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AGAINST THE SPREAD

The spread offense so popular among college football teams these days doesn’t only create problems for opposing defenses.

It gives NFL evaluators fits too.

The shotgun-based spread, which uses multiple receivers to stretch defenses from sideline to sideline, will be in the spotlight when the winner of the 2008 Heisman Trophy is named tonight in New York.

All three of the award’s finalists -- quarterbacks Sam Bradford of Oklahoma, Tim Tebow of Florida, and Colt McCoy of Texas -- ran a variation of the spread this season, combining for a staggering pass-run total of 11,629 yards and 135 touchdowns.

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You would think those numbers would rocket those quarterbacks to the top of every NFL draft board, but numbers don’t tell the whole story.

The challenge, from the perspective of pro coaches and scouts, is that their teams don’t run spread offenses, and quarterbacks are not typically in the shotgun. That makes it very difficult to project how these Heisman finalists -- as well as college quarterbacks in general -- will make the adjustment to the next level. Many don’t.

“Every team probably has to think about that a little more given the Alex Smith situation,” Seattle Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren said, referring to the former Utah quarterback taken No. 1 by San Francisco in 2005. Smith has struggled mightily as a pro.

“Marvelous college player,” Holmgren said. “I mean, really effective. Urban Meyer was his coach. He’s running that same thing with that young man [Tebow] at Florida right now. A wonderful player. So, as evaluators, at that position, you really have to be diligent and make sure that you firmly believe they can come into our league and do it.

“As a steady diet, the quarterback is not going to run that offense in our league. He wouldn’t last.”

Heisman-winning quarterbacks already have to live down a stigma when they make the transition to the NFL. There have been 12 of them over the last 20 years, and only USC’s Carson Palmer has risen to the level of elite pro quarterback. Far more common are the riches-to-rag-armed tales of Heisman winners Andre Ware, Gino Torretta, Danny Wuerffel, Chris Weinke and Jason White.

There are all sorts of theories, other than the proliferation of the spread offense, to explain why those Saturday stars wound up getting the Heisman stiff-arm from teams that play on Sundays.

“I don’t know if the Heisman ever goes to a player from a team that doesn’t win,” Arizona Cardinals Coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “A lot of times that helps when you have a lot of talent around you, whether it’s a quarterback, or a running back, or a line in front of you. I think sometimes when you take that player and put them in a different situation, and you don’t have as much talent, or the focus is more on you, it’s difficult.”

Although Whisenhunt was speaking in general terms, it’s notable that before the season he benched Heisman winner Matt Leinart in favor of Kurt Warner.

Leinart, of course, came from USC, which runs the type of offense teams favor in the pros. Scouts didn’t have to take as much of a leap of faith on him as they do with quarterbacks who are virtually never under center.

And polishing a three-step drop at this stage of the game isn’t as easy as 1-2-3.

“You’ve got to learn how to trust your feet and let the ball go,” said Rick Neuheisel, who was the Baltimore Ravens’ quarterbacks coach then offensive coordinator before becoming head coach at UCLA. “Guys who have done that more often in college and high school are often much better off doing it and trusting it at the next level when the open space becomes much more limited.”

Not only that, but the type of throws quarterbacks make in the spread are typically much different than the throws NFL evaluators want to see. For instance, NFL Network scouting expert Mike Mayock recently took a look at Graham Harrell, the highly regarded quarterback who runs the spread at Texas Tech.

Mayock charted two games and counted 76 passes by Harrell, 63 of which flew no more than 12 yards downfield. Of the 13 remaining throws, only six were in the 12- to 21-yard range that scouts like to see.

“I wanted to see those intermediate routes, the curls, the deep outs, the digs,” Mayock said. “I call those ‘stick’ throws, where you have to have that arm strength to stick it in there with velocity.”

Mayock’s analysis after watching the two tapes of Harrell?

“I want to like him,” he said. “But it’s very difficult to evaluate him.”

Coaches and scouts prefer to see live action of a quarterback under center, making NFL-type throws, rather than while wearing a T-shirt and shorts in a postseason workout.

And sometimes, the NFL folks don’t even get to see that.

“It was a little different years ago,” Holmgren said. “I remember running Brett Favre’s workout at Southern Miss. There were 15 teams there, but I ran the workout. Now, oftentimes, the agent is there. It’s so orchestrated. You might want to see him do something else, and they just won’t do it. Or they choose not to.”

With $20 million or more riding on some of these decisions, it’s hard to imagine the stakes being much higher.

“You have to make sure,” Holmgren said. “I’m not saying these guys can’t play, because they’re very talented guys. But it is now a consideration.”

And, as more and more colleges embrace spread offenses, things aren’t getting any easier on those who rate the talent.

“We’re all going to have to get used to it, because it’s not going away,” Mayock said. “The NFL might as well get used to the fact that we’re going to have to evaluate these kids this way.”

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Taking it to the next level

Twelve of the last 20 Heisman Trophy winners have been quarterbacks. Of these, only USC’s Carson Palmer has gone on to have success in the NFL. Quarterbacks are in bold:

Recent Heisman Trophy winners

*--* YEAR PLAYER SCHOOL 2008 To be announced 2007 Tim Tebow Florida 2006 Troy Smith Ohio State 2005 Reggie Bush USC 2004 Matt Leinart USC 2003 Jason White Oklahoma 2002 Carson Palmer USC 2001 Eric Crouch Nebraska 2000 Chris Weinke Florida State 1999 Ron Dayne Wisconsin 1998 Ricky Williams Texas 1997 Charles Woodson Michigan 1996 Danny Wuerffel Florida 1995 Eddie George Ohio State 1994 Rashaan Salaam Colorado 1993 Charlie Ward Florida State 1992 Gino Torretta Miami 1991 Desmond Howard Michigan 1990 Ty Detmer Brigham Young 1989 Andre Ware Houston 1988 Barry Sanders Oklahoma State *--*

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Heisman Trophy

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Today, 5 p.m., ESPN


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