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Football's Overlooked Edge: Depth

   by Jim Feist - 11/26/2012


Depth is such an essential element of success in pro and college football, and one that is easily overlooked. Big college programs have this as a huge advantage over smaller programs. When Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees struggled and battled injuries in September, Coach Brian Kelly was able to insert sophomore QB Everett Golson, who has played well.
One of the teams Notre Dame beat, Stanford, struggled on offense behind QB Josh Nunes so they made a change late in the year with freshman QB Kevin Hogan, who helped lead them to a win over No. 11 Oregon State two weeks ago and a huge win over beaten Oregon last week.
Injuries are to be expected in football, being such a violent, physical game. That’s why depth is so important, not just as at quarterback spot but skill positions and both lines. Two years ago Northwestern went to a bowl, but the game that clinched a bowl, against Iowa, dynamic QB Dan Persa got injured. It was their last win, too, as freshman Even Watkins was forced in the next game and wasn't sharp in a 48-27 loss to Illinois as a +7 dog. The Wildcats lost their final three games, including the bowl.
Oregon has had a great run the last few years. Because of all the great national exposure with their high flying offense, Coach Chip Kelly is able to attract top talent, replacing his QB for this season with highly touted freshman Marcus Mariota. Because of injuries in 2010, Oregon had to use backup QB Nate Cost in the middle of the season, and he played well in a win over UCLA. Four years ago, Oregon had to use four QBs, including main starters Jeremiah Masoli and Justin Roper, but still managed to have one of the top offenses in the nation. In 2008 their four QBs combined for 19 TDs, 11 picks.
Contrast that with programs like Syracuse, UConn, Purdue, San Diego State, Miami of Ohio, Buffalo, who will be lucky enough to find one competent QB. Even a program like South Carolina had to dismiss starting QB Stephen Garcia in mid-season of last year, starting over in many ways with then-freshman QB Conner Shaw.
For the second year in a row South Carolina has had to deal with the loss of star RB Marcus Lattimore. Remember in 2007 when SEC power Georgia seemingly lost all its running backs? That paved the way for a freshman named Knowshon Moreno to explode out of nowhere.
In the NFL, the Eagles have had a bad run of injuries again. QB Mike Vick has been in and out of the lineup with various ailments, forcing rookie Nick Foles in. Last year they were forced to use backup QB Vince Young, and a significant dropoff in production followed. That same season the Houston Texans had to navigate the second half of the season with Matt Leinart and replacing Matt Schaub, then T.J. Yates replacing Leinart!
Is the value of QB depth more pronounced than in Indianapolis? Without Peyton Manning last year, the Colts fell off a cliff, from Super Bowl contender to the top pick in the draft! And top pick Andrew Luck is the main reason for surprising play of the Colts in the running for a Wild Card.
A few years ago the Tennessee Titans lost starting QB Vince Young in Week 1, but they had a capable veteran backup available in Kerry Collins during their 13-4 SU/12-5 ATS start. That same season the Patriots went 11-5 when they lost Tom Brady, as backup QB Matt Cassell played well.
Good college coaches and pro general managers will build their teams with the understanding that they will lose some players during the season. This is very different from a GM who takes the attitude that we should be a good team IF we don't have any key injuries.
Five years ago LSU needed to beat Tennessee in the SEC title game, but was without its starting QB as senior Matt Flynn had a shoulder injury. Many schools would have been set back, but the Tigers trotted out strong-armed sophomore QB Ryan Perrilloux, who was outstanding in the 21-14 win. Having a capable backup signal caller turned out to be huge as they went on to top Ohio State for the national title.
The Steelers hope Byron Leftwich can hold his own with Ben Roethlisberger on the shelf. Remember that nine years ago the Steelers had a starting quarterback in Tommy Maddox, but when Roethlisberger fell to them in the first round (11th pick) of the draft they were delighted. They thought he would go higher. Understand what their thinking was: A player they had rated high dropped in their laps so they took him. They placed and emphasis on drafting talent before need.
The Steelers were stockpiling depth and talent at the most important position. They didn't anticipate Maddox getting hurt in Week 2, but were prepared with Roethlisberger stepping in, winning 15 in a row as a rookie and a pair of Super Bowl titles since. The main reason for depth is one of the most important components of football: Injuries. Football is a violent game and injuries are commonplace.
Part of it is luck, as it's tough to lose such a pivotal figure as a star quarterback. On the other hand, part of it is smart coaching and management if they prepare properly with depth. It's not the job of a pro football general manager to be praying every Sunday for players not to get injured. Rather, the smart teams evaluate and upgrade depth, as injuries are to be expected.

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