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AFM Magazine

Quarterback to the Future.

by: Richard Scott
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Pick your poison. A classic drop-back quarterback with a shotgun arm and the vision and brains to pick apart a defensive scheme, or a quick, elusive option runner who can turn small openings into big gains and make plays on the perimeter.

But what if you could have a combination of both? What if you could have a quarterback who possessed evasive running skills and effective passing skills?

You can. Just look around. It seems like he's everywhere in college football these days.

Some of the best college quarterbacks in the last 20 years have been excellent drop-back passers, such as Tim Couch and Troy Aikman, and some have been dangerous runners, like Jamelle Holieway or Tony Rice. In fact, most college quarterbacks fell into one or two categories, but rarely brought the best of both to the table.

That has changed in the 1990s, especially in the latter half of the decade. The latest trend is to put the ball in the hands of a versatile, multi-talented quarterback with a combination of skills, who can execute the plays and create a few of his own with his athletic ability.

The poison is still dangerous, but it's coming in a different package these days.

Blitz him and he might find the hot receiver, snap a quick pass and burn the defense for a big gain. Or he might avoid the blitz, break containment and either take off downfield or scramble until he finds an open receiver.

Stack the line to stop the run and he might hurt the defense with a play-action pass or a naked bootleg with the option to run or pass.

Fill the field with defensive backs in zone coverage and rush just three or four defenders, and he might tuck it and run for big gains, or scramble around and wait for an open receiver.

One plausible theory is that the trend toward more athletic quarterbacks probably traces itself back the 1980s, when the University of Miami became the first big program to stress speed over size in its defensive scheme and recruiting emphasis.

Under Jimmy Johnson, Miami recruited linebackers and turned them into defensive linemen, recruited defensive backs and turned them into linebackers and turned up the heat under opposing offenses with its overall team speed.

"We didn't want guys who were big and strong and ran the 40 in 5.5. We wanted guys who could run and make plays," said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, a former Miami assistant under Johnson and Dennis Erickson. "The defenses have dictated the move to a more mobile quarterback. Because of that, a quarterback has to be able to get away from the rush. You can either live and die with a true drop-back, three-, five- and seven-step quarterback, or you can find a more mobile quarterback and train him to play the position the way you want him to play."

At Ole Miss, Tuberville recruited current Rebels starter Romaro Miller for his strong arm and quick feet. At Auburn, Tuberville inherits sophomore Gabe Gross, who brings those same versatile qualities, and he signed a similar quarterback, Allen Tillman of Newton, Miss., in his first Auburn recruiting class.

"You need a quarterback who can turn a bad play into a great play," Tuberville said. "Probably of 70 plays you might run, the quarterback's going to make something happen on his own on about 15 of those plays.

"If you've got a guy who runs a 4.8, 4.9 or a 5-flat at quarterback, you're limiting what you can do and it's going to be tough to be productive against the teams that have a lot of speed on defense."

One of the first multiple quarterbacks to make a major impact was Florida State's Charlie Ward, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1993, but the last four years of college football have produced some talented run-pass combination quarterbacks. Some of the best of the best include Auburn's Dameyune Craig, Tulane's Shaun King, Kansas State's Michael Bishop, Syracuse's Donovan McNabb, Oregon's Akili Smith, Central Florida's Duante Culpepper and Virginia's Aaron Brooks.

Those players have completed their college eligibility, but this fall they will be followed by Georgia Tech's Joe Hamilton, Tennessee's Tee Martin, Georgia's Quincy Carter, Indiana's Antwaan Randle El, Ole Miss' Miller, North Carolina State's Jamie Barnette and Notre Dame's Jarius Jackson.

It's no coincidence that many of today's more versatile quarterbacks are black. More and more young black men aspire to play quarterback at the major college level, and more and more coaches are willing to offer that opportunity.

But before anyone starts to think this is a story solely about black quarterbacks, let's not forget that some of the better scrambling quarterbacks in college football last fall included UCLA's Cade McNown and Texas A&M's Randy McCown. And what about Air Force's Blane Morgan, who ripped Washington in the Oahu Bowl with both his passing and his running skills.

Wisconsin's Mike Samuels was never going to draw comparisons with Michael Bishop, but he brought a combination of option running and effective passing to complement the Badgers' running game and led Wisconsin to a share of the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win. The year before, Scott Frost led Nebraska to the national title with his combination of option running and play-action, roll-out passing skills.

This new breed of quarterback appears to be the results of three forces: As offensive coaches looked for ways to attack the 4-3 press-man defenses that have become so popular. When defensive coaches decided to put eight and nine players in the box, blitz from every direction and every possible combination and trust speedy cornerbacks to get the job done in man-to-man coverage, offensive coaches answered with a new breed of quarterback.

"I don't think there's any question about that," said Indiana assistant head coach Pete Schmidt, who coaches Indiana's talented sophomore, Randal El. " The defenses have incorporated so much more speed and they're doing a great job of rushing the passer. If you've got a guy who can get outside the pocket or make some people miss and have the threat of the run as well as the pass, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense.

"A defense can take away a great running back or a great wide receiver sometimes, but it's hard to take away a great quarterback who can do all those things.

"Teams are maintaining a passing offense, not going to a total option offense, but they're running just enough to combat what defenses are doing. They're moving the pocket around, moving the launch point around, trying to keep the defense from keying on where you're going to throw the ball from every time."

Another reason for the trend to multiple quarterbacks is because offensive coaches are looking to run multiple attacks. These offensive systems require athletic quarterbacks who run the option on one play, pass out of a spread formation on the next play and then run the quarterback draw out of the shotgun on the play after that.

"That's something we look for a guy who's got an escape dimension and some mobility to move the pocket and change the launch point," said Oregon offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, who coached Akili Smith, one of the nation's top multiple quarterbacks in 1998. "For us, it has more to do with our style of offense and what we're trying to do. It makes a defense prepare for the option, but they still have to stay in their lanes in coverage because if the quarterback spreads the defense out and hits a seam, he's got the speed to take it the distance.

"When you've got that, a defense doesn't have a sitting duck back there that they can just go after, because he's going to be a lot of different places: he's running the option, running the quarterback draw, getting on the edge to throw, running a lot of play-action stuff. That just creates more problems for the defense."

The third reason for the trend toward more multiple quarterbacks is the relative dearth of quality drop-back quarterbacks who can stand tall in the pocket, wait until the last second in the face of a fierce pass rush, pick out an open receiver and complete the pass with the appropriate combination of velocity and touch.

"Not everybody has a Peyton Manning or a John Elway," Clemson defensive coordinator Reggie Herring said, "so coaches are just adjusting to their environments, trying to find a competitive edge.

"The bottom line is that there's only about three or four really top-notch quarterbacks in the country, and I mean a pure, pro-style, drop-back, big-time quarterbacks. Well, not everybody's going to get one of those, so a lot of teams have just decided to take a more athletic kid to give you a more diversified offensive scheme, a different kind of threat.

"So the slow, drop-back thrower with the average athletic ability gets pushed aside for the more athletic kid with the good arm and the overall ability that gives an offense more options and more weapons."

Herring knows his subject from personal experience, because he coaches in a conference where multiple quarterbacks are the norm. In 1998, Clemson's Atlantic Coast Conference schedule put the Tigers face-to-face with Georgia Tech's Hamilton, Virginia's Brooks, N.C. State's Barnette, North Carolina freshman Ronald Curry and Maryland freshman Randall Jones.

"If they've got a good supporting cast, they're very difficult to defend, and very frustrating," Herring said. "They run a little option, they sprint out, they run the naked bootleg, and when they do drop back, they can throw the ball or they can take off and run it. That's tough to deal with.

"Coaches can bring back the option all they want, but defenses are bigger, stronger and faster and it's a more violent game, and if you get your star quarterback hurt, you're in trouble. What these quarterbacks can do is get out on the edge and run or throw or avoid a sack and turn a negative play into a big play."

There is a fourth possible reason for the trend toward multiple quarterbacks, but it's not one coaches like to talk about publicly. In the opinion of some coaches, the trend has a lot to do with meeting the bottom line in college football.

Many coaches will privately admit they would rely on the option in a heartbeat if they thought they could get away with it, but they are motivated by the need to sell tickets and keeps fans interested in order to save their jobs.

To serve those needs, coaches know they must pass often and effectively. In an effort to both throw the ball and still move the ball on the ground, they go with multiple quarterbacks.

"Let's cut through the bull: everybody in this business is scared to death of getting fired, and if you don't sell tickets you get fired," one coach said. "Even if you're not winning, you can try to sell tickets and create interest by throwing the ball.

"If you're running the wishbone and the fans are bored, or if people aren't coming to the games, you stand a better chance of getting fired. Not everybody can win, but everybody can fill seats by throwing the ball and trying to be exciting.

"You can do that with a quarterback who can run and throw. He might not be the best passer you've got, but if he can create some excitement in the passing game and make a few plays with his running ability, then you've got something to build on."


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