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Thursday, August 15, 2013
QB talent is deepest in years

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

Quarterbacks attract hyperbole the way they attract pass-rushers and well-wishers. Quarterbacks get more than they want.

There is no position like it in sports. Quarterback combines the responsibility of the point guard with the star power of the home run hitter. When the ball is snapped and the sport erupts into its mixture of ballet and MMA, all eyes go to the quarterback.

That's why the more star quarterbacks there are, the healthier the game. And this season, college football may be as healthy as it's ever been. The top two finishers in Total Quarterback Rating a year ago, redshirt sophomores Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Marcus Mariota of Oregon, headline a talented class of third-year quarterbacks.

Braxton Miller
Ohio State went undefeated last season with Braxton Miller making all the runs and throws.

Junior Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville ranks second among all positions on Mel Kiper's first Big Board for the 2014 NFL draft. Junior Braxton Miller led Ohio State to a 12-0 record last season. Redshirt sophomore Kevin Hogan of Stanford is 5-0 as a starter, having beaten four ranked teams. The fifth win came in the Rose Bowl. Redshirt sophomore Brett Hundley took UCLA to the Pac-12 South championship. Juniors Jeff Driskel of Florida and Chuckie Keeton of Utah State started every game in leading their teams to 11-2 records.

And those are just the third-year quarterbacks. Tajh Boyd of Clemson and AJ McCarron of Alabama, who finished third and sixth, respectively, in QBR last season, are the biggest names in a deep senior class.

Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, one of ESPN's NFL Insiders, listed 10 seniors off the top of his head that he is watching for the six spots on his two rosters (and that excludes the long list of third-year stars; the Senior Bowl doesn't invite a player before his fourth season). In January, Savage struggled to find six healthy bodies to run the North and South offenses.

No one is saying that Boyd and McCarron will evolve into the one-two punch of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, who dominated the 2011 season and the 2012 draft. But the depth of this class is tantalizing NFL scouts. While Savage calls it a "substantial overstatement" to compare this class to the gold standard of quarterbacks, the 1982 seniors, this year's quarterbacks have an entire season in which to improve.

No class before or since has come close to the 1982 seniors, six of whom went in the first round of the 1983 draft. Half of them -- John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino -- reside in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The best yardstick of a draft class is how the players perform on Sunday. But a draft isn't always the best measure of a college football class. If you judge by Heisman finalists, then 2008 stands out. It is one of only two seasons in the history of the award in which the top four vote-getters all played quarterback. That would be Sam Bradford of Oklahoma, Colt McCoy of Texas, Tim Tebow of Florida and -- the one who will win you the bar bet -- Graham Harrell of Texas Tech.

Others may prefer 1999, when Joe Hamilton of Georgia Tech, Michael Vick of Virginia Tech and Drew Brees of Purdue finished 2-3-4 behind tailback Ron Dayne of Wisconsin.

This class already has a Heisman winner in Manziel, and the depth of talent suggests others may become household names. The number of talented quarterbacks can be attributed to the manner in which the spread offense has literally spread from colleges. Various spread attacks have all but taken over at the high school level.

"You gotta remember," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said, "these high school young men are so exposed, and hopefully not overexposed, to all of these travel seven-on-sevens [increasing] the number of reps alone. Repetition is how you get better at putting, at driving a golf ball, hitting a tennis ball, and it's certainly true in football. ... Everything out there tells you athletes are being developed over a 12-month period."

Cutcliffe brought up repetition because the spread offense has simplified the position of quarterback. Being a commanding presence in the huddle, a traditional prerequisite for the college quarterback, usually precluded a young quarterback from establishing himself. It's tough for an 18-year-old to bark commands at a 22-year-old offensive lineman.

That becomes a moot point if the offense doesn't huddle.

"Before," Cutcliffe said, "you were managing a lot of things at the line of scrimmage. We really actually simplified it with no-huddle, code words. And then from a read standpoint, every play is a choice play. Do I hand it off or do I throw it? Do I hand it off or keep it? It's really not rocket science anyway, but it's not overcomplicating a bunch of third-down decision-making.

"When I was training Peyton Manning, for example," Cutcliffe continued, referring to his days as the offensive coordinator at Tennessee, "the training process was so different in learning defenses and coverages. Now we're going so fast, we've made it so hard to play defense, you keep people within a parameter. I don't think it's as hard to play quarterback as it once was -- from the neck up."

That may help explain the rise of Mariota, who didn't start until his senior season at Honolulu Saint Louis High. The simplicity of the Oregon offense, which depends, as Cutcliffe described, on quick decisions and plays called with photos held up on the sideline, gave Mariota an assist in an incredible redshirt freshman season.

Ducks coach Mark Helfrich said if leadership can't be shown in the nonexistent huddle, then it falls upon the quarterback to show it elsewhere.

Marcus Mariota
Marcus Mariota is poised for even bigger things in his second season under center for Oregon.

"Marcus is a guy who probably every single person in the state of Oregon, with some exceptions in Corvallis, loves and will follow and do whatever he wants," Helfrich said. "He's from such a unique culture. He's a very humble guy, almost to a fault, and he's grown in that. He's never asking for more out of people. He just needs to know that if he comes up to a guy and says, 'Hey, I need you at 14 yards, not 12 or 15,' that that guy is still going to like him. It's OK to demand something out of a guy. Just talk to the guy."

When offenses began to spread the field a generation ago, NFL scouts were amazed by the numbers. But as one college quarterback after another struggled in his adjustment to Sundays, the belief took hold that the spread wouldn't work in the pro game.

"I just remember [longtime offensive coordinator] Homer Smith saying years ago, if you take a 6-foot quarterback and put him in the shotgun, he can look like a million dollars," Savage said. "You have to be careful if you overevaluate completion percentage and these ridiculous touchdown-to-interception ratios. These kind of systems beg the quarterback to post those kind of numbers."

But as more college coaches have moved into the NFL and more college offenses have turned to the spread, the NFL has begun to adjust. Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, Alex Smith, Griffin -- the NFL is meeting the spread somewhere in the middle.

"It's a lot harder to just say, 'OK, he's a such-and-such quarterback and he can't play in the NFL,'" said Savage. "I don't think you can make that blanket statement anymore. There's definitely been an evolution in the mindset of the coaching staffs."

Whatever your flavor -- shorter or taller, leaner or heavier, passer or runner or both -- the quarterback class of 2013 has something for everyone. If the scouts don't crowd you out, take a look.