Having spent my entire adult life in professional football doesn’t mean that I don’t follow the college game closely as well. My lane is clearly the NFL, but growing up in the Northwest, I also have kept a close eye on the Pac-12 Conference in all sports. I watch coaching tape constantly and try to follow the major schools out west, particularly their team building methods.
The reputation of the Pac-12 in football, has been in question over the last few years and the conference’s results over the past weekend had me wearing my GM hat in search of some answers.
I often get asked what the big difference is between the Pac-12 Conference and the other Power 5 conferences around the country? It’s a difficult question to answer because the west coast contributes to the overall talent level in college football as much as any. Unfortunately for the Pac-12, plenty of the talent in the west has gone to schools in other areas of the United States. Until coaches in the Pac-12 can find a way to keep their key talent close to home, the results are not going to change.
One only has to look at the game’s most important position— Quarterback. The quality of play at this position was downright poor this past weekend in the Pac-12. What makes it even tougher to swallow for west coast natives is the fact that so many quality quarterbacks are showing off their talent elsewhere. Heisman Trophy favorites DJ Uiagalelei from Clemson, Bryce Young from Alabama, CJ Stroud of Ohio State and Ole Miss QB Matt Corral are all Cali kids.
Let’s take it further. The University of Oregon’s best passer from a year ago is at Texas Tech. The University of Washington’s best option at QB for 2020 and 2021 is now at Fresno State, Arizona’s best passer from a year ago transferred to Memphis. All of these men were replaced at their original schools by a player with a lesser skill set. The only school who upgraded because of a transfer leaving was USC where JT Daniels (another Heisman hopeful) went to Georgia once Kedon Slovis took over his old job at SC because of injury. Southern Cal wasn’t going to look back and rightly so.
I think primarily two things have happened to cause this. The teams in other conferences have simply done a better job of identifying, at an early stage, who these quarterbacks are and are willing to commit offers sooner to them. Another reason is the fact that transferring to another school is now an easy option where a player can reassess his schools’ chances of winning once he gets there. So getting a top valued QB is good, but if your program lets him down- he’s gone. I truly believe all these student athletes want to win and I can’t blame them at all for the choices they are making. I’m convinced that whatever you want in sports is most easily attainable if “you can win”. Whether its money, notoriety, credit, or whatever floats your boat, winning makes it easier to attain.
The new-found transfer portal has forced college coaches into having to make decisions on not only their players but others as well, much like the role of a GM in the NFL. It's really college football’s parallel to NFL free agency.
College coaches are now forced to manage their ever-changing roster with constant comings and goings with similarity to an NFL team. This is everyday stuff in NFL circles. A drain for one school can be a windfall for another and to that end, being able to evaluate players is more important than ever. It's really a skill set totally different from coaching. I saw it direct and up close for years in the NFL. I see the transfer portal as a great tool for those that can evaluate and not as a drain, on your own program. A team building pillar that probably needs full time attention.
Having been the Miami Dolphins General Manager when Alabama’s Nick Saban was the head coach, I know how he operated and the importance he put on the process of identifying players at all positions. It takes details, discipline and reps. While his stint in the NFL was short, Saban left me with the feeling that our system in Miami was the best I had ever used in identifying and evaluating players. I would implement it on day one of any college or pro organization.
We were able to combine his philosophy, which included what he took from one of his close friends, Bill Belichick, with my 25 years of experience at the NFL level, to form a system that, in my opinion, was second to none. I learned exactly what Saban and his staff were looking for and it was mine and my staff's job to find them. We were able to build a consensus on players that removed agendas with our evaluators across the board.
I know Saban employs that same system now at Alabama and I think his results speak for themselves. He also has hired a long-time NFL talent evaluator that he allows to filter his coaches evaluations through so players can be properly sequenced, regardless of position. I realize that Alabama is the exception and at the pinnacle but their heir team building process is less about recruiting than it is, simply saying no to the right prospects and taking the guys who fit their system best.
Let evaluators evaluate and coaches coach. Then recruit the players that we identified by the system that we created. Sounds simple?
So, it is as much about team building as it is about identifying quarterbacks.
Perhaps it's budgets? Maybe it's evaluating acumen? College programs do not fall behind because the coaches can’t coach or recruit. It is a fact that unless they are recruiting the right guys, they are spinning their wheels. And it seems like the SEC schools and several others have committed more resources to these player evaluations. Even though we all agree that the QB is the most important position, I feel if proper team building skills are utilized with players at other positions, QB’s will eventually want to come if surrounded by other talent.
Sorry for the distraction- now back to the Quarterbacks. In the short term, because of the reasons we have talked of, the job of saving the national reputation of the Pac 12 Conference falls on two players. The aforementioned USC QB, Kedon Slovis (who should be getting more consideration for the Heisman), and Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels. These guys are the only two that NFL scouts and teams have their eyes on in earnest.
The rest of the QB’s in the Pac-12 Conference fall short of NFL standards. Slovis will be seen in much brighter light when NFL opinions start taking the place of early draft gurus projections and who seem to have hitched their wagon to North Carolina’s Sam Howell or even Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, neither of which are NFL passers in my opinion. Slovis must fight the conservative nature of the USC offense in general, but has enough talent around him that I’m confident he will rise to the top of most NFL draft boards before the 2021 season ends and Daniels has to become more consistent as a decision maker but has all the tools NFL teams will desire.
Unfortunately, because of the lack of talent and QB play in the league, it's going to be a down year for the Pac 12- nationally, IMO. It's hard to keep up with the budgets and quality of the SEC operations but improvement can start with an honest look in the mirror. If you cannot beat em ya have to join em.