Like It or Not, College Football Is Influencing the NFL
Watching offenses like the Eagles (particularly the Nick Foles-led version), the Rams and the Chiefs suggests that NFL coaches have finally learned to stop worrying and love the college game. They realize they’ll win more games if they stop complaining about the lack of preparation the current college game provides and just meet their drafted players where they are, instead of trying to force years of learning down their throats with suboptimal results.
As someone who covers college football, this was refreshing to watch. College coaches figured out years ago that it didn’t do any good to get mad at high school coaches for running overly simplistic offenses. The high-school coaches needed to win to keep their jobs, and they were going to run what worked. So most college coaches simply adjusted to the players they got, and NFL coaches are now doing the same—embracing offensive schemes that they once hated so much. While no one in the pro league would be silly enough to switch completely to Washington State’s Air Raid or New Mexico’s Pistol-based triple option, the incorporation of some of college football’s more creative concepts makes the NFL game more fun.
This confluence should make NFL fans’ fall Saturday viewing even more entertaining as they try to spot the next trend coming to their team. Here are a few things to watch for in the coming season.
Check the play-calling, then Check With Me
One of the biggest differences between the college and pro games is NFL teams’ ability to use a headset in one player’s helmet to radio in play calls. There’s no need for the giant posterboards with four photos and the screens that some college programs use to hide signals—those are taken care of in the NFL by the radio. But that doesn’t mean the NFL can’t still borrow a few concepts.
Before Hugh Freeze was fired at Ole Miss, NFL coaches examining his players would linger and ask Rebels coaches how they boiled entire play calls (formation, protection, play) down to one word. Since most quarterbacks aren’t coming into the league accustomed to reciting what basically amounts to a football haiku—and then another one if their coach wants a potential check called in the huddle—it makes sense that coaches would want to boil down the play calls into shorter terminology.
This helps for another reason—short play calls also can be communicated using simple symbols. The original play call may come in through the helmet, but since the radio is turned off with 15 seconds remaining on the play clock, someone on the sideline can signal in an audible fairly easily. And since the signal would come so close to the snap and be a play designed to exploit an immediate weakness in the defense, deciphering the offense’s signals may not matter.
What I’ve just described has been going on in college football for years in Check With Me offenses. Ever notice that some college offense will line up and possibly go through some motion or quarterback cadence before 11 heads suddenly turn to the sideline? That’s a Check With Me. The offense is looking for a signal from the coaching staff now that the staff has had a chance to see the defense line up. College offenses that play at a high tempo have the luxury to exercise these checks because they’re lined up a full 25 seconds before they need to snap the ball.
And while NFL teams may not want to risk signaling entire plays Check With Me-style, having simple play calls and lining up without a huddle does offer some advantages that most quarterbacks coming out of college will feel comfortable exploiting. Great NFL quarterbacks have always been granted wide latitude when it comes to changing plays, but younger ones tend to get forced into more rigid systems. Because of up-tempo schemes as well as read-option and run-pass option concepts in college, quarterbacks now leave that level quite accustomed to making pre-snap and post-snap (in the case of an RPO) decisions that influence how a play is run. It might be wise to allow the best young quarterbacks more freedom and time at the line of scrimmage. Call the play with the radio and allow them to get the offense lined up. Then allow them to change the play or institute a Check With Me plan.
Baker Mayfield had a lot of freedom at the line of scrimmage at Oklahoma, and he was great at diagnosing the defense and getting the Sooners into the best play. When Deshaun Watson played at Clemson, coaches granted him more freedom every year. His final season, he led the Tigers to the national title.
It’s not the least bit surprising that Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota looked more comfortable working in a no-huddle environment last season after never huddling at Oregon. Now, Mariota will play for a head coach (Mike Vrabel) who watched Bill O’Brien adjust his offense to suit Watson’s strengths last year in Houston. He’ll also play for an offensive coordinator (Matt LaFleur) who helped Sean McVay convert the Rams offense into one former Air Raid slinger Jared Goff was comfortable running.
For the past 10 years, college and NFL playcalling has looked very different. Don’t be shocked if they continue to look much more alike moving forward.
Choose Your Own Adventure On The D-Line
Does your favorite NFL team need help on the defensive line? Of course it does—everybody wants to get better up front. And no matter where your team is deficient in that position group, the class of 2019 draft-eligible defensive linemen has what you need.
Heck, Clemson’s starting defensive line pretty much has one of everything. Christian Wilkins is a 6' 4", 300-pound three-technique who can play—and has played —any position on the line. Dexter Lawrence is a 340-pounder who might have been the second-most agile player on his high school team behind current Stanford tailback Bryce Love. Meanwhile, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell can come screaming off the edge or set the edge in the run game.
The most exciting prospect is probably Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who might wind up the No. 1 pick in the draft. If Aaron Donald hadn’t already paved the way, NFL teams might undervalue the speed/strength combo the Oliver stuffs into a 6' 2", 285-pound package. But considering the fact that Oliver—who had 16.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore—is as dominant or more dominant at Houston than Donald was at Pittsburgh, Oliver might be the surest thing in the draft.
But NFL teams will have so many options. Want a 285-pound pass rusher who runs like a 230-pounder? Check out Michigan’s Rashan Gary. Like good genes and pressure on the quarterback? Check out Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, who looks every bit as terrifying coming off the edge as older brother Joey did. And while you’re watching the Buckeyes, check out 295-pound tackle Dre’Mont Jones. Ohio State was so deep on the line last season that Jones couldn’t put up gaudy numbers, but he collapsed offenses from the inside out when he was on the field. (While you’re watching the Buckeyes, get your 2020 draft prep started early by checking out Chase Young, who will come off the edge opposite Bosa.)
In the SEC, the combo of tackle Jeffery Simmons and end Montez Sweat at Mississippi State might give the Bulldogs a pair of first-rounders. And of course Alabama is loaded as usual. At 6' 7" and 308 pounds, Raekwon Davis looks like the 3–4 defensive end you’d make for your team using the Create-A-Player feature in Madden. On the other side, Isaiah Buggs could have a breakout season.
Out west, the defensive tackle factory at Washington hasn’t stopped humming. Vita Vea may be in Tampa, where veteran Gerald McCoy is ordering him to introduce himself as demigod Maui, but 322-pound tackle Greg Gaines will make sure the gaps stay clogged for the Huskies.
Whatever you want on the defensive line, college football has it this season.
Not your typical quarterback prospects
This time last year, everyone seemed reasonably certain USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Wyoming’s Josh Allen would be first-round draft choices. Mayfield and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson didn’t seem like surefire first-rounders before the season started, but by the time it ended, the idea of them getting selected in the first 32 seemed quite reasonable.
This year? It’s anyone’s guess which signal-callers will emerge as the first-rounders come draft season. Missouri’s Drew Lock looks the part (6' 4", 225) and can make all the throws. He could stand to boost his completion percentage (57.4 last year), but his yards per attempt (9.3) were adequate. He averaged 10.1 yards per attempt and threw four touchdowns against Georgia’s excellent defense last season. That’s a great sign, since last year’s Bulldogs were the closest thing to an NFL defense that Lock played. The Tigers lost that game 53–28, but Lock can’t play defense too.
Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham isn’t quite as big as Lock, but he’s big enough at 6' 3", 215. In his first year as the starter since transferring from Baylor, Stidham needed about half a season to adjust to his new offense. Once he got comfortable—and once offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey got comfortable with Stidham—Stidham proved one of the nation’s most versatile quarterbacks. He can go deep, but he has excellent touch closer to the line of scrimmage. He also is athletic enough to scramble and gain significant yardage on either designed runs or when choosing to keep on a read option.
The player who NFL GMs will want to fall in love with the most is Oregon’s Justin Herbert. At 6' 6" and 225 pounds, he’s a true dual threat. When Herbert was healthy last season, the Ducks went 6–2 and averaged 49.1 points and 516.5 yards a game. When Herbert missed five games with a broken collarbone, the Ducks’ offense broke down. If Herbert stays healthy and keeps piling up similar numbers, he stands a good chance of being the first quarterback off the board. (If he decides to skip his senior season.)
One QB who could seriously improve his stock this season is West Virginia’s Will Grier, who threw for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns in an injury-shortened 2017 and who should post absurd numbers in the Mountaineers’ offense this season. Grier will get a lot of questions in the pre-draft process about the PED suspension he served after testing positive while a redshirt freshman at Florida in 2015. Grier likely will handle those interviews well, and that plus another great season at West Virginia might be enough to get into the first round. In week three, Grier will meet another potential first-rounder when the Mountaineers play at NC State. The Wolfpack’s Ryan Finley doesn’t get to throw to do-it-all dynamo Jaylen Samuels anymore, but NC State should have a deep receiving corps.
Meanwhile, Mayfield’s rise up the draft board this past spring should bode well for Penn State’s Trace McSorley. Like Mayfield last year, the 6' 0", 203-pound McSorley lacks ideal size but is the most accomplished returning quarterback in the country. He’ll be knocked for his size, but he continues to befuddle defenses. We’ll see if that continues with former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead gone to become the head coach at Mississippi State. But Penn State’s offense shouldn’t change even if the guy calling the plays has left. Quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne has waited patiently for this opportunity, and he should be able to pick up where Moorhead left off as coordinator.
Of course, there’s always a chance NFL teams don’t come away as impressed with this crop of QBs. That’s O.K., because there probably will be a defensive lineman on the board who excites everyone.
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