The Year of the Athletic Quarterback

Florida QB  Jameis WinstonAfter Monday night’s Florida State rout of Pittsburgh it looks as if the 2013 college football season will be dubbed the year of the athletic quarterback. Jameis Winston, a freshman at Florida State, had a record breaking performance and he still isn’t being mentioned as one of the top five quarterbacks in the country. Heck, he isn’t even one of the top quarterbacks in his own conference. The ACC, which is the conference in which Florida State competes, is not considered one of the strongest conferences in college football yet it still has experienced quarterbacks that are overshadowing Wilson at the moment. Whether that continues to be the case, we will have to watch the action over the course of the next few weeks.

The Change of the College Quarterback
After week one of the college football season we are seeing the following data when it comes to winning the Heisman Trophy per Bovada: Teddy Bridgewater, 5/1; Braxton Miller, 13/2; Johnny Manziel, 15/2; Marcus Mariota & Tajh Boyd, 8/1. It is interesting to see that all five of the top candidates for the Heisman Trophy are mobile and athletic quarterbacks. Oh, how things have changed over the last two decades. When I was growing up the only mobile quarterback on the football field was Charlie Ward at Florida State. All other quarterbacks were considered pocket quarterbacks or specialists. Scott Frost was an amazing option quarterback at Nebraska but he was more like a running back that took snaps. In the early 2000s Eric Crouch was another option quarterback at Nebraska but it was known that he was not going to throw a 30 yard out.

Other than specialists that ran the option, the quarterback position was comprised of mostly “in the pocket” quarterbacks. The average height was about 6’3″ to 6″6″ and the average weight was around 245 pounds. Names like Carson Palmer, Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers and Chris Weinke come to mind when most avid college football fans think about recent quarterbacks. The “modern” quarterback is much different. No longer are quarterbacks 6’4″ and 245 pounds. Now quarterbacks are 6’1″ and 195 pounds soaking wet. They are track stars like Robert Griffin III. They are baseball stars like the aforementioned Jameis Wilson. These are athletes that grew up playing multiple sports. They did not spend their time standing in the back yard throwing a football through a tire hanging from a tree.

Instead of throwing the football through the tire young quarterbacks are running track, playing basketball or specializing in another sport in the offseason. Quarterbacks have become true athletes. When looking back on the history of college football two names come to mind when it comes to the quarterback position changing – Charlie Ward and Michael Vick. Interestingly, Charlie Ward won the Heisman Trophy in 1993 but the athletic quarterback concept did not catch on for another half decade. In 1999, Michael Vick wowed sports fans at Virginia Tech. While Virginia Tech had been decent in the past they were never a national title contender. This freshman quarterback gave Virginia Tech fans a reason to believe Blacksburg, Virginia was a hotbed for college football.

Although Michael Vick never won a Heisman or a National Championship, he changed college football forever. Since 2000, almost every division I college football coach is looking for a different type of quarterback. There are some coaches like Les Miles or Nick Saban that prefer the pro style quarterback but these offenses are few and far between. An athletic quarterback now gives the little guy a chance. As I mentioned, Michael Vick was on a Virginia Tech team that had never really had much national recognition. One truly athletic quarterback helped this team get all the way to the National Championship game. This was huge for the teams like Oregon, Texas Tech and Hawaii. Instead of trying to develop a pro style offense with a traditional quarterback coaches Chip Kelly, Mike Leach and June Jones decided they wanted to go a different route. Enter the spread offense.

The Spread Option
In the early to mid 2000s college coaches wanted a quarterback that could run and throw. Scott Frost and Eric Crouch could run at Nebraska but if there was ever a 3rd and long it was a foregone conclusion they would be punting on 4th down. Mostly because they could not throw the ball. Urban Meyer brought his spread option to the University of Florida and won two national championships with Tim Tebow playing a big part. While some may argue that Tebow cannot throw he is much more efficient than the option style quarterbacks of the 1980s and 1990s. Urban Meyer is now at Ohio State and his quarterback Braxton Miller is now picked to be the runner up for the Heisman. As you can imagine, Miller has the ability to run and throw the ball. Miller is listed at 6’2″ and 220 pounds. Just fifteen years ago many college coaches would have passed on him just because of his size. They may have put him at tight end or wide receiver but they would have never thought of him as a quarterback.

Not only are quarterbacks getting more athletic but they are getting younger as well. Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman which would never have been considered in the 1990s. Manziel was so impressive as an athlete that he won the Heisman even though his Texas A&M team had two losses during the year. Most sports experts feel as if Manziel won the Heisman with his performance against Alabama. The play that stands out in that performance was him escaping a few defensive linemen, running outside the pocket and throwing a touchdown pass. Anyone that watched the game knows the exact play. This is the modern quarterback.

The Year of the Athletic Quarterback
In 2013, we are seeing more and more quarterbacks that enjoy getting out of the pocket. It is no longer the case that coaches are teaching high school quarterbacks to simply slide around the pocket to get a little more time. Instead, they are taught to run from danger and reassess the situation. This skill set was not taught when I was growing up. The quarterback was taught to stay in the pocket and let his wide receivers attempt to break away from the cornerbacks. If the wide receivers did not gain any separation the quarterback was expected to throw the ball away or take a sack. Today, the quarterback is expected to break the pocked and give wide receivers another two or three seconds to get some separation.

At this point, no one knows who will win the Heisman. What we do know is that the college football landscape is covered with athletic quarterbacks that change the game with both their feet and their arm. This makes the game a little more exciting for diehard college fans. There is a huge disconnect when it comes to college football and professional football. NFL coaches want the pro style, old school quarterback that is 6″5″ and 250 pounds. There are hundreds of hours spent looking at film to see if a quarterback will fit a certain NFL style. In 2013, most NFL teams have not adopted any type of spread option offense. The Philadelphia Eagles are now coached by Chip Kelly who revolutionized college football at Oregon and that may start the spread attack trend in professional football.

Building an offense takes several years. No one expects to see the Eagles running the spread and scoring 45 points a game in Kelly’s first season. That said, some do feel as if they will see glimpses of a different style of NFL offense that is similar to the college game. Avid college football fans will remain true to their sport as they feel as if the college game brings the innovative aspects to football. Whether or not these new aged offenses ever make it to the NFL is something we will have to watch and see. Several college coaches have tried to make the jump to the NFL but they have been unsuccessful. One name that comes to mind is Steve Spurrier. Spurrier went to the Redskins but just could not find the way to create a winning atmosphere. Nick Saban is a college coach that was in the NFL for a few years before deciding to bounce back to the collegiate ranks. On the flip side of that, Pete Carroll was an outstanding coach as USC for several years and he has had recent success in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks. Interestingly enough, Carroll and the Seahawks have a quarterback that is not the prototypical NFL quarterback. Russell Wilson is more of the new aged, extend the play type of quarterback. The same type of quarterback we see all over the college football landscape every Thursday night and Saturday afternoon.

The 2013 college football season is going to be a joy to watch. One of the reasons is that it is the year of the athletic quarterback. Sit back and enjoy some of the best collegiate quarterback play we have seen in years. Many of the aforementioned names, that are on the short list for the Heisman, are also experienced. Experienced and athletic quarterbacks make college football so much more fun to watch.

By Jesse Wojdylo