I recently got this excellent question from a reader named Cole about the reality of “pro-style” systems in college and which programs actually prepare offensive players for the NFL:
Everyone that actually wants to succeed in the NFL should obviously be playing for Tom Herman at Texas…just kidding.
One thing that always drives me nuts is the way that some of the people in the NFL bitch about development at the lower levels of the game. You’ll notice that the NFL has little to no interest in investing in player development themselves and happily rely on the college programs to find players, develop them, and help to drive the popularity of the support all to the benefit of the pros. Whenever NFL-types complain about any aspect of college football it generally elicits an eye roll from myself.
With that rant aside, there are all kinds of meaning for “pro-style” if you take it quite literally as “the style common to the NFL.” The major feature of pro-style offense as I’ve come to define it is an emphasis on 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE) and dropback passing. By dropback passing I mean plays where the QB is taking a drop (and it can be from the gun or under center) and going through some kind of progression before throwing the ball down the field.
In the college game, the major programs usually emphasis the run game as their major strategy for advancing the ball on offense. Why? Because the advantage of being a “blue blood” program is access to the most rare of talents, the 300+ pound athletes who can impose their will on opponents. No one necessarily picks out dropback QB prospects with a good hit rate but top programs SHOULD be able to maintain a pipeline that keeps their OL stocked with superior run blockers.
In the NFL it’s much more difficult to build your offensive strategy around the run game because A) it’s harder to have an advantage up front when everyone is drafting and B) run plays are easier to defend and less explosive than passing plays.
That latter point is key, if you have solid, tough athletes who know how to be in the right spots you can be very difficult to run on but even if you have elite athletes that know how to be in the right spots you can still get beat by the perfect pass and when you get beat it might be for a real gain. The passing game is just as deadly, if not moreso, in the college game but the level of coordination between OL and QB in protection and OL and WRs in the passing patterns are very complicated and can take a while to master. Offenses that do master a dropback passing game at a high level (like Deshaun Watson’s Clemson) often have tremendous success but it’s just hard to maintain that every year.
Then there’s the TE angle, NFL teams like to use TEs in the dropback game because they allow them to create matchup advantages but colleges often train their TEs primarily as blockers since that’s where their offensive focus lies.
Teams that run a heavily “pro-style” offense include Michigan, Wyoming, and Texas A&M (now with Jimbo), and arguably Boise State but most colleges run a blended style that utilizes a dropback game but is built to lean on the run game in years in which their QB play isn’t good enough to chuck it around. Texas, USC, Alabama, Ohio State (increasingly), they all run somewhat pro-style offenses but with an emphasis on the run game over the dropback passing attack.
Now the irony of the NFL complaint about OL lies in the blocking techniques. The NFL likes to have guys that are well versed in blocking from a 3 point stance (one hand in the ground). The 3 point stance is superior for firing out and driving guys in the run game but it’s more difficult to get into a pass set from that stance.
College teams often just have their OL, particularly the athletic tackles who are the guys that NFL teams are most interested in for any of their positions, in a two point stance even on run blocking plays. Since college teams don’t line up a TE off the OT’s hip very often, preferring to use H-backs and spread sets, the OT’s run blocking assignments are often either to reach a guy down field or to screen a DE or OLB, neither of which requires firing off the ball low to drive someone.
So NFL teams get frustrated looking at all the OL prospects in college and watching tons of guys that haven’t been trained in the techniques that they rely on.
Teams that do use the preferred three point stance include Notre Dame, Stanford, and Iowa. You’ll notice that these are teams built around driving opposing teams off the ball in the run game and also that these teams regularly put lots of OL in the NFL. You’ll also notice that those teams aren’t always that effective at throwing the football.
Here are some examples for visual aide:
Texas’ OTs are in two point stances here and they are in a spread formation with no TE (boo! says the NFL) , instead using a QB option to account for the sixth defender up front (boos grow louder), and block the play that way.
Now here’s the Notre Dame OL:
They’re lined up in three point stances (NFL nods approvingly) but then they use motion (scattered applause) and play-action to throw a pass down the field (a few verbal attaboys).
So that’s a summary of the debate and the issues at play. Any follow-up questions?