College Football's Influence on the NFL

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterOctober 17, 2014

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Imagine that football is actually a startup company and a head coach is its self-appointed CEO. This coach has an idea—you'll just love it—ready to become the next big product on the market. There's a marketing plan in place to sell it and some mock sales projections mapped out for your convenience. Everything is packaged and ready to be patented.

Except, the idea isn't original. In fact, this "next big thing" has already existed in some other form for decades. 

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, the father of the zone read, put it best. "There is no patent on schemes."

Football is a game where just about everything is borrowed. Even the birth of college football between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869 was a concept borrowed from rugby. As the sport has evolved, so have the X's and O's. And it's common, if not expected, for coaches to take an idea here or a theory there as though they're at a football buffet. 

The coaching fraternity is tight, and its members at all levels constantly share information with one another. Coaches can't stay complacent, lest they fall behind quickly if they do. College football is in a unique spot along the freeway of ideas. Rodriguez is one of multiple coaches who, in an interview with Bleacher Report, said there is a "trickle-up effect" from college to the pros. 

How has college football influenced the NFL? It's a large question with multiple answers. But three areas in which the college game's fingerprint have been seen in the pros are offense, defense and tempo. 


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You can see, just for a moment, that West Virginia quarterback Pat White even had the ESPN cameraman fooled. 

Eleven seconds into a game against Mississippi State on Oct. 20, 2007, White appeared to hand the football off to running back Steve Slaton, a consensus All-American and Doak Walker finalist from the year before. The defensive end, undoubtedly knowing Slaton's credentials, crashed in. The linebackers crashed in. The cameraman crashed in. 

So White pulled the ball out and ran. He made one cut to his right, freezing a safety and then turned on the afterburners. White was in the open field now. The Bulldogs defense was caught buying a lie to which there was no refund. 

One play, 64 yards, 21 seconds, 7-0 Mountaineers. 

White wasn't the first quarterback to run Rodriguez's zone read, but he's among the most recognizable. But to say Rodriguez invented the zone read isn't entirely accurate. He was really more of a witness of its inception. 

Pete Thamel, then of The New York Times, chronicled "The Evolution of a Broken Play" in '07. During Rodriguez's early coaching days at Glenville State, a small Division II program in the heart of West Virginia, his quarterback, Jed Drenning, opted to keep the ball on a mishandle.

“Why did you do that?” Rodriguez asked Drenning.

“The end squeezed in, so I kept it,” Drenning said.

“Oh, right,” Rodriguez said, pretending not to be surprised. “Oh, we’re putting that in next week.”

Today, the zone read is run at every level of football. 

"No one philosophically built an offense on misdirection," Drenning said. "It’s an underdog offense that is no longer run by underdogs."


The zone read is one of several packaged plays designed to give ball-carriers the option to make a play based on what certain defenders do. Many of those packages pay homage to old-school concepts with a new spin and name. 

The Wildcat, which took the ball out of the quarterback's hands and put it in the control of the team's most explosive playmaker, is a callback to single-wing football. The Wildcat was made famous by running back Darren McFadden of Arkansas, but it eventually found its way into the NFL through the Miami Dolphins and running back Ronnie Brown. 

Another package, the inverted veer, is oftentimes mistaken as a zone read, even though it's really more of a quarterback power with a sweep, as Bleacher Report's Michael Felder explains:

First thing you notice in this play is that everyone is going in the same direction. Unlike the zone and mid-line reads where the running back goes play-side and quarterback goes backside, the inverted veer has both parties going in one direction.

The end result is the same, however: Take important defenders out of the game, even if it's only for a few plays. NFL defenses have put an emphasis on elite pass-rushers, such as Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers (Green Bay) and Mario Williams (Buffalo), as the league has geared toward passing (more on that later).

By using zone-read and option concepts, especially if mixed in with the pass, offenses are taking those key players out of the play. 

"Part of the reason you do things like the zone read is because it gives you an opportunity for someone other than a lineman to block that 5-tech defensive end," Drenning continued. "If [San Francisco 49ers quarterback] Colin Kaepernick hands it off on a zone read, by that very function, he’s blocking someone."

It's also, according to Drenning, "the poster child for something that is a lot broader." 

It's the spread offense. 

Sometimes, borrowing concepts from college offenses is obvious. Seattle's "pop" pass seen in its season opener against Green Bay can be traced back to Auburn last year, per an Auburn Tigers tweet: 

Auburn Tigers @AuburnTigers

Looked familiar. https://t.co/4hdzMw3bxY #WarEagle

Other times, it's more discrete—and not always related to the spread. "I think a lot of NFL teams are looking at Stanford," said Scott Roussel of FootballScoop.com. "They want to know why they've been so successful in developing players." 

The Cardinal, whose fortunes changed after Jim Harbaugh—now of the San Francisco 49erstook over in 2007, have had 20 players drafted into the NFL since 2010.

No matter the playbook specifics, an offense's goal is to create space. The spread offense, and all of the styles and formations that have spawned from it, simply found other ways to do it. From Hal Mumme's Air Raid to Chris Ault's Pistol formation—they've all found their way into NFL playbooks. 

Currently, Ault is a consultant for the Kansas City Chiefs. 

"There’s a lot of interaction," said Roussel. "Chris Ault has spoken with a lot of NFL teams. He has a big assistant tree."


What defines a pro-style offense anyway? A quarterback under center? A fullback in the I-formation? The lines between traditional and spread offenses have become blurred. 

"I find it amusing that pro-style offense is equated to three-step drop under center," added Rodriguez. "I think shotgun is a new pro style."

Rodriguez is on to something. According to Pro Football Focus, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had the most dropbacks from the shotgun (586) of any signal-caller during the 2013 NFL season.

That accounted for roughly 87 percent of his total dropbacks. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was a close second with 581 dropbacks from the shotgun, which accounted for roughly 86 percent of his total dropbacks. 

Colin Kaepernic at Nevada
Colin Kaepernic at NevadaMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Flacco, Manning, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers—some of the best in the game—run their offenses primarily out of the shotgun.  

With quarterbacks such as Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III (Washington) Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks) and Johnny Manziel (Cleveland Browns) coming into the league, offensive coordinators have to find different ways to put them in positions to be successful. 

Athletic quarterbacks aren't new to the NFL. Steve Young (whose NFL career started in 1985) and Michael Vick (started in 2001) are just two of many. Even quarterbacks such as Rodgers and Andrew Luck of Indianapolis are so-called "pro-style" quarterbacks who can make plays with their feet. 

But Kaepernick did help usher in a new wave of dual-threat signal-callers to the league with his record-setting game against Green Bay in January 2013 (181 rushing yards and two touchdowns). 

The Packers actually did a good job of preparing for Kaepernick's designed/option runs, but there was ultimately no accounting for his scrambling ability. 

There rarely is. 


The narrative that dual-threat quarterbacks are just athletes who have been given the keys to an offense is being proved wrong year after year. 

With the rise of events such as the Elite 11 and 7-on-7 tournaments, high school quarterbacks are refining their passing skills to complement their running skills year-round. 

"The athletic quarterback has played a bigger role," said Drenning. "Quarterbacks used to be either a passer or a runner. Now, they’re more polished; they’re ahead of the curve." 

Of the 18 quarterbacks who attended the 2014 Elite 11 Finals over the summer, roughly half are either 4- or 5-star dual-threats on 247Sports' composite rankings. Many have verbally committed to schools whose offenses are based out of the spread. 

Elite 11 Quarterbacks—Dual-Threats, 2015 class
NameRatingCollege (verbal)
Blake Barnett5-star, No. 1 Dual-Threat QBAlabama
Jarrett Stidham5-star, No.2 Dual-Threat QBTexas Tech
Kyler Murray5-star, No. 3 Dual-Threat QBTexas A&M
Brandon Wimbush4-star, No. 4 Dual-Threat QBNotre Dame
Travis Waller4-star, No. 5 Dual-Threat QBOregon
Sam Darnold4-star, No. 7 Dual-Threat QBUSC
Sheriron Jones4-star, No. 8 Dual-Threat QBFlorida
De'Andre Johnson3-star, No. 11 Dual-Threat QBFlorida State

As quarterbacks like the aforementioned ones move up from high school to college, and from college to the NFL, they'll continue to change the dynamic of what makes up a pro-style quarterback. And coaches will look to expand their play calls to accommodate those players' strengths. 

"Who doesn’t want to find a guy who can throw the ball all over the place, but who can run?" asked North Texas coach Dan McCarney. "It’s an extra running back."

That extra running back means defenses have to assign someone to him. It's no longer a game of 11 defenders vs. 10 offensive players, then. By technically leveling the playing field, the offense has found another way to tip the scales in its favor. 


If every action has an equal and opposite reaction, then the offensive trickle-up effect in football has spawned a defensive trickle-up. 

Defense is, after all, reactionary. As such, the job description for defenses in the spread era is fairly simple: run. Everyone on defense has to be able to run. 

"The game is so fast now. You have to deploy your defensive guys to play in space," said McCarney, who cut his coaching teeth at Big Ten programs Iowa and Wisconsin. "We used to have these linebackers who were these big, tough guys. And God bless ‘em, I wouldn’t trade them for anything, but it’s a different game now.

"It’s not played in a phone booth anymore."

It's an ironic statement from McCarney, whose Mean Green program was recently dubbed the "Stanford of Conference USA" by The Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin.  

But that doesn't make McCarney's statement any less true. At the very least, defenses, especially in the middle, have to be adaptable. For example, no longer are interior linebackers simply there to stop the run. Rather, they need to be versatile defenders, capable of dropping into coverage and pursuing the quarterback. 

Former Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier was drafted 15th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers largely because he was one of the most athletic linebackers in college football. 

Coaches seek that kind of athleticism and versatility. Every season, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will face Texas A&M's Air Raid, Auburn's spread and LSU's smashmouth running attack. Just trying to stop a different offense every week is a challenge that never gets nearly the attention it deserves. Athleticism, especially in the middle of the defense, is at a premium. 


No matter the base defense, putting more speed on the field has been a priority for coaches. Since the NFL is considered a passing league, a greater emphasis has been placed on the pass rush.

Former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was the No. 1 overall player taken in the 2014 NFL draft to the Houston Texans—despite the fact that the Texans don't run a 4-3 defense like the one Clowney ran in college. 

But Clowney was considered an elite pass-rusher and a rare pro prospect. He was the best player available, so the Texans took him. 

Jadeveon Clowney
Jadeveon ClowneyPatric Schneider/Associated Press

There's also an emphasis on pass coverage, and pro clubs are willing to pay for elite defensive backs. 

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman announced on his website in May that he had inked a four-year deal worth $57.4 million, $40 million of which was guaranteed. Two months later, Arizona Cardinals corner Patrick Peterson signed a five-year contract extension worth $70 million with $48 million guaranteed, which made him the highest-paid corner in the league. 

"Almost every defense plays base with five defensive backs with a linebacker/safety," said Roussel." That’s [LSU defensive coordinator] John Chavis’ base defense. Look at Rob Ryan and the Saints. They load up on safety types."

Putting more speed behind the defensive line has led to coaches using variations of the 3-4, 4-2-5 or 3-3-5. Jeff Casteel, Rodriguez's defensive coordinator at Arizona, has been running a 3-3-5 stack for years, and like the zone read, it got a lot of attention at West Virginia. 

"We started doing 3-3-5 years ago because it was different, but adaptable," Rodriguez said. "You don’t have to sub in the base personnel."

The evolution of a college football defense is designed to stop more wide-open attacks. As elements of the spread make their way into the NFL, coaches need defenders capable of stopping them.

At the same time, defensive coaches are finding players who can fight fire with fire. Former Nebraska and current Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is a freak along the interior of the D-line who can still get to the quarterback. 

Traditional roles for defensive players are being chucked out the window in favor of players who can do multiple things. Coaches can design schemes based around that personnel. 

"One of these days, we’ll have a Heisman winner who plays defense," McCarney said. "I hope it happens in my lifetime."



Tempo is a tool as old as football itself. Tempo can be slow to wind down the clock just as it can be fast to prevent defenses from adjusting or substituting. 

Winning the time of possession isn't always important. Dictating the tempo of a game is. 

Tempo has often been associated with hurry-up, no-huddle teams that run a version of the spread—even though they don't necessarily have to go hand in hand.

"Tempo isn’t tethered to the spread, but it puts the defense in a bad situation," said Drenning. 

That philosophy transcends every level of football. Uptempo teams have existed in the pros before, but former Oregon coach Chip Kelly really got things kicked into high gear, so to speak, when he became the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. 

As ESPN The Magazine documented, Kelly brought an entirely new philosophy to the league: 

He arrived in Philadelphia with an offense recognized as much for its unorthodoxy as for its speed. It didn't rely on audibles. It didn't concede that the best way to score is by throwing. And it didn't require a 700-page playbook.

As Kelly once said: "Instead of trying to outscheme your opponent, put your players in an environment where they can be successful because they understand exactly what they have to do." 

The results were instantly noticeable. The Eagles went 10-6 in Kelly's first year, winning seven of their final eight games to make the playoffs. Per Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk, Kelly attributes the tempo learning curve to what players experienced at lower levels of football: 

“I think it’s probably a trickle‑up effect,” Kelly said. “It’s kind of started at a lower level and moved up.”

Kelly said that when he was introducing some of his fast-paced concepts with the Eagles last year, he found that many players had experience with it in college or in high school, even if they hadn’t seen it in the NFL.

The level of talent disparity grows the lower you go down the football chain. In high school, coaches aren't able to recruit players. They can only coach what they have. In many ways, those coaches have to be the most creative with tools like tempo. 

"Necessity is the mother of all invention," Rodriguez said. 


In 2014, the tempo debate at the college level was about player safety. In February, the Football Rules Committee drafted legislation that would "allow defensive units to substitute within the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock, with the exception of the final two minutes of each half, starting with the 2014 season."

“This rules change is being made to enhance student-athlete safety by guaranteeing a small window for both teams to substitute,” said Troy Calhoun, head coach at the Air Force Academy and chair of the committee.

“As the average number of plays per game has increased, this issue has been discussed with greater frequency by the committee in recent years, and we felt like it was time to act in the interests of protecting our student-athletes.”

The so-called 10-second rule was immediately met with backlash from coaches such as Rodriguez, Washington State's Mike Leach and Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze. Ultimately, the proposal was disregarded. 

More plays don't always equal a faster tempo, either. In fact, Georgia and Iowa ran just as many plays per game (72) as Auburn in 2013. Furthermore, Michigan State ran more plays (83) than Oregon (68) in the Spartans' Week 2 loss. 

The idea that Michigan State, considered a more "traditional" team, couldn't "keep up" with the Ducks is easily debunked. 

A glance over the 2013 numbers show some usual suspects among the most plays per game, but teams such as Auburn and Oregon—poster children for the hurry-up, no-huddle—are nowhere to be found. In fact, the Ducks ran 12 fewer plays per game last year than Texas Tech and Cal. 

Most plays per game in 2013
TeamPlays per game (rounded up)
1. Cal87
2. Texas Tech87
3. BYU85
4. Fresno State84
5. Baylor83

Yes, the game has gotten faster. In 2008, only five teams—Oklahoma, Tulsa, Houston, TCU and Nevada—ran more than 1,000 plays in a season. And none ran more than 80 plays per game. But more plays hasn't equated to more injuries. 

College Football Matrix released a non-scientific study in 2013 that indicated slower-paced teams actually ran a higher risk of injuries than fast-paced teams. In any case, there's been little to nothing that suggests uptempo teams are more at risk for injuries. 

And uptempo offenses live to play another year. 

The tempo debate reached its peak when Alabama head coach Nick Saban, a defensive guy through and through, famously, and rhetorically, asked, "Is this what we want football to be?

Saban is brilliant enough to know the answer to that. Whether he likes it or not, this is football. In a 14-13 win over Arkansas in Week 7 of the '14 college football season, Saban conceded as much against, of all people, another pace-of-play advocate: Bret Bielema. Cecil Hurt of The Tuscaloosa News commented on the situation:

Cecil Hurt @CecilHurt

Saban running no huddle against Bielema is pretty thick irony.

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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