Just how far can the spread spread?

ESPN’s Tom Luginbill looks at the spread offense and likes what he sees for college recruiting, on the one hand…

It is becoming easier and easier to find spread offense quarterbacks, because teams are putting their best players at QB and running the spread. Prospects who once would have been placed at wide receiver, cornerback or running back in high school now are being put in the shotgun or Wildcat formation and given the reins to make things happen. If that prospect develops any skills in the passing game, he is going to get a long look from college recruiters. After all, it seems like everyone is running the spread these days, and everyone is looking for the next great QB to run it.

… but is not so thrilled with the impact it’s having on basic quarterbacking mechanics, on the other.

As far back as I can remember, the foundation for quality quarterback play has been fundamental footwork and ballhandling in the three, five and seven-step passing games and the play-action scheme. It all started with these skills in terms of dropping from center, reading progressions and developing timing and anticipation.

I’m not so sure that is necessarily the case any longer. The spread offense, particularly the shotgun, has changed everything, from a fundamental standpoint, to such a degree that it is hurting the development of QBs at every level, from high school to college, and even at the professional level.

Over the last five years, I have likely written evaluations on over 700 high school quarterbacks from tape and in-person study and as each year has gone by, fewer and fewer kids are capable of dropping from center and being efficient with their footwork because they are not required to work from under center at their respective high school.

Is that such a big deal, if these kids are simply going from one spread scheme to another?  Well, it is for those want to go play on the next level, Luginbill says.

… The thing is, if a player has hopes of eventually playing in the NFL, it is not going to be beneficial for the prospect to be 21 years old and having to learn footwork and progression reads from under center that he should have started developing at 14. The shotgun is the easy part. Working from under center is the hard part, and should always be the foundation by which QB prospects learn and blossom.

Now, this is not a call for the shotgun to be abolished. In fact, I would have begged to be in the shotgun on every play when I played, but since not all programs run the spread offense, particularly teams in the NFL, prospects need to drill footwork from center. What if there’s a college coaching change and the spread is scrapped? A player with sound fundamentals can play in just about any system.

Sounds pretty logical to me.  But then again, I’m not HeismanPundit, who thinks the solution to the problem lies elsewhere.

On the other hand, coaches need to learn to fit their system to the talents of the players they have.  Earth to the NFL:  If 90 percent of college quarterbacks are running variations of the spread, it’s time you get off your high horse and follow suit.  Some teams, like Miami, seem to get this.

That almost sounds like the Dolphins are a candidate for HP’s infamous “Gang of Six” club, but let’s not go there right now.  Instead, let’s see if we can unpack that quote a bit.

First off, Miami ran its version of the Wildcat last year with some success, particularly early on.  But the Dolphins ran it with Ronnie Brown, who’s not a quarterback, taking the direct snap.  What they propose to do this season is run it with the additional passing threat posed by Pat White.  Of course, we have no clue if it’ll work, since it hasn’t seen the field of play yet, but even the Dolphins aren’t proposing to run their Wildcat as the base offense.

Now I’m certainly no fan of the NFL, but it’s unrealistic not to acknowledge that in many ways it’s a different world there from that of college football.  And there are a number of those differences that suggest that it would be difficult to implement HP’s solution on a widespread scale there.

  1. Economics. Look at what the top quarterbacks get paid.  Hell, look at what most starting quarterbacks get paid.  Is it realistic to subject the most highly paid group of players to the increased risk of injury that the spread would entail, particularly in a salary-capped environment?  Bill Walsh thought he could only play Joe Montana in a version of the single wing if he had another Joe Montana behind him.  That’s simply not financially practical in this day and age.  Note that Pat White was a sixth second round draft pick – if you’re gonna use these guys as cannon fodder, you’re going to have to pay them accordingly.
  2. Parity. The 0-16 Detroit Lions notwithstanding, there is not the difference in the level of talent in the NFL that exists in college football.  That’s just a matter of simple math – a quarter of the teams with rosters that are almost 40% smaller means that there’s a much greater concentration of talent playing on Sundays.  The Tim Tebow who plays an SEC schedule doesn’t have to worry about getting his brains beaten out against Charleston Southern.  The NFL Tebow won’t have it so easy.
  3. Practice. There are limits as to how much time a college team can spend preparing for a game each week.  “The hardest thing for your kids is to adjust every week,” Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said.  In the pros, it’s your job to prepare.  Yeah, Miami ripped New England up with the Wildcat in their first meeting.  How did the rematch go?

Besides, I think HP overstates his case with that “90 percent” comment.  Pro-style offenses aren’t quite the dinosaurs on the college level that he makes them out to be.  But I’ll admit that there’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy to his argument if the high schools continue to neglect fundamentals.  Just ask Bobby Petrino.

Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino thinks some changes need to be made in the way high school coaches are preparing quarterbacks for the next level. With more programs employing spread offenses, Petrino said many young quarterbacks aren’t getting the necessary experience playing under center, and it’s making the job of recruiting pocket passers a tough one for college coaches.

Petrino pointed to one of his own quarterbacks, Tyler Wilson, as a prime example of the problems of playing too much out of the shotgun. Wilson took every snap of his high school career in a no-huddle shotgun formation, and he has struggled since arriving at Arkansas with things as simple as the quarterback-center exchange or handoff placement on running plays.

Petrino’s proposal to solve his problem is unlikely to see the light.

… The solution, Petrino said, might be mandating how high school coaches use their quarterbacks.

“I’m really happy that high schools are throwing the ball,” Petrino said. “I just wish they would maybe put a rule in that they have to have at least 25, 40 percent from underneath center.”

But I’m not sure it should be necessary, anyway, if the NFL continues along its current path.  As long as there’s a market for drop-back passers, there should be high schools and colleges that accommodate that style of play, because there are going to be gifted QBs that want to play in it.  Plus, if those of us who see the college game as cyclical in nature when it comes to offensive and defensive strategies (and I believe HP counts himself among that bunch) are right, shouldn’t that bode well for the prospects of pro-style offenses in an era when college defenses are gearing up to stop the spread more and more?

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15 Comments

Filed under College Football, Recruiting, Strategery And Mechanics

15 responses to “Just how far can the spread spread?

  1. SefDawg

    Great points to this article. The last I think is the most important. Right about the time most teams are lining up “speed” defenders to cover the spread, teams are gonna put in “bruiser” type backs who will just run straight through the smaller linemen and DB’s. Shoot, the Wing T might even make a comeback!

  2. On the Bright Side

    Sometimes, I think the often cited counter-shift on the defensive side of the ball is a little overstated. I mean, I don’t think UF did anything exotic against Oklahoma’s spread other than field a team of big, fast and well coached players, the same players who successfully defended UGa’s traditional attack.

    • AERose

      “I don’t think UF did anything exotic against Oklahoma’s spread”

      Well, Oklahoma isn’t a spread team, so that might have something to do with it.

      • The Sooners are a spread team in the sense that they run a lot of four wideouts, quarterback in the shotgun stuff. However, Bradford isn’t asked to run, so it’s not a spread option attack.

  3. On the Bright Side

    Also, not to get too nitpicky, but Pat White was a second round pick. That he was a high priority is a pretty strong indicator of the Dolphins’ intention to implement more and not less of the Wildcat stuff.

  4. Only Bobby Petrino would have the gall to even suggest the above rule in high school.

    “I just wish they would maybe put a rule in that they have to have at least 25, 40 percent from underneath center.”

    OK Bobby, anything else you need? Lets call the Atlanta Falcons and ask them what they think.

  5. Ya, great rule Bobby Patrino, make High School QB take snaps undercenter.
    I never realized It was a high school football coaches jobs to prepare their players for Patrino’s schemes.

    How about they run the schemes they know and believe in, that give their team the best chance at success.

  6. HP

    My point in regards to the NFL is that since there is an ever-shrinking pool of pro-style quarterbacks in the college ranks, it makes more sense for the NFL to implement more spread elements than to waste time trying to convert spread quarterbacks to pro-style quarterbacks. Why try to turn Tim Tebow into Drew Bledsoe? Better to build your offense around Tebow’s skills. As for the economics of quarterbacks, teams would have to think out of the box a little–no reason they couldn’t have 5 QBs on roster at a lower pay–some teams already do have that many–and use all of them in a game, running variations of the same offense.

    I do think the pendulum will swing back a bit, but the days of the pocket QB dominating the game are gone forever, methinks. The NFL still has to get over that mentality.

    • I understand your point, but in essence what an NFL team has to weigh is whether the skills of somebody like Tebow are great enough to justify tossing a playbook out the window. That’s a tough call, considering how poorly spread/option QBs have fared in the NFL to date.

      I remember what happened in Atlanta when June Jones was brought in to direct the run and shoot. After he was canned, it took years to reconfigure the personnel to run a standard NFL offense.

      Besides, it’s not like the NFL is looking for 100 drop back passers every year. What’s the typical size of the incoming pool every year – 10 to 15 players? Even if your 90 percent figure were accurate, that means the college game is producing enough to replenish the pros over time, I would think.

      • wheaton4prez

        “A playbook”?

        I think it more resembles “THE playbook.” The NFL is the most vanilla, uniformed playbook group of football teams in existence. Nobody would be tossing anything very unique to employ a spread-to-run scheme for a talented spread QB. The spread formation itself is already widely used in the NFL. As is the shotgun formation and single back sets.

        A couple of your points rely on the assumption that spread QBs are more injury prone than regular QBs. It’s possible. But, I don’t think that is very clear. Plenty of QBs get injured in the pocket, on a regular basis. I haven’t seen evidence that demonstrates that QBs have been injured in the spread system at a higher rate than in a pro system.

        I think HP is correct on the economics. Especially given the current state of affairs. An NFL team could load up on quality spread guys for relatively cheap compared to a top pocket passer. Marketing-wise, one only has to look at the non-dog-killing days of Vick to realize the profitability of that type of player. And that was on a losing team. Put Tebow on a winning spread option team in the NFL and you would sell more jerseys than all Mannings combined.

        • I haven’t seen evidence that demonstrates that QBs have been injured in the spread system at a higher rate than in a pro system.

          Since the pros don’t run the spread option, what are you comparing here exactly?

          Marketing-wise, one only has to look at the non-dog-killing days of Vick to realize the profitability of that type of player.

          So now, every option QB is potentially another Michael Vick? C’mon, man.

          • wheaton4prez

            I didn’t realize that saying that I have not seen evidence supporting a point was a comparison.

            I didn’t realize that saying that winning running QBs attract a lot of fans was to say that all running QBs are Michael Vicks.

  7. wheaton4prez

    Writing rather…