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Why is it so hard for some players to transition from college to the NFL?

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Denver Broncos v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Dougal Brownlie/Getty Images

It’s been nearly a week since the Seattle Seahawks opened up the preseason with a 22-14 victory over the Denver Broncos last Thursday, and while Week 2 kicks off Thursday with five games the Hawks don’t play the Minnesota Vikings until Sunday. That will give the team a few extra practices between preseason games one and two before quicker than usual turnarounds before games three and four. With just two and a half weeks left before final cuts, it appears some players are just starting to hit their stride in camp.

Specifically, fourth round selection out of West Virginia Gary Jennings seems to have had things come together in recent days. Jennings was the talk of the media that had been in attendance at camp this week, reportedly putting up an impressive display on Monday.

It great to see reports of big things from Jennings, who had some catching up to do after missing much of the offseason program back in June following a hamstring injury. That said, missing time during the offseason program is not the only obstacle for Jennings in adjusting to life in the NFL. In addition to moving cross country, learning to live on his own in a new city and having to fend for himself outside of his time at the VMAC, Jennings also faces the obstacles of of having to play in an offensive system that is far different from his college offense.

There have been countless skill position players in the past decade that have put up big numbers in a college offense, only to seem to be unable to adapt to the game in the NFL. While the competition in the NFL is certainly of a higher level than in college, one of the more difficult things for players to adjust to is an entirely new style of offense. It’s not just having to learn a new offensive system, it’s often having to adjust to a new style of offense which can be far more complex than what the player was used to in college.

For an example of exactly this from the opponent the Hawks faced in their preseason opener, Broncos Head Coach Vic Fangio went on the record earlier this summer in explaining some of what has led to early struggles for second round quarterback Drew Lock.

Lock, of course, played in a spread offense at Missouri, an offense in which plays were signaled in from the sideline by coaches once the offense had lined up. The version of the spread Missouri uses does not involve huddles, so the playcalls are sent to the team via signal from the sideline. This is not all that different from the way the Air Raid offense of Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia runs things, and not significantly different from how Phil Longo’s version of the Air Raid in which DK Metcalf played at Ole Miss operates.

How does that differ in the NFL where these players are asked to perform in a pro style system? Well, the simple answer is that the first obstacle for these players to overcome is to learn to handle the complexity of the verbiage of NFL plays. Here’s an example of Chris Simms from training camp for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2003 in which Jon Gruden is unhappy that the third round rookie can’t handle calling plays in the huddle.

While that may seem like an extremely complex way to call a play, it’s not all that uncommon. The playcall has to include sufficient information to instruct all eleven offensive players what they are doing on a given play. So, that playcall includes the offensive formation, the pass protection call and the route combination all in one long string of sounds that would otherwise make no sense. For those interested in what those playcalls actually look like, here’s an attempt by Mark Bullock, who covers the Washington Redskins for The Athletic after having previously covered the team for the Washington Post, to break down the calls.

Getting back to the idea that these playcalls are highly complex relative to the systems of playcalling that have been adopted across the college football landscape, this is simply one of the reasons why players from spread and Air Raid offenses may need more time to adjust upon reaching the NFL. A simple example of that was on display in the 2016 season of Hard Knocks which followed the Los Angeles Rams and their rookie quarterback Jared Goff. Goff played in the Bear Raid offense at the University of California under Sonny Dykes, a derivative of Mike Leach’s Air Raid that Dykes picked up while coaching with Leach at both Kentucky and Texas Tech. In the 2016 season of Hard Knocks it’s seen that Goff is having trouble calling plays in the huddle because it’s something he’d never done before. While he put up impressive numbers in college and had the build and arm strength teams look from from a quarterback, he’d never been asked to call plays in the huddle.

Meanwhile, there are those few teams that do run pro style offenses in college. For example, in All or Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines (available to stream for free on Amazon Prime Video), the complexity of the Michigan playcalls is seen.

Pep Hamilton has coached for several different NFL franchises, including the New York Jets, the San Francisco 49ers, the Chicago Bears, the Indianapolis Colts and the Cleveland Browns. Coincidentally, he was also the wide receivers coach under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford in 2010, where he coached a young man by the name of Doug Baldwin. Baldwin, of course, stepped right into the NFL the next season and caught 51 passes for 788 yards, in spite of starting only one game as a rookie. That 788 yards of production is the highest rookie season output for any NFL wide receiver who either went undrafted or was selected on Day 3 (rounds four through seven) since the adoption of the new CBA in 2011 and the drastically reduced practice time allowances that came with it.

So, with three preseason games and roster cuts packed into the next 17 days, we’re just weeks away from seeing which players will have best adjusted to the pro game over the past four months. There will be surprise cuts, not just from the Seahawks, but from teams across the league. While many of those cuts will have been the result of poor performance on the field of play, there will certainly be some which were the result of young players needing more time to adapt to the complexity of NFL offenses.