By MARK KNUDSON @MarkKnudson41 Special to WoodyPaige.com
For many years, Penn State was known as “Linebacker U” because the program consistently produced high quality NFL linebacker talent, from Jack Ham to Shane Conlon to Lavar Arrington and Tamba Hali. The University of Southern California, from Mike Garrett to O.J. Simpson to Charles White, Marcus Allen and Reggie Bush was “Tailback U.”
So who, or where exactly, is “Quarterback U?”
This seems to be a real problem for the NFL these days. The league continues to rely solely on college football as its only talent feeder system – a de facto minor league. In many cases, such as with defensive lineman, defensive backs and wide receivers, it’s working. In terms of quarterbacks…not so much.
To be fair, producing NFL-caliber quarterback talent isn’t the job of ANY college football program – winning college football games is. And more often than not, the top college programs are opting for quarterbacks with a different skill set – notably the ability to run the ball effectively – than NFL teams are looking for. The “pro style offense” is difficult to win with in college football. It requires a school to be able to recruit at an elite level in order to be able to outman the guy across from the line of scrimmage on every play. Very few schools can do that. And even those who can, like Alabama, are moving away from the pro style offense and going with a system that makes the quarterback’s ability to run an integral part of the offensive attack.
The best college teams aren’t featuring QB’s that are strictly drop back passers. A (not so) quick perusal of NFL rosters reveals that “Quarterback U” simply doesn’t exist.
College football’s best programs, including Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia, TCU, Penn State, Notre Dame and TCU among others, have exactly the same number – ONE – QB on current NFL rosters as Delaware, Alabama-Birmingham, North Dakota State, San Jose State, Sam Houston State, Monmouth, Eastern Illinois, Wesley and Northern Colorado.
It’s the schools that are annually in the middle of the pack that are turning out the most QB talent. Ole Miss has a pair of starting quarterbacks in the NFL, Eli Manning and Dak Prescott. Cal also had a pair, Aaron Rodgers and Jared Goff, before Rodgers was injured. Southern Cal, Michigan and Oregon State have each produced one starter and two back-ups.
Miami of Ohio has produced a current NFL starter and a back-up. Miami of Florida – a school which used to be among those touting themselves as “QB U” – does not have a signal caller on a current NFL roster.
The closest things to “Quarterback U?” Michigan State has produced four current NFL signal callers, including one starter (Kirk Cousins) and three back-ups. If you had a gun to your head, could you name the school with two current NFL starters, one NFL back-up, and another starter who played three of his four seasons there before finishing at a different school?
It’s North Carolina State, with Phillip Rivers and Jacoby Brissett as starters, and Mike Glennon as a backup…with Russell Wilson having played for the Wolfpack for three of his four college seasons before finishing his career at Wisconsin. These are as close to “Quarterback U” as the NFL has today.
That explains a lot about what we are now seeing on Sundays.
At some point, the NFL is either going to have to embrace the running quarterbacks and show patience in developing them, or find a different method of training guys fresh out of college systems before playing them at the pro level. DeShaun Watson, now of the Houston Texans and formerly at Clemson, is an example of a QB recruited to run a spread offense in college who’s just as effective with his feet as he is with his arm. In the NFL, he’s being discouraged from running. The Texans are trying to mold him into a drop back passer on the fly. Many teams have tried to do this with other similarly talented players (Tim Tebow, Robert Griffin III, etc) and only a few have succeeded.
The better option is out there, waiting for the NFL to fully embrace it. A group of football veterans, including agent Don Yee, former Pro-Bowl receiver Ed McCaffrey, former Head Coach Mike Shanahan and former NFL official Mike Pereira are involved with the fledging “Pacific Pro Football League,” which will – if and when it debuts – offer college-age players an alternative to college football, much like baseball’s minor league system does. If/when it launches, the “Pac Pro” as it’s called, will feature just four teams, all based in California to start with, with 50-player rosters. They plan to play eight games in the late summer, pay the players $50K a year while allowing them to sign endorsement deals. The players will forfeit their college eligibility.
Will it work? Others have tried and failed, even with the NFL’s backing. But this is a little different in that it’s not designed to compete with the NFL, rather to supplement it, while it trains players in the pro-style game. It could be exactly what the NFL needs to develop quarterbacks to become more NFL ready. The league, always mindful of finances, has yet to endorse what would be its first true farm system.
The success of the Pac Pro or another similar venture would have far reaching effects. College powerhouses like Alabama and Ohio State would suffer the loss of numerous five-star recruits who would be invited to turn pro out of high school instead. On the other side, the NCAA would likely be set free from the ever present pressure to pay salaries to college football players, since players would now have another option to earn a paycheck rather than an education. And football fans would not only get more football, but after two or three seasons, likely see improved quarterback play in the NFL.
Sounds like a winner for all concerned.