The QB gap: How one camp is taking on quarterbacks' struggle to transition to NFL

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – One year ago, at the debut of the QB Collective camp, a precocious young offensive coordinator from the Washington Redskins came to Westlake High School to teach NFL quarterbacking nuances like drop-back footwork, play-action passing and downfield reads to elite high school players. Sean McVay arrived at the field to see Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, throwing routes with his Los Angeles Rams teammates on the school’s turf field.

One year later, McVay returned to the QB Collective camp as the youngest head coach in NFL history. His career trajectory and a franchise’s fate are tied to his ability to pass on the camp counselor conundrum he’d tackled the prior year: How do you take talented young quarterbacks with extensive backgrounds in spread-offense systems and streamline their development? McVay, 31, chuckled at the serendipity of it all. “It’s a small world,” he said.

The small world McVay joked about comes in part because of the basic disconnect between NFL offenses and the spread and tempo schemes that have proliferated in high school and college for the past 15 years. As the game has spread out and sped up, evaluating the quarterback position has become one of the trickiest formulas in all of sports. “When you look at the quarterback position, it’s the most important position in all of sports,” McVay said. “It’s also the most difficult.”

The collision of top NFL offensive minds – McVay, Kyle Shanahan and Mike Shanahan – with 30 of the elite high school quarterback prospects at the second annual Quarterback Collective camp in mid-July was designed to bridge the yawning gap between the basics of NFL offenses and the lower levels of football. The QB Collective, founded by former NFL player and coach Richmond Flowers, has turned into a high-level X-and-O boot camp for the country’s top young quarterbacks. The invitation-only camp is free for the participants, and it’s billed by Flowers as the “anti-showcase.” Instead, it’s awash in drill work, reading defenses and a ballet instructor’s focus on footwork from coaches who volunteer their time to teach. The details are taught by NFL assistants, former NFL quarterbacks and top private quarterback tutors. It’s Flowers’ long-term goal for the instruction, ideals and philosophies taught at the QB Collective to become a syllabus of sorts for the skills necessary to play the position at the highest level.

Some of the nation's best QB prospects attend the QB Collective in hopes of learning how to better prepare themselves for the NFL. (Photo Credit: Richmond Flowers/QB Collective)
Some of the nation’s best high school QB prospects attend the QB Collective camp in hopes of learning how to better prepare themselves for the NFL. (Photo credit: Twitter/@qb_collective)

The camp comes at a fascinating time for quarterback play. The NFL has never been closer for top high school prospects but the skill sets between the levels has seemingly never been further away. The top five quarterbacks drafted by the NFL in 2017 came from spread systems. In college last year, 84 percent of snaps came from either the shotgun or pistol formation, according to ESPN. This comes at a time that five-star quarterback recruits find themselves aiming for a three-year college plan, as blue-chip quarterbacks like Teddy Bridgewater, Deshaun Watson and Josh Rosen accelerated their academic schedules to graduate early. Quarterbacks like Goff, who played in a spread Air Raid system his three years at Cal, arrive with big statistics – 43 TD passes his final season – but little basic understanding of pro offenses. “It’s effective offense,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said of college spread systems. “These guys are putting up 50 points a game and 600 yards. They shouldn’t change. That’s going to help them win.”

But winning in college doesn’t always translate to the NFL, which the campers at the QB Collective appeared to be noticing at an early age. As the world between high school and the NFL shrinks, a compelling tension has risen. Will more of the country’s top young quarterbacks eschew spread- and tempo-based systems for more direct NFL training at pro-style programs like Stanford, Alabama and Michigan? Has the desire for a quick path to the NFL altered the recruiting paradigm?

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JT Daniels threw for 67 touchdowns and six interceptions as a sophomore last season for California powerhouse Mater Dei High School. He projects to be that school’s next great quarterback, a lineage that includes Heisman winners Matt Leinart and John Huarte and recent No. 1 quarterback recruit Matt Barkley.

Daniels projects as the country’s top quarterback recruit in 2019, as he already has heavyweight offers from Alabama, Michigan, Washington, USC and Stanford. He attended the QB Collective to pick the brains of the NFL coaches, not surprising for someone who plans on majoring in cognitive psychology. “The way the mind works and how we function has always amused me,” he said.

The way Daniels approaches his college decision may be instructive for how the minds of future recruits work. He says it’s too early to drill down on specific schools, but his philosophy on how he’s picking a school mirrored many of the other top quarterbacks at the QB Collective. “I need a pro-style, at least a multiple pro-style offense,” Daniels said. “I’m not a spread QB. I can move when I have to, but I fit the pro-style system the best.”

That’s also the most direct line to NFL success, a notion that underscores that shorter distance between blue chips and the green room. Justin Fields, the top uncommitted quarterback in the 2018 class, de-committed from Penn State in June. The Nittany Lions run an effective spread offense heavy in run-pass option plays, which are effective but not considered ideal training for the NFL. Fields didn’t specifically mention Penn State, but did say NFL preparation played into his upcoming decision. Florida, Florida State, Georgia and Auburn are among his top choices. Fields is looking for a multiple offense that can utilize his dynamic athleticism running the football yet still get him prepared for the NFL. “I’m choosing an offense that fits me and will also get me prepared to play in the NFL,” Fields said.

That notion got repeated over and over by campers at the QB Collective. They showed up to learn footwork from Kyle Shanahan (who coached barefoot thanks to lost luggage), dropbacks from former NFL quarterback Rich Bartel and philosophy from former Redskins coach Jim Zorn. They learned about NFL progressions, play-action passes and how the first motion of a pro-style drop should be like falling into a pool. None of the quarterbacks played primarily under center in high school, something they realized has to change at some point for them to thrive in the NFL. “I feel like it’s pretty big,” said Tanner McKee, a four-star 2018 recruit who will enroll in college in 2020 after a Mormon mission. “Learn it before you go to the NFL, before you are tested against the best. I don’t know if [a pro-style system is] a complete decision-maker for me, but it’s pretty important.”

San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan teaches high school prospects the finer points of a dropback. (Photo Credit: Twitter/@qb_collective)
San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan teaches high school prospects the finer points of a dropback. (Photo credit: Twitter/@qb_collective)

When discussing spread offenses, it’s foolish to deal in absolutes. With the spread offense the norm now in college football, there are many more quarterbacks drafted from spread systems than pro-style. Dak Prescott’s rapid ascent with the Cowboys shows it’s more important how a quarterback learns and develops in a system than how the system is defined. Kyle Shanahan’s ability to tailor distinct systems to the divergent styles of Robert Griffin III as the coordinator of the Redskins (2010-13) and Matt Ryan as the coordinator of the Falcons (2015-16) illustrates that coaches need the dexterity to adjust to their talent.

Even with colleges adapting to their recruits, the recruits are starting to realize what they don’t know. And that’s an intriguing notion that could trickle up and impact the recruiting game the next few years. “One thing that I want to prioritize is the offense getting me to the next level as far as the National Football League,” said Hank Bachmeier, a top quarterback recruit in 2019. “I’m looking at an offense that’s going to get under center and mix it up and just have multiple sets.”

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The varied skill sets developed dependent on a collegiate system can best be shown through the 49ers’ two rookie quarterback additions. The 49ers drafted Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard in the third round, an unexpectedly high selection after his 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions during his senior year. But Shanahan admits that seeing Beathard as a quarterback in a pure pro-style offense helps front offices. “It’s much easier to evaluate people when you see them doing what you want them to do,” Shanahan said. “Then you’re not guessing.”

He added: “You get to see them play the position.”

To contrast, Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens played in a pure spread system in college. He threw 38 touchdown passes his junior year, but went undrafted. The 49ers coaches saw him at the East-West Shrine game and admired his dropback footwork and ability to take a snap from under center. They loved his answer when asked how he learned those skills and ended up signing him as a free agent. “He said he YouTubed it,” Shanahan said with a laugh. “He looked at YouTube and tried to figure it out. Two weeks on his own. That’s the type of mentality and personality that gives you a chance.”

What the QB Collective illustrated was just how steep the learning curve is to master NFL quarterbacking concepts. Former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels walked off the field after the first session and compared the lack of basic footwork and under-center skills to going to an elite high school basketball camp where none of the participants knew how to shoot free throws. That begins with the snap, which Zorn said should be essential for young quarterbacks to learn to do from under center. “How do you put the hands underneath the center’s butt and not get grossed out?” Zorn said. “You have to teach your center what to wear and sometimes what not to eat.”

The simplicity of many spread offenses has also slowed the ability of prospects to read defenses. Mike Shanahan spent about 90 minutes on a white board going over the basics of defenses, which is the football version of a finger-painting lesson from Picasso. Mike Shanahan’s biggest chalkboard message was a simple one: “You need to understand defenses better than defensive coordinators do. It’s kind of a fun start for a lot of these young guys to be able to draw up a fronts, linebackers where they drop [and] coverages.”

Former NFL coach Mike Shanahan talks to high school prospects during the camp. (San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan teaches high school prospects the finer points of a dropback. (Photo Credit: Twitter/@qb_collective)
Former NFL coach Mike Shanahan talks to high school prospects during the camp. (Photo credit: Twitter/@qb_collective)

Rosenfels bounced around the NFL for 12 seasons, arriving in the league just as the spread era began to expand in college football in 2001. He played with plenty of spread quarterbacks who flailed upon arriving in the NFL. “It’s ugly early,” he said, adding: “To play quarterback you have to be comfortable all the time in an uncomfortable situation. These guys are uncomfortable in an uncomfortable situation. You end up looking really bad.”

That’s why learning the footwork basics, learning to read defenses and communicating in the huddle are things that need to be picked up along the way. Zorn said that the one-word play calls and sideline placards with a zebra or sunflower fail to prepare quarterbacks for the reality of the NFL. There, a play call is more likely to be: Spread-Orange-Tight-Right-Fullback-Short-Divide-Lead-15.

“You have to make yourself know this stuff,” he said. “You can’t go to the NFL without knowing how to communicate in the huddle, on the line of scrimmage and have the presence to see what’s going on and make changes.”

As the time gap between high school and the NFL shrinks for top prospects and the skill set continues to vary, it will be interesting to see the reverberations in recruiting and beyond. But as a two-day NFL cram session for high school prospects showed, it takes more than YouTube to become an NFL quarterback.