In any offensive system, the level of success achieved often will be a direct reflection of the ability and production of the quarterback. Now, in the age of the spread offense, a team had better have a QB who provides versatility and more than just an arm.
Decades ago, the triple-option wishbone attack dominated the college football landscape, much like the spread offense dominates these days, but the reality is that the quarterbacks have somewhat come full circle. Many of the characteristics required to run an option attack also are paramount to the success of today's spread offense signal-callers. The spread no longer is a niche offense or flavor of the year; it's here to stay. It's not only taking root in college programs across the country, but it's also changing how high school programs operate. More and more high school programs run the spread now as well and are producing more "college-ready" athletes for the scheme, making it easier for recruiters to see just what they're getting.
Gone are the days of the pure pocket passer well, almost. While pocket passers aren't yet extinct, they are moving toward football's list of endangered species. As a result of more and more teams going to the spread offense, some pocket passers coming out of high school who once would have been coveted by multiple programs now might have fewer options, because more coaches and college programs want guys who can do more than just hand off, drop from center and make throws from within the pocket. Coaches want athletes. They want guys defenses must account for in the running game; as a result, the emphasis on the importance of how far along a prospect is as a passer (note Terrelle Pryor) is giving way to how much damage a guy can cause in the running game, either on designed runs like we've seen from Tim Tebow or improvised plays made when the original play breaks down.
There are so many versions of the spread offense that pocket passers who are a little undersized but athletic and creative are being recruited more heavily due to their playmaking ability in both the run and passing game. Ten years ago, Chase Daniel likely would have been bypassed by just about everybody from a recruiting standpoint. Kansas' Todd Reesing probably would not be playing, much less starting, at a BCS school. And let's not even talk about where Colt McCoy would be, OK?
From a measurables standpoint, all programs ideally would love to have their QBs in the 6-foot-3, 210-pound range or bigger coming out. The difference is they want those guys to be good athletes now. They want them to be creative, improvise and be accounted for defensively with their legs. On the flip side, due to an almost exclusive use of the shotgun, undersized prospects who don't fit the measurable standards model have found a place in the spread offense because they often are faster. While they might not be as far along fundamentally as passers, their value as total players who fit the scheme compensates for the time it takes to develop their passing skills (see Pat White and Troy Smith, both of whom are shorter than 6-2). Also, the shotgun can create passing windows and enhance the field vision of the shorter QB in the short-to-intermediate passing game.
The passing game in some versions of the spread offense can be tailored to shorter, simpler throws, including those behind the line of scrimmage, for some prospects who are better athletes than they are passers. Bring them along slowly, give them throws that build their confidence and then continue to add more throws and routes as they blossom.
When recruiting a QB for the spread offense, every program would like to have an Alex Smith, Jevan Snead or Tebow -- a guy who not only possess great measurables, but also is as good a passer coming out as he is an athlete. (Yes, Tebow can throw the football. He had 9,810 passing yards, 3,186 rushing yards, 95 passing touchdowns and 62 rushing touchdowns in high school. Florida has utilized him in a different manner; it does not mean he isn't capable of beating a team with his arm.)
The point is that the spread offense and how it can be manipulated provide many options for coaches seeking a quarterback. Big, small, fast, quick, adequate passer, great passer -- any number of combinations can be tweaked and developed into a program's version of what it wants its QB to be. What he can't be is one-dimensional. In the spread offense, if there is not a run threat from the QB (even a slight one), the potency of the scheme can dramatically decrease. Ask Rich Rodriguez how his first year at Michigan went.
It is becoming easier and easier to find spread offense quarterbacks, because teams are putting their best players at QB and running the spread. Prospects who once would have been placed at wide receiver, cornerback or running back in high school now are being put in the shotgun or Wildcat formation and given the reins to make things happen. If that prospect develops any skills in the passing game, he is going to get a long look from college recruiters. After all, it seems like everyone is running the spread these days, and everyone is looking for the next great QB to run it.
Tom Luginbill is the national recruiting director for ESPN's Scouts Inc.