These are sunny days for college football, blindingly so.
Television contracts are filling the coffers at a historic rate. Coaches are making CEO salaries. The consumers of the product cannot get enough.
However, one of the jobs of the folks who run the sport is to keep their eyes on the horizon for clouds. There’s the matter of player safety, concussions specifically, and how long the cost-of-attendance scholarship increase will keep the compensation question at bay. And, now, further in the distance, you can add another potential storm – the evaluation issue.
To be clear, it’s only the smallest of clouds now, but you don’t have to spend much time listening to NFL coaches and general managers speak here this week at the NFL Combine to imagine that it will grow.
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“The college game is quite a bit different than the game we play, especially on the line of scrimmage,” San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said.
That comment or something along its lines was repeated several times before lunch on the first day of the combine. Baalke was referencing the spread offense, which has become so prevalent in college football that it’s making it harder and harder for professional scouts to evaluate how players will adjust to the more traditional offenses that still dominate the NFL.
This started as quarterbacks-only concern, but it’s starting to bleed into other positions, specifically offensive line and tight end. NFL evaluators are shocked now to see tape on college offensive linemen who never get into a three-point stance and tight ends who never venture near enough the offensive line to be graded as blockers.
“There is a little bit of development once you get to the league,” Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said. “I think that’s the biggest part of it. You’re still getting big, strong, talented young men with feet to move and the ability to play, but maybe their development isn’t as far along as it was when colleges were more closely aligned with what we’re doing in the NFL.”
The offensive changes in the college game affect the defense as well. If fewer offensive linemen are drive-blocking anyone then fewer defensive linemen are having to handle that technique, etc. and etc.
“We’re having to teach things we’ve never had to teach before,” Arizona head coach Bruce Arians said. “The athletes are much, much better, but the fundamentals are worse than they’ve ever been.”
For a long time, college football has been able to put this particular complaint in the “That’s a you problem” pile. The college game was, and at the moment still is, the only legitimate commodities supplier for the NFL and therefore didn’t need to worry if the product they were supplying didn’t meet every single need of that product’s consumer.
The recent emergence of at least one professional spring football league could change that in the future. Major League Football (MLFB) already has hired coaches and drafted teams (one of which features a half dozen former South Carolina players including quarterback Stephen Garcia) and will begin training camps in March. There also is talk of a new USFL. Both of these leagues will sell themselves as feeder systems for the NFL, a chance for former NFL players to show they’ve still got what it takes or unsigned players to catch someone’s eye.
At the moment, the business model for MLFB is to employee players post-college, but business models can change. What if the league decides, “Hey, let’s save some roster spots for college-age players who don’t have the desire or the ability to be student-athletes.”? That recruiting pitch might be pretty persuasive – “Come make a little money and play the exact same way they play in the NFL instead of sitting in math class for another minute of your life.”
“Yeah, I think there’s a way to make it work that there could be a developmental system in place,” Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht said when asked if there was ever a day a developmental league might rival college football as a scouting option for the NFL. “I think it would be pretty beneficial for all of us.”
Licht’s “all of us” obviously doesn’t include the college game.