- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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Success in college football and strong quarterback play are inextricably linked. No argument against it exists. No logical argument, anyway.
It is the most important position, the most scrutinized position, the most overevaluated and competitively recruited position.
The programs with the best quarterbacks win. Period. This season alone, the teams whose quarterbacks rank first through fourth in raw QBR -- ESPN's index that measures quarterback play by incorporating the context and details of every snap -- are all among the 14 remaining FBS unbeatens.
Nine of the 14 teams yet to lose rank among the top 16 in QBR.
Since the start of the 2010 season, of the nine programs with the highest win percentage, seven also rank among the top 15 in QBR.
The most efficient way to make a quantum leap in the college game? Find a great quarterback and perfect his development. Ask about the impact of an elite QB at Texas A&M, which was mired in mediocrity before Johnny Manziel took over last season and turned the Aggies into an elite team overnight.
We live in a golden age of quarterbacks, from the NFL level to high schools. College prospects at the position understand the geometrics of football and achieve physical feats at a rate their predecessors of a generation past could not fathom.
Still, as quarterback play undeniably dictates the title marches and subplots of college football, coaches are no better than 15 years ago at projecting the game's stars. And they admit it.
"As far as having some ideal system to determine quarterback success," said Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, a standout QB in his day at the school and the mentor last season to Manziel at A&M, "you'll never reach that."
The evidence is all around us. Despite the microscope under which top young quarterbacks play and the ever-expanding evaluations, position-specific training and exhaustive offseason routines, of the top signal-callers, just as many come from obscure backgrounds as they do from high-profile backgrounds.
For every Jameis Winston, Florida State's freshman star who was ranked the No. 1 QB recruit by ESPN two years ago, there's a Brett Smith, Wyoming's dangerous, dual-threat junior whose list of scholarship offers was headlined by the Cowboys, New Mexico State and Eastern Washington.
Several top programs, in fact, just can't seem to get it right.
As quarterbacks flourish at Fresno State, Old Dominion and Ball State, traditional powers such as Texas, USC and Florida remain slowed by inconsistent play. On the first Saturday of September this season, the Longhorns, Trojans and Gators all lost, combining to score 44 points. Each team posted a QBR below 40 on that day. (Fifty is considered average; Baylor leads the nation at 93.8.)
Texas, USC and Florida have won four national titles in the past decade. Yet since 2010, together, they've played in one BCS bowl game, the Gators' Sugar Bowl loss last season to Louisville and its star quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater.
Over those past 3½ seasons, Florida ranks 84th in QBR at 47.1; Texas is 70th at 51.4, the definition of ordinary; USC, with problems that extend beyond quarterback difficulty, is 28th at 62.8. Since the end of Matt Barkley's junior year, though, the Trojans are 61st in QBR and have lost eight of 19 games.
These programs largely sign the quarterbacks they covet. Recruiting is not the issue -- evaluation and development are.
So what ingredients make a great quarterback, and why does it remain difficult to project the stars of tomorrow, even when today's news is filled with such detailed reports on the top prospects? The process, according to some coaches and players who've fared well at the game of QB development, is part of the problem.
"Honestly, I think recruiting has spoiled a lot of kids," said Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, who has groomed Bridgewater. "There's all these QB experts out there. Everybody's hunting down the magic formula."
Bridgewater, a third-year starter and likely the top NFL prospect among college quarterbacks, said his progress stalled at Louisville only as a freshman in 2011, when he began to believe the hype.
"Reality set in," Bridgewater said. "I just had to learn to grow up and realize that playing quarterback isn't 90 percent athleticism. It's more about the little things. It's a technique position."
I just had to learn to grow up and realize that playing quarterback isn't 90 percent athleticism. It's more about the little things. It's a technique position.
-- Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater
Bridgewater's first career pass was intercepted by a Murray State defender. The quarterback remembers it well. He never makes the same mistake twice, Watson said. Early in his career, Bridgewater asked Watson to coach him hard. The coach and QB both brought it up interviews last week.
That's humility, according to Watson. That's character, atop the veteran coach's list of characteristics found in the ideal QB.
"I believe Tom Brady is Tom Brady because he's got great character," Watson said. "Drew Brees has great character. I see it in their work ethic. I think the real thing people miss in this process is character. That's what I look for. I hunt it down, man. I'm looking for character. That's what I want."
Bridgewater offers the total package. He's 6-foot-3 and 196 pounds. He plays hurt. He makes smart decisions. He turned down Florida, Miami and LSU for Louisville as a premier recruit, and he's set to graduate this December in three years.
In a film session taped for an ESPN broadcast last Wednesday, on the eve of the Cardinals' meeting with Rutgers, Bridgewater broke down his play as if he were the re-embodiment of Watson.
Bridgewater's accuracy in practice is legendary, and it's nearly as good after kickoff. This year, he's completing 71 percent of his throws with 18 touchdowns and two interceptions.
To another coach -- Stanford's David Shaw, for instance -- that would perhaps rate as Bridgewater's marquee trait.
Shaw was the offensive coordinator and college head coach of Indianapolis Colts QB and 2012 No. 1 pick Andrew Luck. He describes a great quarterback as the player who's "able to throw the ball through a doorway that's closing, while being chased by rottweilers."
"The guys that can do that and stay calm and stay focused with things flying all around them when the game's on the line, those are the best ones," Shaw said. "You can look at all the other things. A lot of stuff is window dressing. But on third down, can you still make a throw to win the game? Those are the best guys.
"So it takes nerves of steel. It takes focus. It takes concentration. It takes accuracy and decision-making. And I didn't make that up. That's straight from Bill Walsh."
Ask five coaches to create the perfect quarterback, and you'll get five sets of plans.
And with apologies to the late Walsh, they're probably all correct.
Yes, Bridgewater is the exception. But even for programs like Texas, Florida and USC, he's not waiting to walk on campus.
He's the rare complete QB, like Luck, the guy who never veered off track because of an issue away from football, the guy who defied Kingsbury's logic that no system exists to determine QB success.
Former UTEP quarterback and four-year NFL backup Jordan Palmer, now a private coach and rising caretaker of the Elite 11 program that has mentored dozens of top quarterbacks, offered his opinion on the most important trait of a great QB: It's confidence.
But Palmer talks also about competitiveness and coachability. The success stories, he said, feature quarterbacks who showcase a unique trait. Doesn't matter what it is, so long as it separates the quarterback from his peers.
And he must own the quality that makes him unique.
Palmer's words mirror the consensus of other experts. The more readily college coaches accept that they may not identify or develop the total package, the more likely they'll discover something equally as good and custom-fit for their programs, albeit constructed differently.
Consider these examples:
The natural talent
Oregon sophomore Marcus Mariota is a true phenom. No. 2 nationally in QBR, he's accounted for 25 touchdowns this season without a turnover.
"I do things instinctively, whatever kind of comes to me in the course of a game," Mariota said on Monday after he was again named the Pac-12 offensive player of the week for his performance in the second-ranked Ducks' 45-24 win over Washington.
It's impossible to argue with his success. Mariota is 18-1 as a starter and the Heisman Trophy favorite at the season's midpoint. Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said last spring that Mariota, on film, reminded Frost and former coach Chip Kelly of ex-Arizona State QB Jake Plummer.
Somehow, Mariota didn't start until his senior year at Honolulu's prestigious St. Louis High School, and he counted offers only from Oregon and Washington among major-conference programs.
"I know there are a lot of good ones," Frost said, "but we wouldn't trade our guy for any of them."
Baylor junior Bryce Petty gray-shirted in 2009 and waited three years behind Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence.
"I wouldn't change it for the world," Petty said. "Too often, people think because they don't get what they want right away, they've got to move until they find it. The waiting game has made me who I am today. It's about learning the position. It's about becoming a better man on and off the field.
"Being in that second-team role, I was in the game without being in the game. All of that worked to heighten my quarterback intellect."
Petty, a Tennessee recruit before Lane Kiffin pushed him aside in 2008, leads the nation in QBR at 94.5, passing yards per attempt (14.9) and yards per completion (21.3). And the Bears are unbeaten.
Petty, 22, said he lives to play football.
"I'm a lot better than I was when I was 18," he said. "That's for sure."
And worth the wait, too.
Northern Illinois senior Jordan Lynch held just one scholarship offer out of Mount Carmel High School in Chicago.
He said he figured he had one shot to show he could play QB in college. Last year, he threw for 3,138 yards and rushed for 1,815, staggering numbers as Lynch led the Huskies to the Orange Bowl. They're undefeated this year.
Gone are the modest expectations. The chip on his shoulder remains.
Lynch agreed to let NIU promote him for the Heisman this year only to boost visibility for the school and the Mid-American Conference, he said. Not normally his style.
Nor does he recognize pressure, prevalent as a stumbling block for hyped quarterbacks.
"It's really simple, I prepared for this, so I don't feel any pressure," Lynch said. "If there is pressure, it's a privilege. That's the stage we want to be on. A lot of people get caught up in the hype. When the lights come on, they kind of shy away. I thrive on that moment."
San Jose State senior David Fales got stuck behind Colin Kaepernick at Nevada in 2009. Fales transferred to Monterey Peninsula College. There, he considered leaving the game.
"I didn't understand how to compete and work," Fales said.
He learned from Mike Rasmussen, Fales' junior-college coach. Rasmussen flipped his mindset, Fales said.
His ability to endure paid off last year as he led San Jose State to its first 11-win season since 1940, throwing for 4,193 yards on a nation-best 72.5 completion percentage.
Against Colorado State on Saturday, he was 28-of-35 for 431 yards in a victory. Not bad, and no doubt, the NFL is watching. Fales, at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, should land in the early rounds next spring.
"I'm learning every day," he said. "I feel like every experience every moment, every part of my journey have made me what I am today."
In Mariota, Petty, Lynch and Fales, you see, there is no precise formula. Each offers something unique, but also a mix of other meaningful characteristics.
If any methodology applies to gauge every quarterback, Palmer said, it's an introspective test.
"The guys who've had success," Palmer said, "they're all doing something that's bigger than themselves. I look back at the guys who made it, and there's a commonality. They understand where they fit.
"Other guys just think they're the biggest thing going."
Philip Montgomery has coached Petty, Florence and Griffin as Baylor's offensive coordinator under Art Briles. Before that, Briles and Montgomery helped shape Case Keenum and Kevin Kolb at Houston.
"Is everybody looking at the right things?" Montgomery said. "I don't know. I just know we've hit on a couple of them. We've been fortunate."
It's more than good fortune. It's an awareness of how to identify and assemble the ingredients that produce the most important piece of a championship team: the great quarterback, ever so tricky to define but never a problem to recognize on a September Saturday.
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