Monday, December 12, 2011

Five-Star Temptresses

I like to imagine that Saturday night was a little instance of karma biting the University of Texas in the rear end for playing every card in their hand (to use T. Boone Pickens’ apt phrase) and chasing off one-third of the Big XII.  A week after losing to Baylor by 24 – a loss that was the Horns’ second in a row to the Bears after having beaten Baylor every year since 1997 – Texas fans had to watch Robert Griffin III win the Heisman Trophy.  Griffin, a four-star recruit from Copperas Cove, Texas, was not recruited by Texas as a quarterback.  (Darron Thomas, also from Texas, was in the same class.)  Instead, the Horns put all of their eggs in the basket of Garrett Gilbert, a five-star prospect from Austin who would be in the next class. 

If you follow college football at all, you know how this decision panned out.  Griffin led Baylor to its most successful period since the days of Grant Teaff and Mike Singletary, culminating in a 9-3 season this year.  Meanwhile, after a promising performance in the national championship game against Alabama, Gilbert was a disaster in Austin, performing poorly as Texas went 5-7 in 2010,  losing his job to a pair of underclassmen in 2011, and then transferring to SMU. 

Texas’s decision to commit to Gilbert is interesting because the Horns’ greatest success was when they were running the run-based spread.  The apex of Mack Brown’s tenure in Austin was 2004-05, when the Horns went 24-1 and won two major bowls and a national championship with Vince Young running the show.  To a lesser extent, Texas then experienced more success in 2008-09 with Colt McCoy at quarterback.  The offense under McCoy wasn’t as run-heavy as it was under Young, but it did feature a quarterback running game (McCoy was the team’s leading rusher in 2008 and second-leading rusher in 2009) and relied on spread formations, albeit with more of a focus on short passing as opposed to the zone read play. 

Given that Texas usually finishes its recruiting classes early, we can’t hold the McCoy experience against Mack Brown when looking at his decision not to recruit RGIII as a quarterback.  The Horns had not had their 2008-09 run when they made that decision.  However, we can criticize them for not learning the lesson of the Vince Young era.  Apparently, the lesson that Brown took was “recruit five-star quarterbacks from Texas,” when he should have concluded “recruit quarterbacks who can run.”  In short, Texas was seduced by the prospect of a local five-star pocket passer and shifted their offense away from what worked for them when they were upsetting USC in the game of the decade.*

* – One defense of Mack Brown: it’s easy to say in retrospect that he should have recruited Griffin, knowing what we know now about the way that Griffin matured as a passer in Waco.  However, Texas produces all sorts of dual-threat quarterbacks who do not turn into players who are on RGIII’s level.  In the recruiting class that produced Gilbert, the State of Texas produced five of the top ten dual threat quarterback prospects in the country.  Only the lowest-rated of the five – Casey Pachall – has been a success as a quarterback on the college level.

One can look at Florida and see the same mistake.  Urban Meyer has always won with mobile quarterbacks.  Josh Harris, Alex Smith, and Tim Tebow can all run the plays that form the basis of Meyer’s offense.  Nevertheless, Meyer was seduced by the same siren that causes Mack Brown to jump off the deck of his ship and swim to his doom.  He had a five-star pocket passer – John Brantley – living one hour from campus, so Meyer committed his post-Tebow Gators to Brantley.  Meanwhile, Meyer did not offer Denard Robinson a chance to play quarterback in Gainesville.  As with Gilbert, RGIII, and Texas, Brantley has been major disappointment at Florida while Robinson has flourished at Michigan, finishing in the top six of the Heisman voting in 2010 and then leading Michigan to its best season in five in 2011.  In retrospect, one wonders what Meyer was thinking when he went with the five-star player who did not fit his style when he had a number of four-star options who would have been a perfect fit in his version of the spread-n-shred.

This parable of mistakes made by Mack Brown and Urban Meyer might offer a cautionary tale for Brady Hoke.  Hoke’s most successful team prior to Michigan was the 2008 Ball State team, led by the mobile Nate Davis.  This year, Michigan has exceeded expectations and earned a Sugar Bowl berth with Robinson.  Like Brown and Meyer before his, Hoke has the siren call of a local five-star pocket passer: Shane Morris, a prospect who might be the top quarterback in the class of 2013.  Is Hoke about to make the same mistake?  It seems unlikely because Hoke’s offensive coordinator is Al Borges, a play-caller whose preferred system works better with pocket passers.  The mistake that Meyer (and Brown, albeit to a lesser degree because he had had pocket passers before Young) made was to get away from his style.*  Morris will be a step towards Hoke’s previous orientation.  Still, as a defensive coach, Hoke will want to think long and hard about the pressure that a player like Denard Robinson puts on a defense by his ability to run and throw before he surrenders that asset. 

* – One corollary from this: maybe Gilbert and Brantley would have been successes in college if they would have gone somewhere other than Texas and Florida.  In the same way that coaches who experience success with mobile quarterbacks should resist the urge to sign the local five-star, the local five-star should resist the urge to play for coaches who aren’t at home with pro-style attacks.  There will always be the Stanfords of the world.

(Senator, did I hit all of your questions?)


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Chris said...

I think one of the big problems with dual-threat QBs, as you mention in your post, is that evaluating that sort of talent at the high school level is fraught with disappointment. I think an analysis of five star pro style QBs and their success in the college game would be interesting.

Given the massive amount of turnover in the college game with both coaches/coordinators and players each and every year it seems that it is much safer to go with a steady pro style ball control set with a dominating defense rather than trying to find gold in a run oriented spread attack.

I would argue (though sadly I dont have time/not sure how I would do the analysis in a robust way) that your typical pro style offense and a real focus on defense leaves much much more tolerance for error in high school talent evaluation. What I mean is that in a pro style offense I can miss on my QB to some extent but still have a dominating RB and thrive, and with a defense where I can have game changers at DT, LB, or safety there is an incredible amount of "redundancy" built into the system rather than betting on a true freak like Tebow, Vince Young, RGIII.

And I would argue that going for the freak/game changer at QB can also reduce your recruiting for the other parts of the system as they are going to occupy so much of the yardage that your top WRs and RBs will be a little bit more reluctant to come.

The fact of the matter is that there simply arent that many QBs that can run the read option and also have the vision and arm to make the throws they need to make. And then what happens if that game changer gets hurt? You take a team like LSU this year and the QB almost seems irrelevant verses UF with Tebow or TX with Young and what do they have in those brilliant seasons if either of their stars had been hurt?

Ultimately my point is that there is very little room for error in a run oriented spread attack at the top level of college football verses a slow and steady pro style set, and trying to evaluate the right talent for a run spread attack from the high school level is probably little more than guessing.

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