Commentary

No exact science in creating college QB

Originally Published: August 13, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Bob Stoops just sent the NFL a prototype quarterback. Sam Bradford, the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner, has the size, the arm and the intelligence to succeed on Sundays.

But Stoops didn't win a national championship with Sam Prototype. Stoops won one in 2000 with Josh Heupel, a refugee from South Dakota via Weber State and Snow College. Heupel, now the Oklahoma quarterbacks coach, never made it out of two NFL training camps.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford and Josh Heupel
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMISam Bradford is the NFL prototype QB but it was former Oklahoma QB Josh Heupel, left, that delivered a national championship.

To put it another way, Doug Flutie is on everyone's short list of the best college quarterbacks of the last generation. But the 5-foot-9 Flutie created an NFL career only after he went to Canada and won everything he could win save the Stanley Cup.

College football quarterbacks, like offenses, come in all flavors. Pro football quarterbacks pretty much come in one. College football has running quarterbacks and passing quarterbacks. College football has guys who can run the West Coast offense, a primer for the NFL, and guys whose toughest decision is reading the defensive end.

The reasons for the variety in the college game range from money to merit, from brains to brawn, from the talent around the quarterback to the talent trying to take his head off. With the help of a few expert coaches, here are the reasons college football has room for so many types of quarterbacks:

• The numbers game: It's very simple. There are 120 FBS starting quarterbacks. There are 32 NFL starting quarterbacks. As competitive as it is to start in the Pac-10 or the SEC, there are 88 fewer jobs in the NFL. Not to mention that NFL quarterbacks don't graduate. They play until someone better comes along.

"The NFL teams can recruit the exact guys to play the exact system they want to play," Stoops said.

That system hasn't changed much in the last 30 years. It calls for a strong-armed quarterback big enough to withstand a beating. Colleges, on the other hand …

• Forget taking what the defense gives them. College offenses take what the quarterback gives them.

"Everything is built around the quarterback," Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said. "You play to their strengths. In the NFL, you have to execute. In college, if execution breaks down, an athletic quarterback can make a great play out of it."

When Stoops got to Oklahoma in 1999, he hired Kentucky assistant Mike Leach to bring in the spread and recruited Heupel to run it.

"We didn't feel we could knock people off the ball," Stoops said. "We felt we could distribute the ball around and be effective making them chase us in all the different spaces on the field and all the different positions we were getting the ball to."

Once Stoops won the national championship in his second season, the Sooners' offense changed. He has had two 1,800-yard rushers (Quentin Griffin in 2002 and Adrian Peterson in 2004) and, as stated above, the textbook NFL quarterback.

"I knew we would be able to recruit linemen and backs in time," Stoops said. "That's what we evolved to, to where we're more balanced, and I always envisioned we would."

Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen has been to the Super Bowl with a pocket passer (Stan Humphries, San Diego, 1994) and developed an option quarterback who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting (Joe Hamilton, Georgia Tech, 1999). The 5-10 Hamilton threw for 3,060 yards and 29 touchdowns and rushed for 734 yards and six scores as a senior.

"If you can run the option and throw," Friedgen said, "good situations occur. If Joe had been a little taller, he would have had a heck of a chance in the NFL. Joe is a short guy who could see. A lot of short guys can't see. Linemen are so big in the NFL. He could see through them and around them. It wasn't anything I taught him. He had that."

Just as NFL quarterbacks are more talented, so are NFL defenses. College coaches often say the most difficult player to find is a big, athletic defensive tackle. There aren't a whole lot of Terrence Codys (6-5, 350) in college football. But there are a few of them playing on Sunday.

• Sophistication: NFL defenses are designed to confuse the quarterback and force him to make a bad decision in a hurry.

"In the NFL, you got no choice," Tuberville said. "He has to read coverages and get it off real quick. You can't make it if you can't read on the run. In college, you can take a great athlete and go with him. The defenses are not as complex. There's not as much audibilizing at the line of scrimmage. You got a scheme that you run and nobody can get you out of it."

Colleges are supposed to adhere to a 20-hour week. Pro teams study and practice for at least twice that amount of time. That's another reason for the variety in the college game.

"You want to be a special project for a team," said former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, now an ESPN analyst. "If you only have three days to prepare for a team, you want to be different. You want to have something they haven't seen. That's why I brought the spread option to the Pac-10 [in 2007]. I saw what Bowling Green and Northwestern were doing. They were beating better people."

That has been the secret of the service academies for years.

"You never want to play Air Force or Navy during the regular season," Bellotti said. "You want them in the first game or the bowl game. Otherwise, you can't teach your team what to do. You can't teach your scout team how to give your starters a look. That's the scariest thing about special projects."

[+] EnlargeRalph Friedgen
AP Photo/Nick WassMaryland's Ralph Friedgen has coached quarterbacks at both the college and in the NFL.

• Money. NFL franchises often invest eight-figure sums in their quarterbacks. That pretty much eliminates the possibility that the offense will revolve around a running quarterback.

"He's your franchise guy," Stoops said. "And it's a longer season. If you're an option attack, or even a style similar to Florida, where Tim [Tebow] ran the ball so much, in a 16-game season or [the NFL] may go to 18 games, the beating the season takes, I don't know that you're going to get your value."

Friedgen, as usual, is more blunt.

"I always thought if you could run the option in pro football, you would drive people nuts," Friedgen said. "They would try to kill that guy. If a quarterback runs in the NFL, to be honest with you, they would try to hurt him."

• Hash marks: The NCAA hash marks are 60 feet from each sideline. The NFL hash marks are 70 feet, 9 inches from each sideline. The college game's wider hash marks give offenses more room to roam on the "field" side. That encourages the use of a running quarterback.

"In college football, you put your best players to the wide side of the field," Tuberville said. "An option quarterback forces the defense to defend the field."

Conversely, the NFL's hash marks keep the ball in the middle of the field. The NFL quarterback's sideline pass must cover an extra 10 feet from the hash to the near sideline. That distance has exposed many a college arm.

Measuring college quarterbacks by NFL standards is a difficult business. If it were easy, then the NFL wouldn't be littered with so many draft busts. Projecting the professional worth of a college quarterback playing in an offense that bears little resemblance to the NFL has taxed the analytical capacity of one general manager after another.

No coach at the college level seems to be in a hurry to change that anytime soon.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com