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WBE Mythbusters No. 3: the Spread vs. the NFL

Oklahoma St. lineman Russell Okung, an unfortunate victim of the NFL's bias against linemen who played in the spread. Despite a highly productive college career, Okung slipped all the way to the sixth pick overall. Sure, he was the second lineman drafted, but once you've fallen all the way to No. 6, really, what was the point in getting drafted at all?

I wasn’t expecting to revisit this whole mythbusting thing so quickly, but another opportunity presented itself just Wednesday, and as they say, timeliness is next to godliness. (Or is it friendliness? I can never remember*.)

That opportunity comes courtesy of Mr. Spencer Region**, who does seem to be finding his way into a lot of headlines of late:

“I haven’t closed the door on Auburn at all,” Region said. “But I had to take a step back and try to make a decision on what will be the best offensive fit for me. I’m a smash-mouth guy. I like to pound people. I’m not sure if Auburn’s offensive scheme would be the best fit for me.”

“I want to go somewhere that will develop me to play on the next level [NFL]. I want to play in a system that will fit my style, which is being physical.”

Oh heavens, Spencer. This could be two separate posts, but the idea that Auburn’s not “physical” is so easily dispelled it’s not worth that much effort. I’ll make this quick: Malzahn’s offense ran on better than 60 percent of its plays in 2009. In the SEC, maybe the most ground-centric league in the country, only Kentucky, Mississippi State, and, yes, Alabama ran more often. Several of its signature plays are built around guards–like Region–getting out on the edge and crushing people. If you want to define a “physical” team as simply a team that asks their linemen to always put their hands on the ground, Auburn is not “physical.” But since a team like Arkansas goes from a three-point stance and threw 44 more times than they ran, I think that’s pretty clearly a stupid definition.

It’s the other contention–that linemen from a spread aren’t prepared for the NFL–that I want to focus on.

What’s funny is that we’re talking about it now, when the NFL seems more friendly to the spread than ever. You’d think quarterback, for instance, would be the one position where teams would want to think twice given the washouts of spread legends like Graham Harrell and Chase Daniel and the struggles of former top pick Alex Smith. But this past April, the spread QB who’d learned under a former Randy Walker protege went No. 1 overall despite missing his entire senior season, the next quarterback taken was also a spread quarterback despite the fact that (ahem) no one is sure whether he can really even throw the ball at an NFL level, and it’s not until we get to the 48th overall pick that we find the prototypical pocket passer groomed in an pro-style offense by a former NFL coordinator. Seems strange, but maybe it makes sense when you also consider that the reigning Super Bowl MVP was the OG scrambly, undersized spread quarterback when he came out of Purdue.

But OK, howzabout offensive linemen? The first two off the board this year were both tackles out of Big 12 spreads … just as the first lineman off the board last year was a tackle out of a Big 12 spread. Interior linemen? The first two off the board in 2010 were a guard from noted NFL prospect-factory Idaho and a center from Florida. (The Gators run a spread, I don’t know if you’ve heard.)

But maybe all this is cherry-picking, and what the question here as it regards a guard recruit’s decision where to attend school really is: is there a bias against guards who played in the spread in the NFL Draft?

So I looked at every guard taken the last two drafts, and the centers too, just for the hell of it. Findings:

— There were 22 guards taken total in 2009 and 2010. Of those, by my estimation, exactly 8 were drafted out of spread offenses and 8 out of pro-style offenses. Another six hailed from offenses that either incorporated elements of both (i.e. Penn State) or that I frankly no idea what they ran (I-AA Eastern Illinois, for instance).

— The split was even both years–5 and 5 in ’09, 3 and 3 in ’10.

— 13 centers were taken. 5 of these were spread centers, 8 were pro-style, and 1 (again, Penn St.) I wasn’t sure how to classify.

So: the last two years, at least, guards in the spread were every bit as likely to be drafted as those in pro-style offenses. It’s not like all of these guards were coming out of high-profile spread outfits at Oklahoma or Oregon, either; the NFL took guards from places like Cincinnati, Illinois, San Diego State, Iowa State, etc. They took Tyronne Green out of Auburn after he spent a season in the Tony Franklin disaster; clearly, it’s possible to get the NFL’s attention no matter what kind of offense you play in.

Now for some caveats: this particular study is hardly scientific, obviously (though an error or two one direction or the other wouldn’t make too much of a difference); though it’s an incredibly small sample size, over the course of these two drafts, pro-style centers were mildly favored; and, most significantly, it’s certainly fair to say that the NFL doesn’t like the spread and the scouting difficulties it can create.

But it’s even fairer to say that for true NFL-grade prospects, they’ve proven themselves more than willing to overlook those difficulties and offer an opportunity to players who deserve them. If you can play, the NFL will find you, no matter what offense you’re in … even the Mike Leach Texas Tech circus that, option aside, is probably the furthest possible approach from the NFL’s. It didn’t stop the Chargers from taking Tech guard Louis Vasquez in the third round in 2009, and the transition didn’t stop Vasquez from starting 14 games as a rookie.

If Region or any recruit doesn’t want to come to Auburn, hey, fine, there’s plenty of reasons to attend plenty of other schools. But as those reasons go, “the spread offense can’t get me to the NFL” just isn’t a valid one.

*Don’t worry, I’m kidding. I know it’s “tastiness.”

**OK, so I’m tired of talking about Region, and I don’t want to say anything negative about the kid. He made a mistake back in February, he’s desperately trying to fix it (since we all know exactly who he’s trying to win over by publicly spouting what has to be a common negative recruiting refrain against Auburn), and I wish him the best of luck finding somewhere he can play football and feel comfortable.

But at this point, I think we pretty well know that place isn’t going to be Auburn. Somehow, the image of Jeff Grimes coaching a player who went on record as saying he wasn’t good enough to get him ready for the pros doesn’t compute.

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