Spread Thin?

To reach his potential, record-setting quarterback Brett Hundley, the Packers' fifth-round pick, must adapt from the spread offense he operated at UCLA to the system run to perfection by Aaron Rodgers. It's a huge challenge.

The Green Bay Packers selected one of the top quarterbacks in this draft, UCLA’s Brett Hundley, in the fifth round.

However, because of the learning curve that awaits Hundley, Scott Tolzien figures to be the Packers’ backup for the upcoming season.

At UCLA, Hundley operated out of a spread offense. He didn’t call plays in the huddle. He didn’t take a snap from center.

And those are just the issues before the ball is snapped.

“So many times, you’re evaluating a quarterback who has never called a play in the huddle, never used a snap count,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said at the Scouting Combine. “They hold up a card on the sideline, he kicks his foot and throws the ball. That ain’t playing quarterback. There’s no leadership involved there. There might be leadership on the bench, but when you get them and they have to use verbiage and they have to spit the verbiage out and change the snap count, they are light-years behind.”

Added Seahawks general manager John Schneider, who hit a home run with pro-style passer Russell Wilson in 2012: “It's really about figuring out how the guy processes. Can he get the information? Can he express it to his teammates? Can he read a defense? It’s hard to evaluate those players at the college level when you look over at the sidelines when you are at a game and watching them play live and, you know, they are looking at cards with colors and turtles and stuff (to get the play). You have no idea what they are doing, as opposed to watching guys line up under center, read a defense, check out of a play...”

One of the big unknowns about Hundley and the rest of the spread quarterbacks is their ability to read a defense and simply play the position at the professional level. Among the things that makes Aaron Rodgers lethal is his ability to extend plays and then, because of his superior footwork, deliver a strike whether he’s moving forward, left or right. Spread quarterbacks typically get the shotgun snap and throw to a predetermined read.

How will the quarterback do when his first read is taken away and pressure is coming? Will they panic and throw the ball up for grabs? Will their eyes focus on the pressure rather than what’s developing downfield? Will they lose their fundamentals and fumble when sacked?

“Here’s the thing,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said, “I talked to Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, (Drew) Brees (and) I asked them, ‘How much of pocket awareness is innate and how much can be learned?’ I think it’s critical. The answer all of those guys gave me was you can learn some things about protecting the football, feeling that rush, dropping that shoulder, protecting the football with two hands.

“When it comes to pure pocket awareness ... Kurt Warner defined it as an ability to keep your eyes up as you’re subtly moving in the pocket. Kurt Warner was one of the best of all-time. I asked Kurt, ‘Can you learn or were you born with that?’ He said, ‘Mike, 95 percent of it I was born with.’ If that’s the case and you’re looking at the spread quarterbacks and I can’t watch them do any of that and I have no idea how much pocket awareness they have or don’t have, all I can do is judge the individual components of feet, legs, arm strength and athletic ability. That’s why in the old days, we were saying first-round quarterbacks were kind of 50-50. I think it’s even tougher now because of the spread.”

By one measure, Hundley was excellent in the pocket. As a redshirt junior in 2014, he tossed only five interceptions. However, he fumbled 31 times in three seasons, including 11 times this past season. That’s far too many for considering he tied for the biggest hands among the quarterbacks at the Scouting Combine.

Fortunately, despite his record-setting pedigree, this “football nerd,” as pro personnel director Eliot Wolf called him, is eager to learn.

“I love football. It’s just who I am and what’s bred inside of me,” he said after being drafted. “I love being a quarterback. I love knowing everything about the game. I could sit here and watch film all day with you and just learn. I like knowledge, to put it like that. If I don’t know something, I want to know it, and I think that’s the way I approach things. That’s the way I approach football. I think Green Bay is the perfect organization to learn as much as possible, and they have the best coaches to help me do that, and Aaron Rodgers.”

Interestingly, for all the consternation about scouting spread quarterbacks, one man who saw the glass as half-full rather than half-empty was Packers coach Mike McCarthy. At the Combine, he called it “good training” for the “key situational football” areas of third down and blitz.

“I know there’s a lot of talk about the offense that they play in, pro-style versus the run-and-shoot or the spread,” McCarthy said on Saturday. “I still think football players are football players and I feel even stronger about that at the quarterback position. I always felt that you look for an individual, particularly once you get in a certain part of the draft, and if he has something that you see that you can develop — and there's definitely a ton there with Brett Hundley — that excites me. And I know it excites Alex Van Pelt, Tom Clements, Edgar Bennett, even Luke Getsy. We have a number of guys who work with the quarterbacks. We're excited to get them in that room. Obviously, Aaron will be an excellent mentor, just as he has been throughout his time here to the younger quarterbacks.”

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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