13 for '13: The spread generation shall inherit the earth

By Matt Hinton | Blogger

Thirteen recurring themes for the offseason agenda. Read the full list.


Brett Hudley sparked UCLA's surprising run to the Pac-12 Championship Game as a redshirt freshman. (US Presswire)

Traditionally, college quarterbacks fall clearly into one of two categories: On one hand, there's the statuesque, "pro style" pocket passer, whose reputation rides on his overpowering arm; on the other, the slippery, "athletic" type, who only has to throw well enough to make a defense pay for overcrowding the line of scrimmage. Coaches tailored the position to the playbook, or occasionally vice versa, and the athlete who transcended typecasting –- who could truly force defenses to respect him equally as both runner and passer –- was a rare gem. The coach who knew how to maximize his talents in both respects was even more rare.

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A decade into the spread era, that dynamic has become obsolete so quickly, and so thoroughly, that defenses and record books are still struggling to keep pace. So, too, is the NFL, which has just been awakened to the possibilities of the dual-threat by an influx of young, dynamic quarterbacks who have forced pro coaches to embrace familiar college concepts they once considered novelties, until they started working to equally head-spinning effect against next-level defenses. If 2012 was the year the pros got wise to the 21st century, it was also the year that college football yielded wholly to an even younger, arguably more dynamic influx of spread-bred quarterbacks who have never imagined a separation of powers between runner and passer. Together, they represent the spread era at full throttle.

Consider that before 2001, no player in Division I history had ever rushed for 1,000 yards in a season while also passing for 2,000 yards. Up to that point, the few quarterbacks who did manage to crack 1,000 on the ground were almost exclusively glorified tailbacks in triple-option schemes that rarely asked them to put the ball in the air. (Even the 1,000/1,000 milestone was unprecedented until 1981, the height of the option era.) Over the subsequent 11 years, from 2001 to 2011, a dozen different players broke the 2,000/1,000 barrier, all of them in spread offenses, some of them more than once. By the end of last year, the barrier had ceased to exist: The 2,000/1,000 Club added five new members in 2012 alone, all five of whom will be back this fall as part of the most versatile quarterback class the sport has ever produced. At least, so far.

The poster child for extremes in both youth and productivity is Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, about whom little needs to be added at this point. Manziel's first turn in the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman yielded individual SEC records for total offense in a single game (twice) and over a season, as well as a season-defining upset over the eventual national champion, Alabama, the catalyst for an avalanche of postseason superlatives. The A&M offense as a whole obliterated records for yards and points in a season, and became the first SEC team ever to surpass 7,000 yards of total offense; with a record-breaking evisceration of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, the Aggies also landed in the top five of the final polls for the first time since 1956.

At the same time, though, second-year quarterbacks who arrived in the same recruiting class as Manziel in 2011 flourished all over the country. At Ohio State, sophomore Braxton Miller rushed for more than 1,500 yards before sacks, set a school record for total offense and was voted the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year; the Buckeyes finished undefeated and untied for the fourth time since World War II, and Miller established himself as arguably the most serious challengerto Manziel's Heisman mantle in 2013. At Notre Dame, redshirt freshman Everett Golson guided the Fighting Irish to a perfect regular season and became the first freshman to start a BCS Championship Game since Virginia Tech's Michael Vick in 2000.

In the Pac-12, Oregon's Marcus Mariota was a first-team all-conference pick after leading the league's highest-scoring offense to a 12-1 record, a BCS win and a No. 2 finish in the final polls. Another redshirt freshman, Brett Hundley, led the conference in passing yards and touchdowns and accounted for nearly 63 percent of the Bruins' total offense – even after subtracting more than 300 of his 702 rushing yards due to negative yardage on sacks.

But Mariota and Hundley were ultimately out-dueled down the stretch by another redshirt freshman, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, who was an instant hit after taking over as the starter in November. With a month to go in the regular season, the Cardinal revamped the offense to take advantage of Hogan's athleticism, and proceeded to rip off six consecutive wins –- four of them at the expense of ranked teams –- en route to Pac-12 and Rose Bowl championships.


Kevin Hogan was 6-0 as a freshman starter, including the Rose Bowl. (US Presswire)

At Louisville, sophomore Teddy Bridgewater was the Big East's Offensive Player of the Year and came into his own in a Sugar Bowl upset of Florida. At Utah State, sophomore Chuckie Keeton accounted for nearly 4,000 total yards and led the Aggies to the best season in school history. At Nevada, sophomore Cody Fajardo entered Colin Kaepernick territory with 3,907 total yards (nearly a third of them coming on the ground) and 32 touchdowns. At Marshall, sophomore Rakeem Cato led the nation in passing yards per game. At Oklahoma State, redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh finished fourth nationally in pass efficiency and accounted for 20 touchdowns, despite starting just three games due to injury.

Of the 10 starting quarterbacks in BCS bowls earlier this month, fully half of them –- Everett Golson, Marcus Mariota, Kevin Hogan, Teddy Bridgewater and Florida's Jeff Driskel –- were in just their second year on campus. All but two of those 10, Florida State's E.J. Manuel and Kansas State's Collin Klein, are scheduled to be back in 2013. Of the top 10 teams in the final Associated Press poll, six were quarterbacked by redshirt freshmen or true sophomores; only one (Florida State) was led by a senior. Of the 16 FBS quarterbacks who went over 500 yards rushing and 2,000 yards passing last year, a dozen of them will be back.

Not all of the most hyped quarterbacks this fall are dual threats (see Alabama's A.J. McCarron and Georgia's Aaron Murray, the two most efficient passers in the nation in 2012), and not all dual threats are underclassmen (see Clemson's Tajh Boyd, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch, all entering their senior year). But the youth movement is another step in the evolution and entrenchment of the spread as the new normal.

As we've seen with the ongoing emergence of spread-friendly talents at the next level –- Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson, et al –- the leap for versatile quarterbacks who a few years ago would have been dismissed or shoehorned into a one-dimensional role in the NFL is getting shorter all the time. By the time the current crop comes of age two or three years from now, the bridge may be complete, even as the record books burn.

 
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