One of the many major breakthroughs that spread systems have brought to offenses has been the opportunity to simplify the quarterback position and allow a wider range of athletes to play it. Even the best athletes, like Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly, benefit from the spread, because it leaves them with simple reads to help distribute the ball effectively.
Spread offenses also make things simple for quarterbacks by cutting confusion between plays. With up-tempo spread systems, quarterbacks can race to the line of scrimmage before either running an option play or turning to the sideline for further instruction, without giving the defense time to substitute or even breathe.
The goal is simple: Get the best athletes on the field, and give them a chance to leverage their athleticism and adjust on the fly in order to make plays.
But with five-star sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen at the helm, UCLA is now swimming furiously against that current.
The Bruins are hoping to get the most out of Rosen before he likely departs in two years for the NFL Draft, and they're doing it in their own way.
When a team has an underclassman at QB who isn't a talent like Jameis Winston or Andrew Luck, you'll almost inevitably hear the coaches saying things like, "We need to simplify things," or, "We have to take things off his plate and let him go out there and play."
You virtually never hear coaches talk about the need to change the style of offense so that the sophomore QB has more authority and options at the line of scrimmage. A switch to a pro-style offense is almost never contemplated.
Yet, that's what's happening right now at UCLA. When head coach Jim Mora recently discussed the Bruins' new approach on offense with Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel, he emphasized the need for UCLA to put more on Rosen's plate and allow him to shape the offensive from the line of scrimmage. Plus, in a statement, Mora said this:
"What you will see is a multifaceted offense incorporating tight ends and fullbacks into our schemes. Our objective is to be a big, strong and physical offensive unit that has flexibility of personnel groupings."
Mora's a former NFL coach, and he just elevated a new offensive coordinator, Kennedy Polamalu, who previously spent six years coaching running backs in the pros.
The translation here: UCLA's going pro-style.
So, who is this young signal-caller? And how is it that he came to have such a mastery of the game at such a young age that a former NFL coach like Mora would give him the keys to the car?
Rosen's story includes two fairly unique attributes. The first is that Rosen is very intelligent, so much so that his desire to understand things for himself rather than taking coaches at their word was labeled as a potential problem by Trent Dilfer after Rosen's Elite 11 camp. The same ability to learn that saw him prepare for college with AP credits (in subjects like physics, no less) that will allow him to graduate in three years also shows up in his ability to understand defenses.
The other unique skill Rosen brings to the table is footwork. Although he only ran a 4.99 40-yard dash in the SPARQ test as a recruit, Rosen pulled off a 4.25 shuttle time that compares favorably to many of the DBs he's working against.
Rosen is excellent at making quick moves in the pocket to buy time to throw. He's not a scrambler or a guy who should be carrying the ball on designed runs, but his ability to buy time or thwart pass-rushers with a few moves is more than a little valuable. Most interestingly, Rosen's plus footwork sprang in part from his past as a tennis player.
Where Rosen is not necessarily unique but is certainly elite as a QB prospect is in his tangible attributes, such as his height and arm strength. At 6'4 and 210 pounds, he has the prototypical build to easily survey the field from the pocket. He has both the arm strength and the accuracy to hit windows that most would be advised to avoid.
A great example is this absurd throw he made against the Stanford defense last year:
There's simply no good defense for a throw like that.
Since it's third-and-17, the Cardinal were dropped back in a "max Tampa 2" coverage designed to make vertical throws inaccessible and encourage check-downs that are easily stopped. Nevertheless, Rosen hit the tiny window between the three deep coverage defenders. Touchdown, Bruins.
Rosen's arm strength and accuracy were keys to a freshman year in which he threw for 3,670 yards at 7.5 yards per attempt, with a 23-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Operating UCLA's spread- and run/pass option-based offense (more on the RPO here), the Bruins saw a great deal of man coverage last year. Particularly against foes like USC and Stanford, against whom Rosen threw for a combined 553 yards at 7 yards per pass with a 4-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio.
Man coverage is one of the preferred antidotes for spread/RPO attacks since it eliminates the offenses' numbers advantage for the run game and forces the QB and receivers to execute quick throws or simply out-athlete the DBs in the passing game. That's fairly difficult against DBs good enough to get on the field for Stanford or USC.
Rosen had mixed results trying to beat USC star coverage man Adoree' Jackson. But with back-shoulder throws like this, there's not much any DB can do, other than pray for a drop:
So, why the pro-style offense for Rosen?
It's worth wondering why UCLA's coaches would depart from a spread system that Rosen operated to perfection in high school and with great promise as a freshman, in exchange for more of a two-back, pro-style approach.
The UCLA coaching staff has two goals with its changes. The first is to embrace an offensive approach that will set up Rosen to attack opponents with the vertical passing game via play-action. The second is to give Rosen more control at the line of scrimmage to move pieces around, probe defenses and get after the weaknesses he finds.
Technically, both of those could be accomplished with some spread systems, but the nature of the spread is such that it's often more about identifying where players will be in space and then just distributing the ball there. In a pro-style scheme, there's more opportunity to really dictate things to the defense. Bringing numbers toward the line to bowl over opponents is a bigger part of the formula, and Rosen can find chances to do that.
In 2015, the Bruins often struggled to get receivers open downfield, so they relied on back-shoulder fades and comeback routes. But with a two-back running game drawing in defenders and their eyeballs, receivers might be able to get behind DBs more frequently. And Rosen might have more chances to land kill shots.
Another goal for UCLA here is to give its offense the sort of flexibility that could make it nearly impossible to stop.
A highly underrated factor in offensive football is how well the players on the field can cycle through the OODA loop (observe, orient, decide, act). After the snap, coaches are just helpless observers just like everyone in the stands or watching back home.
Even when the play has been called but the teams are just lining up, plans can go out the window pretty quickly, and the QB needs to be able to recognize what's happening and either mitigate problems when things go wrong or maximize opportunities when they exist. Having a player who has the ability to realize a play call is dead on arrival against a given defensive look is a huge step toward avoiding negative plays and keeping drives alive.
The hurry-up/no-huddle spread is one way to approach this problem. The goal is to force simplicity from the defense and make things simpler for the QB, so he always has easy options after the snap. Another solution, often paired with the hurry-up/no huddle spread, is to play an athlete like Louisville's Lamar Jackson, who can make something out of nothing thanks to his tremendous scrambling ability.
There's also the Tom Brady/Peyton Manning route, which gives the QB command of the offense so he can do whatever he wants. This means calling for changes in tempo, changing plays at the line and otherwise giving the offense more flexibility than the defense could realistically match while getting signals from the sideline.
If Rosen can adjust to UCLA's burgeoning under-center approach and master all of its motions, tempo changes and play calls, the rest of the Bruins will benefit. There'll be a multiplier effect, and some of Rosen's inexperienced skill position teammates might look like brilliant stars.
It seems likely enough that Rosen will succeed. After all, this is football, not physics.