The rise of the spread offense in college football is adding variables to the already dicey job of scouting in the NFL.
The spread attack was a big topic of conversation this week at the NFL Scouting Combine because NFL teams don't run the spread the way colleges run it.
"Scouting college players today is difficult because of where the college game has gone," said Bills offensive coordinator Turk Schonert. "You can see this guy is athletic, this guy is fast, this guy has good hands. But as far as technique goes, it's not the same.
"Sometimes receivers are very limited in the routes they run," Schonert said. "You look a couple years ago, Calvin Johnson [the No. 1 overall pick in 2007] ran basically about three routes. He didn't do a lot. There's a lot of uncertainty when you take guys. You're taking guys for their speed and athleticism. You think they can do it and sometimes you're wrong. I think it's gotten harder and harder for scouts and coaches to judge."
It's a view with which every NFL executive agreed.
The spread features the quarterback running the vast majority of plays from the shotgun formation using at least three receivers, but more often four or five. Many spread teams pass like crazy, with Texas Tech being a prime example. Tech receiver Michael Crabtree is one of the top prospects in this year's draft.
But the spread isn't just a pass offense. Many teams have adopted a variation of the University of Florida's "spread option" attack, in which the quarterback has an "option read" on running plays. He either hands off to the lone running back running diagonally or horizontally along the line of scrimmage, or he fakes the handoff and runs it himself the opposite way or up the middle. Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow of Florida is the best at the option read.
The problem is the spread uses different techniques than the NFL's pro set.
"What has gotten a lot more difficult on the evaluation side is the proliferation of the spread offense," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. "And what that means to evaluating at this level is it's not just quarterbacks. It's the running backs. Their first step is lateral, crossing the quarterbacks' faces instead of downhill. It's the tight end, who's never in line as a blocker. It's the wide receiver that doesn't run a route tree. It's every position. It's the left tackle. Jason Smith [the Baylor tackle] was in a two-point stance 98 percent of the time.
"So the NFL guys I talk to on a daily basis are getting frustrated. And I'm like, 'it's too bad guys because that spread offense is not going away.' "
Last season, seven of the 11 Big Ten teams ran the spread. It was run almost exclusively by at least seven of the Big 12 teams, five of the 12 Southeastern Conference teams and six of the Pac-10 teams.
Playing out of the shotgun all of the time can make for a tough transition for quarterbacks to the NFL.
"With quarterbacks, it's harder because they're all in the shotgun," Schonert said. "Taking snaps under center, how do you handle pressure? How do you read dropping back? You don't see that. I like to see a quarterback that plays under center. USC quarterbacks are always under center. They play the pro game. Matt Stafford was under center at Georgia. . . . That's the way it is. You get into camp and those quarterbacks [find] it's a different game. You're not all the way back there where your vision's really good. You have to look through seams [between offensive linemen]. It's gotten more difficult."
Why don't all NFL teams adopt the spread? Pass rushers are too good in the pros.
"It's difficult to run a true unadulterated spread with five receivers eligible all the time against the Steelers," said Colts President Bill Polian. "You'd better have a lot of quarterbacks if you want to do that."
Bills Vice President of College Scouting Tom Modrak explained the challenge for offensive tackles and receivers.
"Your quarterback lines up at 7 yards [deep] and throws the ball in 1.7 seconds," Modrak said. "Who do you have to pass block? It makes a difference looking at people. At the University of Florida, the receivers run a lot of bend and weave routes. They're not doing the same things [as the NFL]."
Polian said it's interesting how college teams have adopted more running to balance out what used to be the pass-happy nature of the spread.
"What's interesting is you can approach the spread in different ways," he said. "You can approach the spread where you throw it the vast majority of the time. You can approach it where you run it 50-50 or maybe even a little more, the way Penn State does. Joe [Paterno] is in the spread, but he's still running the same running plays, which is great."
Modrak said it's all part of the job of assessing who can make the jump to the NFL.
"You always are making a projection from college to pros," Modrak said. "Those are ingredients that are going into it now that might be different."