LINCOLN — Wisconsin has a new football coach and maybe a new way of operating its offense after signing a 6-foot-6, 215-pound dual-threat quarterback from a junior college.
Michigan State has the same coach and the same quarterback from last year, but there are rumblings the Spartans might look to an incoming freshman with running and passing skills to diversify their offense.
Oh, and Southern Mississippi has a new coach for the second consecutive season.
Such news is why Nebraska, even while intently focusing on itself during the 15 days of spring practice, always keeps an eye on upcoming opponents.
“Each team we play next year, we’ll have a preliminary scouting report going into the summer,” NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “January to May, we spend pretty significant time looking at future opponents.”
February, April and May are the heavy months for that. Each graduate assistant is assigned to gather information on three to four opponents.
“But every day,” Papuchis said, “they look for injury updates, depth-chart changes and whatever else might be out there.”
Last year’s season opener against Southern Mississippi under a new coach wasn’t quite the mystery some might have expected because of the offseason research.
“We thought we kind of had a feel for what they were going to do,” Papuchis said. “Even with a new staff, we had a plan from piecing together information based on player quotes, articles from the spring and whatever footage was on the Internet.”
Anyone doing homework on college football finds more evidence every day that the dual-threat quarterback is the hottest brand going.
“The era of the true pocket passer — unless he is just an exceptional talent — is probably past us,” Papuchis said.
“I don’t know that it’s going to disappear. But at every level of football, from the NFL down to youth leagues, the athletic quarterback is the direction it’s going.”
Quarterbacks who can run and pass make offense vs. defense a true 11-on-11 game. Pocket passers with limited mobility often allow a defensive coordinator to feel he has one less player to defend.
In the NFL, the scale still tilts toward the pocket passer, though the quick success of Robert Griffin III at Washington and Colin Kaepernick at San Francisco is challenging old assumptions.
“I’m surprised it has taken the NFL this long,” Papuchis said. “It makes sense because that’s what kids are doing out of high school and are doing in college. Those are the type of guys who are coming up.”
Defensive coaches openly admit that dual-threat quarterbacks cause most of their sleepless nights.
“Facing a dual-threat guy changes the way you approach a lot of things,” Papuchis said. “So there is going to be a learning curve in the NFL just as there has been in college on how to handle it.”
Much of the dual-threat quarterback phenomenon is credited to the 7-on-7 summer leagues that sprouted in Texas 10 to 15 years ago.
That trend now has gone national. In assessing recruits, Papuchis said, he sees no geographic area that remains locked in to traditional dropback quarterback play.
“If a school has a guy that fits that, fine,” he said. “But the high school film I evaluate, I can’t even think offhand how many even take a snap from center anymore. It’s almost all shotgun and a lot of no-huddle.”
The trend toward a faster offensive pace, Papuchis said, should change how defensive productivity is measured. It isn’t total yards anymore, and total points aren’t always a crystal-clear indicator.
“The year we led the country in scoring defense here in 2009, we averaged about 62 plays a game on defense,” he said. “A year ago, we averaged high 70s to low 80s.
“Part of that is our problem. And part of that is a reflection of the type of offense we run because we go fast.”
The speed and diversity of current offenses in college football force a defense to adapt quickly to get its best athletes on the field.
Case in point: Nebraska sophomore linebacker David Santos. For the following discussion, remember that “Will” stands for weakside linebacker, “Mike” for middle and “Buck” for strongside.
“I came in a Will,” Santos said. “Then went to Mike. Then back to Will. Then I went to Buck for a little while in fall camp (last season).
“Now I’m at Mike, and I was at Will and back at Mike.”
So do you remember your own name?
“Not really,” Santos said, laughing. “I don’t know what they call me. Some hybrid of all three of them. I can’t even come up with a name.”
Whatever confusion there may be in the spring, Santos said, will be worth it come fall.
“If you get to focus on one position, of course you’re going to get better at it,” he said. “But especially at Mike now, knowing what everyone around me is doing, it helps in learning the whole defense after being at those other spots.”
And so the eternal chess match that is football continues.
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