The interplay of recruiting, eliteness and pro-style versus spread schemes

Blutarsky and B&B discuss some interesting points. Explicitly or implicitly, the discussion turns on the role of schemes and top-flight recruits, coupled with scheme transitions. In short, are there advantages to recruiting to pro-style offenses versus the spread, and is it wrong (or at least misguided) to hire coaches who will transition their team from one to the other? And what’s the better plan for the long-run? I don’t think there even could be an answer to these questions, but below are some non-systematic thoughts.

1. For the truly elite-level recruiting teams, I think the agnosticism of pro-style treats them well because they basically recruit incredible players and then figure out the system and scheme later. Moreover, spread offenses, option offenses, and really any pass-first offense (including West Coast attacks of which I’d put Georgia in the category) require very good quarterback play. Alabama and LSU are basically designed to win in spite of their quarterbacks; Nick Saban does not want to return an all world defense with a bunch of five-star playmakers and lose because his QB was a junior and had some “growing pains”, which absolutely happens at every level. In other words, if you get be a top 5 recruiting team every year, it’s not that you want to be pro-style it’s that you want to be “system neutral.” They can get superior talent and can fit plays around those incredible guys. Note that this isn’t the same as “fitting your scheme to your players,” because we’re talking about first round draft choice guys not guys with certain strengths and certain weaknesses. I leave aside whether pro-style is truly more attractive to recruits or not.

2. For everyone else having an identity and being somewhat contrarian helps a lot because it allows you to focus your recruiting on guys that can help you, and in many cases it means you don’t have to compete with some other teams for those guys. It also means the traditional scouting services may overrated or underrate your recruiting class — you may have gotten a bunch of guys who will contribute but get a low ranking, or you may have missed a lot of guys you needed but wind up with a disproportionately high ranking because you got one or two guys who, while helpful, may not even be your most productive guys. Moreover, because you have a system with specific skills required, you can develop those skills. There are many examples, but think about how those Texas Tech teams under Leach always had four guys who could contribute and were open, even against the best Big 12 teams, because they’d worked on those skills every day for two years before they got in the game and had countless reps. If Michael Crabtree came along, great, but it also turned Danny Amendola and Trey Haverty into 1,000 yard guys. There are other examples too with other well coached teams. Think of a program like Iowa where Norm Parker sent a bunch of mid-level defensive recruits to the NFL as they developed in his traditional but effective 4-3 system.

3. This latter point plays into those “scheme” transitions. Every system requires you to have certain skills to be effective. A transition from one scheme to the other reduces everyone’s effectiveness. The old saying is that changing your offense makes all your seniors freshmen. I think the “fit” of a team to a spread or a pro-style or what not is often underrated: athletes are athletes and every offense is designed to put them in space. Many of the issues come in the fact that with a scheme change guys have simply practiced certain things less.

Where I do agree with it is in terms of depth. A spread-to-pass team has different depth needs than a flexbone team, and in turn they have different needs than a tight-end heavy team like Stanford. Every team wants to have a couple of good wide receivers, but only the spread to pass team needs eight of them; whereas only the flexbone team needs 10 runningbacks on the roster and none of them but Stanford need to have more than a couple of tight-end types. It absolutely takes time to build that kind of depth.

4. The effectiveness of scheme transitions often depends more on luck and circumstance than anything else. (1) Do you have a quarterback who can do what you need him to do (and how many do you have? What if he gets hurt? Coaching changes often decimate the quarterback spot.); (2) How familiar are your opponents with your scheme? The less familiar they are the more you can “buy time” with smoke and mirrors while you get better (when Georgia Tech won the ACC in Paul Johnson’s first season, they weren’t a great flexbone team but they had big surprise advantages that first year; some random spread team or even pro-style team doesn’t really catch people off guard anymore); and (3) How much depth do you have in general? The deeper your roster, the more you can play around with guys, move them around, and try to dedicate them to certain things. The less you have the more constrained you are to get into what you want to do, whatever it is. That said, I think for most players, the difference in what they are asked to do in a spread versus a pro-style scheme is vastly overrated, particularly in the case of run-first spread teams.

Ultimately I think the question is a good one but maybe too complex to even answer. I do think quarterback is the X factor for every single college and pro team nowadays, with extremely rare exceptions. The most “pro-style”-ist pro teams need great quarterbacking, but teams like LSU and Alabama do not. The reason: compared to their opponents, LSU and Alabama are simply much better teams, advantages that pro teams and very few, if any, other college teams have.

  • Chris

    Great article.  I feel bad even mentioning you have a typo… GT won the ACC in Paul Johnson’s second year.

  • Dantebartee

    Chris great job. I just have one question, why do you think that you must have a great qb to be successful? The reason i ask is because I am a DW ing freak and to me it would be applicable to have even have a mediocre qb and be successful. Just wondering what the thought process. Also, in the 1990s Nebraska did not have one “great qb” and they won 3 (should have been four) national championships. Just wondering why people are so into the qb these days. Thank you   

  • mccook2002

    I have to disagree with you on Nebraska. Except against some meager Big 8 opposition, Tommie Frazier was the QB for the salad days of Nebraska’s 1990’s run. (1993 to 1995) If you were to make a list of the all-time great option QBs, he would need to be on that list.

    Frazier missed a few games due to a blood clot problem. Apart from that, he probably would have taken home a Heisman trophy. Ask Florida’s defenders in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl if he was not “great qb.” Look at Nebraska’s first road game after Frazier graduated. They were shut out in the desert against Arizona State, and yielded three safeties.

  • Dantebartee

    I thought you were talking about throwers. My bad! Trust me Chris I myself am from Nebraska and love the huskers! I agree that Frazier was a great qb in his system. So here is a question, could a team survive with an average qb in say the Double Wing?

  • Guest

    I would argue that Tommie Frazier absolutely was a great QB (as well as Eric Crouch; Scott Frost being very much above average) for what he/they were asked to do within their scheme.  In my opinion, “great” doesn’t always mean great pro prospect.  

    Tommie Frazier, and many of those Nebraska QBs, was a great college/option QB.

    And no, I am not a Nebraska fan.  Far from it.

  • Dantebartee

    Really? Dont tell me your a longhorn or heaven forbid a SOONER! haha 

  • Guest

    Chris, in regards to 2, I would think that this could apply to elite teams as well. If Mike Leach was able to take low-rated players like Sonnie Cumbie and BJ Symons and turn them into record setters, I do not see why more elite program’s pocket passer QBs (the prototypical Leach QB) could not do the same if they had the same type of practice plans and offensive approach as Leach did at Texas Tech.  You did point out that having a contrarian scheme allows you to recruit a niche of players that fits your scheme without having significant competition for them, and thus  it is possible that Sonnie Cumbie and BJ Symons were actually a better fit for Leach’s system than say AJ McCarron, but honestly, if Leach had been able to get McCarron, I think he would have taken him in a flash.

  • A couple thoughts:–If a team’s “identity” is entirely predicated on having better athletes than the opposition and isn’t rooted in an overarching philosophy or a “decided schematic advantage” (to borrow a phrase from somebody…pompous), then that leaves the program especially vulnerable to a drop off in recruiting and/or failures in evaluation. I lived this in watching the Longhorns over the past decade. Mack Brown’s philosophy basically boils down to this: Step 1–Recruit superior athletes, Step 3–PROFIT!. When the roster has a selection of players like Cedric Benson, Jamal Charles, Vince Young, Brian Orakpo, and Earl Thomas this works fine (most of the time). But when you have a difference maker deficit, the results can be strinkingly different. Of course not having an offensive coordinator as singularly unimaginative and just plain bad as the Horns’ former OC probably helps a bit.

    –I agree on your point about the quarterback position being the X-factor when it comes to offensive transitions, but I would also add that offensive line can be a major issue as well. Imagine a team that has thrown the ball 50 times a game out of multiple wide receiver sets transitioning to a downhill, power run game. Or a team that emphasized zone run-blocking moving towards a scheme with more pulling and trapping. Of course many of the linemen will be able to learn the new keys and responsibilities, and the better ones may eventually excel, but it could take a while. There might be a few linemen who are extremely well-suited to one scheme that are just White Elephants in the other. I doubt all of Wisconsin’s maulers would transition successfully to a Mike Leach blocking scheme, for instance. This matters a lot because: 1) offensive line play is the key to everything on offense, 2) it takes a while to develop good linemen, and 3) a team needs so darn many of them.

  • Guest

    I completely agree on linemen, in fact I would go as far as saying offensive line is the X factor on offense that predicates how successful or unsuccessful an offense will be. You can have a great quarterback and/or runningbacks, but if your line cannot pass and/or run block, you are dead in the water. Case in point: Patriots vs Giants in tthe 2007 season super bowl (Note: this is an isolated example because overall New England’s offensive line has been outstanding over the years, especially at pass blocking). The Giants got to Brady all night. With all that being said, a great line can help a seemingly “mediocre” QB and/or stable of runningbacks be more successful.
    It all starts with the offensive line, plain and simple.

  • HuskyInExile

    Great observation on Texas!
    If Mack could do passable schemes & play calling their record would be as good as their great talent.

  • HuskyInExile

    Guess that is ‘old wisdom,’ but it is still true!

  • Stan

    Small nit re: Frazier [in the comments] — the run which is supposed to be one of the great plays all-time came vs. a defense trying to hold him up, not tackle him.  It was late in the game and the Gators have been told to hold him up to try to get a strip and a turnover.  They did a very poor job of getting the strip, but a great job of seeing to it that he didn’t go down.

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