were his main area of focus.
The closest he could come to “development” is Drew Lock and we don’t really know how that’s going.
If Pete has had designs on drafting a quarterback early this year, it wouldn’t have necessarily aligned with Canales as the QBs coach.
It does align with Greg Olson, a veteran coach with decades of developing young quarterbacks. Sometimes in college (Drew Brees), sometimes in the NFL, and sometimes after two or three years of somebody else trying to get them right. He could be in Seattle to help with Lock, he could be in Seattle to help with another reclamation like Zach Wilson, and/or he could be in Seattle for a rookie draft pick of note.
Notably, Olson worked with Coen for all of 2022. Notably, the two could have had plenty of conversations about Will Levis. Notably, the offense that Waldron runs with the Seahawks should at least be second cousins with the offense that Coen ran at Kentucky in 2021.
Notably, the 300 plays that Coen brought from the Rams to the Wildcats could have some cross over with the plays that Waldron runs on the Seahawks.
Any coach who goes from one place to another to be the offensive coordinator, I would believe that he’s going to draw parrallels and discuss the quarterback and offensive personnel he worked with the year before. “Last year with Will Levis, we did this. When we ran this with Levis last year, that’s what happened. Levis was good at this, but not good at that, so we didn’t do that.”
I would absolutely buy that of the four most-talked about QBs in the 2023 draft class, Olson is most familiar with Levis. Coen surely threw some Kentucky film on at times last season—and remember when he got thrown under the bus in that The Athletic article, Coen was in a unique position of calling plays for McVay at one point.
During Olson’s career in the NFL as a QBs coach and OC, Olson worked with Blaine Gabbert (6’5, 235), Josh Freeman (6’6, 240), Terrelle Pryor (6’4, 230), Derek Carr (6’3, 210), Blake Bortles (6’5, 235), and Jared Goff (6’4, 215).
It’s not what I would call “hardcore analysis” to compare heights and weights by any means, but there’s a comfortable fit there with a type. Levis is expected at 6’3, 230 lbs. Heavier than C.J. Stroud. Not as athletic as Anthony Richardson, but none of those other guys are known for athleticism other than Pryor, and he wasn’t an early pick or Olson’s guy. More of a shot in the dark.
Was Levis good in 2022 without Liam Coen?
No. This is well established, even by those who think he should go first overall. Kentucky replaced Coen with Rich Scangarello, somewhat a Kyle Shanahan disciple (and Drew Lock’s first OC in Denver), and the offense was so bad that Stoops fired him and brought back Coen.
In an analysis by Panthers QB coach/former NFL QB Josh McCown on the Underdog Fantasy Football channel with Josh Norris, they had to dissect two games instead of one because “there’s not a single game with enough good footage to watch”.
Whatever the reason, Will Levis played five years of college football and he enters the draft with only one season of tape that literally anyone thinks is worthy of a first round pick. And even that one season in 2021 doesn’t draw a consensus agreement that it’s first round worthy.
Another former NFL QB, J.T. O’Sullivan, has done a couple of Levis breakdowns including his “best film” in a game against Ole Miss. Even in his “best film”, Levis has plenty of cringeworthy moments with poor accuracy, bad decisions, missed reads, and inconsistent anticipation in a game that Kentucky lost.
In both cases with McCown and O’Sullivan, and this is why I think they’re worthy analysts to watch, they admit that they’re not in a position to fully grade the games by Levis. They aren’t in the film room with the QB and the coaches, they aren’t able to completely assess the reasons for bad throws and decisions, and they don’t want to judge too harshly without being able to ask Levis “Ok, what went wrong here?”
They also do a good job of making me question everything I thought I knew about Levis. O’Sullivan notes quality anticipation and his unique ability to hit deep outs. McCown praises Levis’s efficient arm motion, being able to sling the ball with velocity and power without needing much movement which comes in handy for QBs under pressure. He draws a comparison to Jay Cutler. Levis can hit tight windows with a pass rusher in his face and maybe once in a while execute one of those fancy no-look passes.
Coaches at Kentucky also praise his work ethic, coachability, commitment to getting better, leadership, and competitiveness, all of which are buzz words that will appeal to Pete Carroll.
There’s no question that if Levis finished his career at Kentucky like Zach Wilson did at BYU (two mediocre seasons followed up with 33 TD/3 INT and a top-10 finish in the Heisman) that he would be the first or second player off of the board. But the reason he can’t be solidified as a top-10 pick is that Levis needs to show consistency with his accuracy, processing, correctly reading a defense, and improvements in almost all areas of the position—that he’s literally never shown before.
It’s all prospective with Will Levis. If a team drafts him in the top-20 picks, it’s because they believe that his accuracy, footwork, and ability to read a defense are all fixable—but MOST importantly, and I think this is the half of the equation that everyone forgets—that team needs to believe that the player is coachable. Did Levis get better at Penn State from 2018 to 2020? Hard to answer from our perspective. Did Levis get better from 2021 to 2022, but it was masked by the changes in coaching and personnel?
A team needs to believe that Levis can get a lot better at the next level because he hasn’t been nowhere good enough yet.
Could the Seahawks draft Will Levis?
What I’m left with at the end of this analysis is a lot more reasons to think that it’s possible before I started researching this article. Levis appears to have many of the personality traits—competitiveness, work ethic, a desire to be great—that Pete Carroll is looking for. One question might be whether he has a chip on his shoulder after being passed over for three years at Penn State, similar to Ken Walker III believing he was being under-utilized at Wake Forest prior to transferring to Michigan State.
Something else that’s come up this week is Pete’s desire to get football players who played multiple sports growing up.
“I started off with soccer like everyone else because that’s all you could play at an early age. Then I started football but I also tried wrestling, basketball, lacrosse, and baseball. I ran track in high school,” he said. “I think playing all those sports growing up was really good for me from a development standpoint and for my motor skills. I learned how to move efficiently and changing sports allows you to move in ways that are not necessarily prominent in another sport.”
Levis thinks it is “extremely” important for youngsters to play multiple sports and regrets not playing more sports in high school.
“I only played baseball for two years and then ran track to get faster. I would like to have played basketball and maybe baseball for another year. That is one thing I would change if I could go back to high school,” the UK quarterback said.
It’s almost as if Pete was talking about Levis—but that’s confirmation bias.
Does Levis have familiarity with Waldron’s playbook? Check. Does he possess the rumored physical traits and arm strength that John Schneider likes? Check. Does he have at least a loose connection to the QBs coach? Check. Is he experienced, something that I think is critically missing from Richardson’s resume? Levis isn’t stupendously experienced as a starter, but two years is about as much as you can ask for these days. Does he have a chip on his shoulder and grit and toughness and competitiveness? Check, probably.
IS HE GOOD AT FOOTBALL? Man…not really. Not yet. The draft is fascinating.
I think the Seahawks could draft Will Levis, or at least they want us to think that they could, and if they do this much is clear: They need him to be exactly the same in all the right ways and totally different in all the right ways. And Olson might have been the final hurdle to increase those odds.