LSU's biggest question of this entire offseason will be the quarterback position. Finding improvement at that position is the single biggest key to the 2015 Tigers' success. You know it. I know it. You're damn right the coaching staff knows it.
In the coming weeks we'll have lots to talk about regarding Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. Why they struggled in 2014, what improvements they, as players need to make and what LSU's coaches need to do to help make them more successful. But those aren't the only understandings that need to broaden.
A recurring theme that I hear from LSU fans, both here in comments and on other outlets, and in some members of the media, is the idea that neither player "fits" LSU's pro-style offense. Because they are "dual-threat" quarterbacks.
Make no mistake, part of the issue last year was the use of LSU's quarterback and what Cam Cameron asked of them, but the idea that the two quarterbacks somehow don't fit what LSU wants to do because they're not a big, slow, statuesque quarterback like Zach Mettenberger is both wrong and kind of silly. Quarterbacks with mobility have been fitting into pro-style offenses for decades, and even in this age of the spread offense, the pass concepts don't really change. As Ian Boyd noted in this piece for Football Study Hall in January, the distinction between the two styles is largely arbitrary based on personnel and formation. Most "spread" pass concepts are no different from what most pro-style teams run, be it out of the shotgun with three or four wide receivers, or in the I-formation with a fullback and a tight end.
As for the notion of a "pro-style" versus a "dual-threat" quarterback, consider names like John Elway, Warren Moon, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Randall Cunningham, Steve McNair and Donovan McNabb. Would you turn down the opportunity to have one of those guys run this offense in their primes? Of course you wouldn't. Is Jennings or Harris anywhere near that class? Of course not. But their inability to run LSU's offense successfully last year had nothing to do with the one particular quality so many are seizing on, so much as their overall quality as players in 2014.
A lot of this goes back to the two labels, which have grown popular in recruiting circles. Rivals and 247 both split their quarterbacks into two separate categories, which helps create this sort of bi-polar perception for something that really fits more into a scale.
"To me, a dual-threat [QB] as running ability as a threat to go with his arm," said Bud Elliot, SB Nation's recruiting editor. "But it's not some strict label, and sometimes people apply them in a way that just doesn't make sense. I don't think one is necessarily that much better than the other."
Jamie Uyeyama wrote this review of LSU prospect Feleipe Franks last week over at Son of A Coach, his own personal blog, where he has some great evaluations of 2016 prospects for the upcoming recruiting cycle. Uyeyama, aside from being the blog moniker, played ball at Idaho State and covers PAC-12 recruiting for the SB Nation conference site Pacific Takes. Franks is classified as a "dual-threat" on all of the major sites, but Uyeyama differs both on Franks and the use of the label in general.
"To me, it's just a label and it's not something I care much about when evaluating quarterbacks," Uyeyama told me. "There are plenty of pro-style guys that are great athletes and dual-threat guys that could easily be labeled pro-style. One way that I break it down is whether or not a player has mobility out of the pocket or if that player is someone who can genuinely scare a defense by running the ball on designed runs or scrambles. To me, Franks is someone with mobility. Torrance Gibson is more of the latter."
Gibson, some might remember, was the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in last year's recruiting cycle who visited LSU before ultimately signing with Ohio State. Many think the 6-4, 205-pound Gibson will ultimately wind up as a receiver. But Uyeyama has another example of a quarterback that sits in between the two imagined poles.
"Zach Gentry (Michigan commit) is a player that most people would compare to Ryan Mallet because of his size, but Gentry is actually a much better athlete that is a threat to run with the ball," he said. "I don't know if Jim Harbaugh is ever going to call plays for Gentry to run with it, but I'm confident that if Gentry chose a school that ran a spread with quarterback runs in the playbook, he'd be running the ball. So I would consider Gentry a dual-threat, but he's going to play in Harbaugh's pro-style offense. He has the physical tools to play in a spread as well."
Boyd, a Texas fan, remembers many of these themes coming up when the Longhorns made the transition from Vince Young to Colt McCoy, who was considered more of a "pro-style" quarterback.
"[McCoy] was labelled a "pro-style" guy out of high school but he was really defined by what he'd do with his legs," he said.
While the Longhorns certainly didn't use the same volume of designed runs with McCoy as Young -- the latter was simply a special type of athlete -- but they also shied away from a running game based largely on the zone-read. And McCoy finished his career in Austin with more than 1,500 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns, including 561 and 11 in 2008.
"The service ratings of guys as either "pro-style" or "dual-threat" is often total rubbish," Boyd said. "They generally use "pro-style" to label anyone that they perceive to lack running ability rather than the other way around. For instance, they have Jarrett Stidham (2015's No. 2 prospect, who signed with Baylor) as a ‘dual-threat' and while he's definitely reasonably quick and solid as a runner, what defines him and makes him special is what he can do from the pocket. So any debate on LSU targets that relies on 247 or Rivals' labels on who is ‘pro-style' or ‘dual-threat' isn't going to hit the mark even if the underlying point that "LSU needs pro-style guys" is actually true."
Which goes back to one of the underlying points of Boyd's piece on the two styles of offense being more analogous than most fans realize.
"So Cam Cameron runs an offense that asks the QB to manage some things at the line in terms of making checks and then execute the vertical passing game which requires a strong arm, timing, and the ability to keep eyes downfield," Boyd said. "Well if you watch many of the dual-threat guys in high school, that's more or less exactly how they get used in high school. They run lots of vertical passing patterns, albeit from spread sets, sometimes with a shallow checkdown route that the QB usually passes up in favor of the checkdown option of simply scrambling."
Because a five or 10-yard scramble is typically more valuable than a three-to-four-yard checkdown to a running back.
"You get lots of receivers running downfield and it really opens up some scrambling opportunities," Boyd continued. "People assume that the quick passing game is better for the dual-threat QB but the ‘vertical or scramble' system is actually easier to process and execute at that level, provided the QB has a strong arm."
Evaluating how a quarterback operates in that sort of system goes back to talent evaluation.
"It is tough to assess what the kid is being taught," said Dan Gonzalez, the author of "Concept Passing: Teaching the Modern Passing Game," a book I've referenced in the past in trying to explain exactly how offense works. Gonzalez works as a freelance quarterback coach and speaks at coaches clinics across the country.
"Some coaches just want him to make the play -- but if you see him just dart when there are open people (especially the primary) there is cause for concern," he said. "I think, for this reason -- discretion is very important. Decision making has to be factored in, and only watching a BUNCH of video can tell you that."
Gonzalez says that the recruiting categories matter little to him in the evaluation process, nor any other coach. It's more about what jumps out on film.
"I think there is always a danger in labels, and even more danger in a fanbase getting overly infatuated when most, in all honesty, don't know how to translate high school big plays to college big plays," he said. "So what do I think you look for? More than ability that jumps off the video (at QB) - I look for smarts, timing accuracy, and the ability to extend plays. "
If you're a frequenter of some LSU message boards, including Geaux 247, you may be familiar with the work of Adam Hamilton, AKA StLCajun55. He's a high school quarterbacks coach in the St. Louis area, and has long added some great commentary. He was good enough add his own thoughts on this topic.
"To some extent, the labels have been played out for a variety of reasons," Hamilton said. "Many high school quarterbacks are athletic enough to be somewhat of a factor in the run game at that level. Secondly, many high school offenses incorporate some amount of quarterback runs in an effort to force the 11 players on defense to defend 11 players on offense. In traditional ‘pro-style offenses,' once the quarterback hands the ball off, the offense is playing 10 against 11 on defense. In an effort to create mismatches and numbers advantages, some high school coaches want the quarterback to be somewhat of a running threat because it balances out the numbers.
"At any level, especially high school, mobility at the quarterback position is always helpful because it allows the quarterback to keep the play alive if pass protection breaks down," Hamilton adds.
Because a smart coach takes advantage of all of his quarterback's talents, be them a strong arm or quick feet.
And mobility is just that: a quarterbacking trait, just like anything else. And just like every other trait coaches and personnel people seek for every other position on the field, it's something that either compliments the rest of a quarterback's game, or is compensated for. Just like height, core strength, arm strength, agility, accuracy, intelligence, reflexes, vision, etc...
The more you have in one area, the less you need in others. The benefits of having a mobile quarterback should be pretty ubiquitous by now, that I shouldn't have to explain them to you. A quarterback without mobility needs a quick release or he's likely to take a lot more big hits in the pocket (getting tackled down the field as a runner will never be as intense as the type of hits a quarterback will take standing straight up by a full-speed defender -- plus quarterbacks can always slide). Just as a quarterback with a stronger arm can afford to attack more of the field, or throw the ball into tighter windows between defenders. Or one with a weaker arm needs to rely on touch and timing to get the ball to where his receiver needs it to be. A quarterback with a greater ability to throw the ball both with power and accuracy can often afford to take more chances with the football and try to create bigger plays. One without those physical gifts will need to rely more on his wits and the ability to read coverage and find the open man, sometimes passing on the bigger play.
It's all a balancing act. Where the disconnect seems to be coming in for most fans is on the idea that these skills are mutually exclusive. That a quarterback with running ability must be diminished as a passer, or that one with lead feet is somehow better. Nobody that's ever coached or actually drawn a check evaluating football talent has seen it that way in the last 30 years. Every coach wants the player with as much talent as possible. Nobody "wants" a quarterback with less mobility any more than they want one with a weaker or less accurate arm. The variance in the values is all a part of how you evaluate the talent. It isn't a zero-sum game.
Where some fans have a disconnect in perception is that a quarterback who has the ability to run will look to use that skill too quickly, fail to properly go through his progressions, find his outlets. Try to do too much on his own. And sure, those things can certainly happen -- but it all goes back to the most important trait that any quarterback needs in any system: decision-making ability.
When a quarterback does the things described above, he's just not playing play very well. It's just like a big-armed passer who throws a lot of interceptions by constantly trying to power the football into double coverage. Or one who takes too many sacks because he holds on to the ball too long pressing for the big play instead of finding his outlet receivers. Or one that is can't take those chances down the field and tries to check the ball down too much. Or one who can't understand the fronts and coverages defenses are showing him.
"Put it this way - does this ‘mobility' hinder other parts of the game? If this is the case, then you might want ‘less' of it, but there are other issues in at play," said Gonzalez
All of these things are just different flavors of quarterbacking mistakes. If your quarterback is making too much of them, he's just...bad. Not good. Shitty. But that doesn't mean that he's some representative of every player with his skillset.
LSU fans have had to watch a lot of bad quarterback play in recent years. Only a fool would argue otherwise. And yeah, two of the more prominent quarterbacks in that stretch were of the dual threat variety. But the qualities that made them bad quarterbacks involved things like passing inaccuracy and slow decision-making, and if a quarterback does those things it won't matter whether he's got quick feet or is a 6-5 statue.
"But Billy, the offense worked so much better with a pocket passer like Zach Mettenberger."
It also worked with a pair of 5-11 receivers, does that mean LSU should stop looking for receivers more than six feet tall? Should LSU have not recruited Malachi Dupre or Tyron Johnson in the last two classes? Should they have passed on Derrius Guice because he's not a 230-pound bruiser like Jeremy Hill?
How about the national championships LSU won with mobile quarterbacks like Matt Mauck, Matt Flynn and Ryan Perriloux?
Pigeon-holing either type of quarterback exclusively doesn't just limit an offense; it increases the scarcity of its resources. LSU should be recruiting the best quarterbacks available to them, regardless of style because the good ones are hard to find enough already.
None of this gets to the specific issues that plagued LSU last season with Jennings and Harris, and it's my hope to explore them more in the next few weeks as spring practice begins and really gets going. There is no doubt that Cameron did a lousy job of making his offense work with and for them this season and that he'll have to do a better job of it in 2015. The problem might, in fact, be in the evaluation, in that Jennings or Harris just might not be good enough, although I think it's way too early to give up on either. But whether Jennings, Harris, or any other quarterback going forward is going to succeed here in the future has nothing to do with the type of label some recruiting service slapped on them in high school.
Stop worrying about one specific quality of quarterback play. Worry about the overall quality of it.