Pedigree doesn't matter

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Fourteen of the 32 current starting quarterbacks in the NFL played college football outside of the six BCS conferences, aka the big-school, big-name, big-money programs.

That's 43.8 percent of the starters at the league's glamour position hailing from unlikely places. This makes no sense.

In Darwinist college football, schools with state-of-the-art facilities, grand tradition and hours of national television time ought to be able to win every recruiting battle for the best young players. Moreover, the wealthiest schools (presumably) employ the best coaches to develop that talent. If they don't, they can just hire them.

So sure, a couple quarterbacks could slip through the cracks.

But 43.8 percent?

Should the Mid-American Conference have as many starters (4) in the NFL as the Big Ten? Should the Western Athletic Conference have as many (3) as the Big 12 and Big East combined? Should the Sun Belt (2) have more than the SEC (1)?

"I think what you are seeing is the small schools are doing a good job finding talent off the beaten path," said Bob Pruett, the coach of Marshall.

By producing both Chad Pennington (Jets) and Byron Leftwich (Jaguars), Pruett's program has more current starting QBs in the NFL than Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Georgia, Louisiana State, Texas, Alabama, Auburn, Nebraska and Colorado combined.

That entire illustrious group is represented solely by New England's Tom Brady (Michigan).

"None of us are in the market for the All-American player," Pruett said. "But at Marshall our offense is built around the quarterback so we have to find a guy who can throw it."

Maybe some of these big schools should follow Pruett off-the-beaten path and to some strong-armed gunner. But he isn't the only one having success. Small-school guys beating out the big-schools guy is rampant in the NFL.

From Brett Favre (Southern Miss) to Daunte Culpepper (Central Florida) to Steve McNair (Alcorn State), some of them are established superstars. Others such as Jake Delhomme (Louisiana-Lafayette) and David Carr (Fresno State) are getting there.

McNair is one of four starters who didn't even play Division I-A football, leading a brigade of Kurt Warner (Northern Iowa), Jay Fiedler (Dartmouth) and Josh McCown (Sam Houston State) out of the I-AA ranks.

Late bloomers and motivated diamonds-in-the-rough have always been a part of professional sports. But with 14 of them starting, we are only two quarterback switches away from it being the norm, not the exception in the NFL.

One reason for this is the strange, political way college football defines itself. If you don't come from a traditional power conference, you can't realistically compete for the national title. Present reality notwithstanding.

Boise State has won 16 consecutive games but is not in the BCS. Mississippi State has won nine games since 2000 and is. College football may say you can't be that good playing in the WAC or the MAC, but the NFL knows you can.

"If you talk to NFL people about Pennington and Leftwich," said Pruett, "you'll hear a lot of them say they are great students of the game, great leaders and great people. Where they went to school didn't matter. It didn't matter last year with (Miami of Ohio's) Ben Roethlisberger. He got picked in the first round."

Actually, it might have helped; it's just one reason why Roethlisberger is already the starter in Pittsburgh.

One of the advantages of being a high-quality quarterback at a mid-major school is an environment conducive to player development. There is more patience, less demanding fans and fewer media to create controversy.

Mel Kiper's highest-rated college quarterback is Akron's Charlie Frye, another MAC product. Frye is a four-year starter who should graduate with more than 40 career starts and 1,500 passing attempts. Akron has won just 14 games during that stretch but there has been no quarterback controversy. Frye has been able to slowly develop into a pro prospect.

"Obviously it is huge," Akron coach J.D. Brookhart said. "To have a guy (with the experience) to understand leads and directions is obviously a huge plus. We've been unable to complement him very well; that has been our challenge." Pruett thinks his current QB, senior Stan Hill, will be his next signal caller to make the NFL. "He's going to be a great leader in the NFL," Pruett said. Hill went to high school in Tupelo, Miss., which means no one in the SEC seemed to share that sentiment at the time. But increasingly it is those guys who get the last laugh. The once-overlooked QB is getting a starting job in the NFL, while the big-school recruit holds the clipboard.

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