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Labriola on college football's impact on the NFL

Ready or not, here it comes:

• It wasn’t all that long ago, and it was during an NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, that general managers, coaches, and scouts were bemoaning the trend toward spread offenses throughout all corners of college football. Typically, the conversations centered around the quarterbacks who came from those spread offenses and their relative preparedness for the way the NFL version of the sport was being played.

• Among the issues being presented at the time by the NFL people about college quarterbacks had to do with them being unfamiliar with playing the position under center, being unfamiliar with calling plays in a huddle, being overly familiar with option-type plays that either were run-run options where the quarterback either handed the ball to a back or ran it himself, or run-pass options where the quarterback either handed the ball to a back or threw it to an eligible receiver.

• In the NFL game, teams huddled up, except for hurry-up situations dictated either by the score or by the time remaining in either half; they had their quarterbacks under center, except for obvious passing situations; and runs were runs with the quarterback rarely carrying the ball himself, and passes were passes even though some were preceded by a play-action fake.

• That’s the way NFL teams played offense. Until they didn’t. And now, it’s completely common to see a quarterback operate almost exclusively out of shotgun formation, for teams not to go into the huddle even in non-hurry-up situations, and to utilize run-pass options as a regular part of the offense.

• Not all that surprisingly, this metamorphosis at the NFL level has allowed college quarterbacks to play, and to play well, earlier in their careers now that the professionals are utilizing some of the same concepts that have been so successful at the college level. Some of the names associated with this phenomenon include Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Pat Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and Mitch Trubisky.

• Now that many of the principles of college offenses have taken hold in the NFL and helped make this one of the highest-scoring seasons on record, maybe the NFL should look to college football for the antidote to those very offensive principles. And in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, Conor Orr wrote a piece explaining just how that is happening.

• According to Orr’s article, there are three primary areas in which football has changed to enhance offensive production at the college level: the recent rules changes that make it illegal to contact receivers down the field both before and after the football arrives; the interest in playing offense primarily from what the author refers to as the “Madden generation;” and the play-callers who have “successfully married the effectiveness of option football with pass-happy Air Raid systems.”

• Matt Drinkall of Kansas Wesleyan is the architect of an offense that was averaging 56.3 points per game – just third in the NAIA at the time Orr’s story was published – and he is quoted as saying, “The game is being changed forever. We’re in the eye of the storm as two sides of the ball fight it out. Who can continue to evolve?”

• Orr identifies a couple of the places where defensive ideas are germinating to combat this offensive explosion, and those places are Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, where 35-year old Travis Johansen is the defensive coordinator; and at West Point, where Jay Bateman’s defense took Oklahoma into overtime earlier this autumn. And both Johansen and Bateman rely heavily on position-flexibility. Hybrid players.

• Johansen called it “position-less football,” and he explained to Orr how a safety is “Anything from a defensive end to a (DB) playing Cover-0 in the slot.”

• Bateman told Orr, “Everyone is a blitzer. A kid is a defensive end – well, now he’s a linebacker, or a strong safety. How does a quarterback declare him? (Their offense will) start blocking guys who aren’t even rushing and not block guys who are. The days of a defensive player dropping back into a spot, the quarterback throwing it, and (the defender) breaking on the ball are over.”

• Since those days are over in college football, they figure to be over soon in the NFL as well. And then it will be up to NFL defenses to evolve or become extinct.

SCHEDULE OF INTERNATIONAL GAMES
• The NFL announced recently that there will be five international games played in 2019, with four of those in London and one in Mexico City. The five teams hosting those games are the Los Angeles Rams, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Oakland, and the Los Angeles Chargers.

• Since the only possible way the Steelers would even be in consideration for an international game would be to face one of those as the designated road team, and the only way the Steelers would face one of those as the designated rod team would be if they and the Chargers finish 2018 in the same spot in their respective divisions – the AFC North and the AFC West. Based on that, it seems unlikely there will be an international game on the Steelers 2019 schedule.

• As for the rest of the Steelers’ 2019 regular season schedule – not including the annual home-and-home series with Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Cleveland – they will host Buffalo, Miami, the Rams, Seattle, and the corresponding team from the AFC South; their road games will be at New England, the New York Jets, Arizona, San Francisco, and the corresponding team from the AFC West.

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