Conventional wisdom says college football offense is like clothing: What was trendy decades ago cycles back to being in vogue, and what passes for fashion today will be out of style tomorrow.
But the reasoning has holes. Just as the 1970s leisure suit likely, and thankfully, never makes a comeback, so the robust T-formation mostly is relegated to the dustbin of college football history.
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On the other hand, just as blue jeans have been and always will be, the dual-threat quarterback is here to stay. Or maybe a better way to put it is that some version of the spread offense is here to stay, and the best way to execute it is with a run-pass QB.
Gil Brandt, a longtime college football talent evaluator and former vice president of player personnel with the Dallas Cowboys who now works for NFL.com, explained it this way:
“Even Walmart found out they have to do other things, so now they sell groceries,” Brandt said. “The point is that everybody has to add something to what they’re already doing to be successful.
"We used to line up on offense and never shifted, never ran motion. We do all those things now.”
Not that a pocket passer can’t work. Dwayne Haskins was not exactly Lamar Jackson last season at Ohio State, but the Buckeyes still rang up a 13-1 record as Haskins set all kinds of passing records.
“When talking quarterbacks, I think you try to find the best available, and then it’s your responsibility to find the best plays that fit him,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “But I do think the ability to spread it out, get big and have the ability to go in and out of those with tempo is the way of the future.”
The way of the present, too. Ohio State and Nebraska feature dual-threat quarterbacks in Justin Fields and Adrian Martinez. Both can beat you with their arms and legs, which explains why Day snatched Fields out of the transfer portal in January — the sophomore spent last season at Georgia — and also heavily recruited Martinez out of California before signing Matthew Baldwin instead.
Day explained that the proliferation of dual-threat quarterbacks is tied to necessity, that as defenses adjusted to offenses spreading out, offenses re-adjusted by spreading out even more, so that it became almost mandatory that the quarterback shine as a passer and runner.
“When teams were more designed to stop the I-formation backfields, there were three big linebackers, then teams went to spread it out and what we call bullet or hybrid (defensive) guys went there,” Day said. “Then as teams started to spread it out even more, like in the Big 12, defenses adjusted to more of a three-down front, then all of the sudden on offense they start to bring it in a little more and start to get big.”
Ohio State runs what generically is known as a spread 3 offense, meaning it game-plans for a balanced run-pass mix. The Buckeyes run 61% of the time (178 rushes to 112 passing attempts). Last season, they threw on 51% of their snaps (561 pass attempts to 549 runs).
Brandt doesn’t see college offenses returning to the power formations of the past.
“What’s happening is they’re taking the best athlete on the team and putting him at quarterback,” he said. “In baseball, when you choose up sides in little league, you take the shortstop first. In our game, you take the quarterback first.”
That wasn’t the case 50 years ago, when a more rudimentary version of the dual-threat quarterback dotted college football. Teams operating out of the popular wishbone offense relied on quarterbacks who could run well and throw only on third-and-very-long.
“Cornelius Greene, out of Washington D.C., was one heck of a runner, but not a very good passer,” Brandt said of the former Ohio State quarterback.
Everything about offense today is geared toward quarterbacks who can run 4.7 in the 40-yard dash, compared with the 5.3s of yesteryear, Brandt said.
“What is happening with quarterbacks, compared to 20 years ago, is that it used to be that June 1, school is out and guys went into hibernation or played baseball. Now, June 1, everyone plays seven-on-seven football, which has done more to develop quarterbacks than anything else in the world.”
Ohio State defensive co-coordinator Greg Mattison knows which type of quarterback he’d rather not face at Nebraska.
“A dual-threat guy at this level, by far,” Mattison said, adding that the main reason run-throw QBs have not taken over the NFL is the threat of injury.
“Guys get paid a lot of money, so for one guy to get hit and knocked out, that’s their whole franchise,” he said.
Increasingly, the same thing could be said of the college level, which is why Ohio State has been careful not to run Fields too much. The “threat” of a dual-threat quarterback has a dual meaning: Lose a Fields or Martinez to injury and the entire franchise can crumble.
That said, the run-pass QB is a fashion not soon to go out of style.