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Why the sad history of blue chip QB rankings is changing

The proliferation of spread offensive tactics to the major programs has coincided with rapidly improving hit rates for the service rankings’ top rated QBs.

Alabama v LSU Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

About two years ago I asked, “do you need a blue-chip QB to win?” Within that post I detailed some of the sad history of top-10 ranked signal callers from the 2010-2012 recruiting rankings. The results of those players was pretty abysmal with a hit rate of about 23% for the service rankings of the top 10 QBs and an even lower hit rate for the schools that signed the players since some of them only panned out after transferring.

Two years later with the 2018 season nearing it’s end I took a look at the top 10 ranked players (per 247’s consensus rankings) from 2013 to 2015, listed here:

Blue chip QBs from 2013-2015

Top 10 2013 2014 2015
Top 10 2013 2014 2015
1 Max Browne, USC/Pitt Kyle Allen, A&M/HOU Josh Rosen, UCLA
2 Christian Hackenberg, Penn St Deshaun Watson, Clemson Blake Barnett, AL/ASU/USF
3 Shane Morris, Mich/CMU Will Grier, UF/WVU Kyler Murray, A&M/OU
4 Cooper Bateman, AL/Utah Keller Chryst, Stanford/Tenn Jarrett Stidham, Baylor/Auburn
5 Kevin Olsen, Miami/Charlotte Jerrod Heard, TX Brandon Wimbush, ND
6 Troy Williams, Wash/JUCO/Utah Brandon Harris, LSU/UNC Deondre Francois, FSU
7 Brice Ramsey, GA David Cornwell, AL/NV/FCS Brady White, ASU/Memphis
8 Cody Thomas, OU/MLB Drew Barker, UK Jake Browning, Washington
9 Asiantii Woulard, UCLA/USF/FCS Jacob Park, GA/ISU Ricky Town, USC
10 J.T. Barrett, Ohio State Brad Kaaya, Miami Drew Lock, Mizz

Here are some amazing, raw numbers on these guys...

  1. 16 of the 30 QBs ranked in the top 10 over these three years transferred at least once during college. If you sign one of the highest ranked QBs there was better than a 50% chance that he was going to finish his career somewhere else.
  2. Three of these 30 QBs have successfully led a team to a conference title during their careers. J.T. Barrett, Deshaun Watson, and Jake Browning. There’s a solid chance that Will Grier, Blake Barnett, and/or Kyler Murray join that list although only one of Grier or Murray can pull it off since they are in the same league. Brandon Wimbush is in murky waters here since Notre Dame is independent and he is technically the back-up pending Ian Book’s health. Of course, if any one of those three QBs joins the previous three he’ll have won a conference title for a different school than he originally signed with.
  3. There’s a consistent theme to which top-ranked QBs were able to fulfill their promise and which were not and it has everything to do with the scheme in which they were deployed.

Has the proliferation of the spread saved the service rankings’ QB evaluations?

That’s the question you have to wonder at when staring at these lists. Only three of the “pro-style” quarterbacks over these three years really found much success at the college level. First Will Grier, who’s major success came after he transferred to West Virginia and ran Dana Holgorsen’s Air Raid. Then Josh Rosen, who really had more success early in the spread with Noel Mazzone than later on in the pro-style offense that he pushed UCLA to adopt. Finally Drew Lock, who exploded last season at the helm of a particularly spready spread offense.

Meanwhile, here’s a look at the top 10 for 2016 and 2017:

Blue chip QBs from 2016-2017

Top 10 2016 2017
Top 10 2016 2017
1 Shea Patterson, OM/Mich Davis Mills, Stanford
2 Jacob Eason, GA/Wash Hunter Johnson, Clemson/NW
3 K.J. Costello, Stanford Tua Tagovailoa, AL
4 Malik Henry, FSU/JUCO Jake Fromm, GA
5 Feleipe Franks, UF Tate Martell, Ohio St
6 Brandon Peters, Mich Jack Sears, USC
7 Jarrett Guarantano, Tenn Kellen Mond, A&M
8 Dwayne Haskins, Ohio St Sam Ehlinger, TX
9 Brandon McIlwain, S-Car/Cal Dylan McCaffrey, Mich
10 Jack Allison, Miami/WVU Myles Brennan, LSU

The hit rate is already considerably higher from these two classes. A few noteworthy mentions from these groups:

  1. Feleipe Franks, Jacob Eason, Tua Tagovailoa, Jake Fromm, Kellen Mond, and Sam Ehlinger all ended up starting or playing heavily as freshmen. Five of those six maintained the job in 2017 and are having productive seasons for their respective teams. All of them run spread offenses save for Eason, who ran a more pro-style system at Georgia and then transferred to Washington, Kellen Mond who’s Aggies lean more pro-style than these other programs, and K.J. Costello at Stanford. Even still, Alabama and Georgia dabble in some pro-style concepts but are largely spread offenses at this point, Michigan is a hybrid. Franks had a very mixed first season and now is enjoying much more success since Dan Mullen replaced Jim McElwain’s pro-style system with a spread.
  2. We’ve already seen several transfers including a couple in which a pro-style QB transferred to a school where he’d be running a spread passing system, such as Jack Allison at WVU who’s literally following in the footsteps of Will Grier.

If you didn’t know, it’s a lot easier to play QB in a spread offense. It’s designed to simplify what the defense can do in response, cultivate high level skills that are very difficult to defend, and move the football with efficiency which produces big numbers.

Defenses are still struggling to catch up to offenses that can put multiple top WRs on the field and have the QB make easy pre-snap judgements on which one is likely to be open after the snap. So many QBs are playing pitch and catch within three seconds of the ball being snapped, which tends to make a guy look better than when he’s taking only occasional dropbacks from under center and scanning through progressions that include a slow fullback ambling to the flat as a check down while freak athletes bend the corner coming for his head.

All of this begs the question of whether the reason that such a high percentage of the top ranked QBs were busts simply because the colleges that were recruiting them ran bad systems.

A major factor is unquestionably the rise of the spread at the NFL level

The proliferation of spread offensive tactics is THE story in the NFL right now with multiple franchises running systems that feature college football tactics. The New England Patriots have been pretty spread-heavy for years now but when the Philadelphia Eagles beat them in a shootout at the Super Bowl with RPOs and other spread favorites that was it for older styles of offense in the NFL. The narrative was no longer “well they have Tom Brady!” after the Eagles out-scored them with their back-up QB.

Now the league is being dominated by the sort of former Air Raid QB running a passing-heavy system that for years was considered to be a certain bust in the NFL. Of course Pat Mahomes is considerably more physically gifted than his former coach Kliff Kingsbury was but the change in narrative is still stark.

A concern for some of the top schools in the past was that if you adopted the spread offense that you wouldn’t be able to have a strong sell to the top 10 ranked QBs who had NFL aspirations. Of course that was of dubious value since recruiting a top-10 ranked QB carried a very low percentage that he’d actually help your team achieve something meaningful but not many coaches at top programs wanted to take a gamble on losing out on the top rated talent at the most important position.

The advantage against Alabama is closing...

For years the best way to handle Alabama’s supremacy in the trenches and in defensive tactics was by having a good athlete at the QB position who could attack the Tide defenses through the air. That allowed a team like Clemson to avoid Alabama’s annual supremacy in the trenches while engaging the Tide in shootouts.

Welp, now Alabama is running a pretty simple spread offense with a highly talented and versatile QB at the helm and then their normal talent advantages across the OL and skill positions. LSU approached them with an NFL-laden secondary, highly talented front, and cutting edge defensive schemes. They held the Tide to 29 points and that was about the best they could muster up, not near enough for their own offense which managed a goose egg.

Tua Tagovailoa threw several incompletions dealing with the Tigers’ man coverage but he also landed a lot of shots and finished the day with 295 yards at about seven yards per pass. LSU couldn’t get press-man coverage on EVERY Alabama wideout and their ability to press up outside didn’t help them inside where Jerry Jeudy and Irv Smith Jr hit them from the inside WR positions for a combined 12 completions for 167 yards and a score.

So QB recruiting is now justifiably pretty exciting for everyone whereas in the past it was all just a mirage. The spread is making football more fast paced and high scoring with lots of fun end of game scenarios and shootouts taking place around the country. The glass is half full for much of college football...but Alabama is embracing the trends and harnessing the potential as well as anyone so for everyone else the glass is also half empty.