Ranking the Big 12's space force units: The importance of the left tackle

Ian Boyd

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Make sure you keep up by reading about the importance of wide receivers as well as a ranking of the league's receivers.

I’ll keep repeating this in case people tuning in now haven’t kept up with this series, but most of the Big 12 relies pretty heavily on RPOs and play-action from the spread to throw the football. All teams have dropback passing schemes in which the quarterback will go through a progression, but most of the real damage that Big 12 teams do in the passing game is from RPOs and play-action.

Many strategies look the same across the league, there are just different degrees of effectiveness and variations in tactics between teams relating to their overall schemes and year-to-year personnel. A major benefit of play-action, besides helping misdirect the defense to clear out space on the perimeter or down the field, is slowing down the pass-rush and helping the offensive line buy time for a double move or vertical route combination to develop.

You don’t really get that in the dropback passing game. When it’s third-and-nine the defense isn’t going to honor play-action. The pass-rushers are coming hard and only the scramble is going to generate hesitation from the guys on the edge. The coverage defenders aren’t giving away free releases or space to the receivers outside, you’re getting man coverage or tight matching and bracketed help over the top. It’s here that overall O-line quality and offensive tackle play really matters. A quarterback that can scramble and buy time really helps as well but you’re not going to be consistently good without solid pass protection and at least one tackle that you can count on to hold up without help.

Obviously that’s where the left tackle goes. Since the vast majority of quarterbacks are right handed, including everyone in the Big 12 for 2020, his most vulnerable spot is the left side or “blindside.” In a five or six-man protection you’re only going to be able to shade help from a guard or running back in one direction and the left tackle is often the guy that is asked to make do without it.

So while it’s helpful to have a great tackle on play-action but it's in the dropback game where their presence is really felt. Being able to protect your quarterback long enough to consistently get to his second or third read with six-man protection or five-man protections is a game changer. A pass-protector with NFL quality, even if he's a guard at the next level, is typically a prerequisite to space supremacy on third down.

Finding left tackles

The challenge in the Big 12 is that left tackles are the very hardest guys to find, especially for teams that can’t recruit at a top 15 level. There’s three ways to get a hold of a big, powerful athlete that can hold up at left tackle in isolation against a good edge-rush.

The first is to recruit the obvious candidates, the high schoolers who are 6-5+ and 280+ coming into college that obviously have the requisite athleticism and size. Players that match that description tend to be ranked as 4-stars or higher out of high school though and are highly sought after by every program in the nation. Only Texas and Oklahoma can consistently recruit such players. Here's a look at the past decade of tackle recruiting within the league:

Big 12 tackle recruiting and NFL.jpg

There’s perhaps no other table to better illustrate why it’s been such a lost decade for Texas, although there’s a lot of competition.

So for most of these teams it’s not feasible to field good tackles by recruiting the obvious stars out of high school. That leaves the other two options.

The second main option is to recruit players with tackle size (or reach) and borderline athleticism and mold them into quality players with technique and development. Third, to recruit undersized athletes and bulk them up into star tackles over time. That last option often generates the very best players and describes Texas’ sole entree to the draft (Connor Williams) here as well as several others such as the Kansas players (Tanner Hawkinson and Hakeem Adeniji) and even an Oklahoma guy (Lane Johnson).

The most essential skills here are athleticism and reach, the former of which has to be qualified very carefully. Some guys can move well at 6-5, 300 pounds but it’s not enough to move well, you need lateral agility and coordination. Sometimes you’ll see guys that are quite good at blocking fast guys in space on runs and screens but who struggle to use a kick step to stay wide of a defensive end, or to use their hands to thwart a good pass rush.

The New England Patriots (who else?) have been very good at sorting through the normal prototype measurables for offensive tackles to zero in on the guys that have the qualities that really matter. Lateral agility/quickness, coordination, work ethic, and reach.

For years they protected Tom Brady’s blindside with the 6-4, 300 pound Ohioan Matt Light out of Purdue. He wasn’t the biggest or most obvious athlete, but he had a better wingspan than his height suggested and he ran the shuttle in 4.49 seconds, which is great for an O-lineman. Today their main man on the left side is Georgian Isaiah Wynn, who checked in at the combine at 6-2 (nearly 6-3) 313 but a 6-7 wingspan. Both are competitive and were known for their commitment to the game.

In Big 12 land, Oklahoma’s greatest offensive line yet was probably their 2018 unit. That group had bookend tackles in Bobby Evans and Cody Ford that were both 6-4ish, but both were good athletes with incredible reach. Evans had the wingspan of a man who was 6-8 while Ford’s was a ridiculous 6-11.

If you’re quick, coordinated, and you have long arms that allow you to control spacing between you and the edge rusher trying to get by you, then you’re not going to get your quarterback hit too often.

Then there’s the other sort of tackle, our option two types. The guys who aren’t amazing athletes but check in at 6-6 or taller and subsequently are hard to get around or by because they can use their sheer size and length to control spacing and their large size to be hard to get through. Because of their lack of quickness, they have a smaller margin for error and generally need to be highly skilled with years of experience to really be trusted to hold up in isolation. Option two guys are often a substantial percentage of the Big 12’s left tackles.

If you refer back to my post on how teams put together their offensive lines in fall camp, you’ll note that teams often only have one guy that really checks all the boxes for being a great left tackle. Maybe two if you count an up and coming back-up.

It’s common for Big 12 offensive lines to basically field four guards to the right of their one, true tackle athlete.

Tackle deployment in space

There’s a few dimensions to the importance of having athleticism at tackle. The most obvious and most important place is in pass protection. Teams will leave the left tackle 1-on-1 against a defensive end or outside linebacker and use the running back either to chip the opposite edge-rusher or to pick up blitzers.

If teams don’t have an elite tackle, or if the opponent is showing a left side blitz or deploying a dominant pass-rusher on the left side, the team will still probably shade help that way. When Mike Gundy’s tackles were all beat up last year he didn’t just give up on protecting Sanders, they just kept shading help around as needed while moving the pocket. That's not an ideal solution, since it limits the playbook, but it can work. Especially for teams that can run the ball.

A quarterback or center that can see things happening and help adjust live without help from the coaches is really worth a lot for teams trying to move help around. Such teams also need to be solid across all five spots and good at working together. Teams that throw the ball extensively have to make this a priority, sometimes even above chemistry and effectiveness in run blocking.

So in building a strong pass protecting line, the first step is actually to be solid at all five spots, then to have a great left tackle. But there are other places where it helps to have a premier athlete on the edge.

One regard is with slip screens and tunnel screens where the line allows the rush through and moves downfield to go flatten defensive backs trying to close on the running back or receiver. Kevin Wilson's late 00's Oklahoma offensive lines were famous for this. Another is in the run game, it’s not just on passing plays where the tackles have to navigate space.

A really good tackle has to reach or basically kick out a defensive end on outside zone, on inside zone he can’t allow a great edge guy to blow by and make a tackle for loss. On a power scheme he’s climbing to the second level and picking off a linebacker, in a lot of counter and other gap schemes he’s pulling as a lead blocker on the edge or in space.

One dimension that is really starting to matter is the tackle's ability to control the edge on inside zone against increasingly three-down defensive fronts. If the defense puts an outside linebacker on the edge he’s got to connect with him in space to prevent a tackle for loss and he may have to do it while helping the guard keep tabs on the big defensive end.

IZ blocking jack in space.jpg

Against a “buck front” like Iowa State uses he might be battling with a big defensive end who’s trying to two-gap him and work inside to the B-gap. So he has to start by worrying about the edge but then adjust to the end’s behavior and keep him under control after the snap, ideally shoving him inside to give the running back an open edge.

IZ vs heavy technique.jpg

Evolving defensive fronts and the increasing prevalence of teams using two-gap techniques and run-stopping stunts to attack zone running plays requires more and more flexibility from the tackles on the edge.

When we break down the Big 12’s left tackles you’re going to see some guys listed who are really quite good at a lot of the features of tackle play in the run and screen game but may or may not be particularly good at kickstepping and stuffing a great pass-rusher. After all, the former is what a lot of these offenses hang their hats on.

Ultimately, the guys who are great athletes that help ensure the quarterback is upright long enough to throw down the field are the most valuable piece. Finding these guys is truly key, it's hard for a big man out in space.
 

travisroeder

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2019 Baylor is a great example of left-tackle supremacy. Brewer was humming when Connor Galvin played; after Galvin's injury mid year, Baylor replaced him with an injured redshirt freshman who was LT type #3 and Brewer started getting hammered regularly.

Baylor did a ton of dropback passing in 2019, probably more than anyone in the league. It was the highest upside early in the year when they were OK in pass protection with Galvin. Without him it was a recipe for disaster.
 

Ian Boyd

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2019 Baylor is a great example of left-tackle supremacy. Brewer was humming when Connor Galvin played; after Galvin's injury mid year, Baylor replaced him with an injured redshirt freshman who was LT type #3 and Brewer started getting hammered regularly.

Baylor did a ton of dropback passing in 2019, probably more than anyone in the league. It was the highest upside early in the year when they were OK in pass protection with Galvin. Without him it was a recipe for disaster.
Terrible when juxtaposed with Brewer's often reckless play and tendency to get concussions. Offense fell apart so fast without Galvin.
 
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sherf1

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"So in building a strong pass protecting line, the first step is actually to be solid at all five spots, then to have a great left tackle "

This line stood out for Texas last year. Seemed we had some serious weak spots, either by talent or fundamentals (picking up stunts) that led to some very poor outcomes given the talent at LT and even to an extent RT.

Weakest link in the chain.
 
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travisroeder

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"So in building a strong pass protecting line, the first step is actually to be solid at all five spots, then to have a great left tackle "

This line stood out for Texas last year. Seemed we had some serious weak spots, either by talent or fundamentals (picking up stunts) that led to some very poor outcomes given the talent at LT and even to an extent RT.

Weakest link in the chain.
Yeah Cosmi was quite good but other spots could be abused. See, e.g., James Lynch
 

sherf1

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Yeah Cosmi was quite good but other spots could be abused. See, e.g., James Lynch
There were multiple plays where he was one-on-one with our true freshman TE. Guess how those went.

Someone also posted a GIF a while back of a Play Action attempt with max protected we tried against a 4 man rush where 3 of the guys involved didn't touch a Baylor player and they got almost instant pressure almost for a safety but Sam managed to scramble out. That....was very bad O line play that had little to do with individual blocking ability.
 

travisroeder

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There were multiple plays where he was one-on-one with our true freshman TE. Guess how those went.

Someone also posted a GIF a while back of a Play Action attempt with max protected we tried against a 4 man rush where 3 of the guys involved didn't touch a Baylor player and they got almost instant pressure almost for a safety but Sam managed to scramble out. That....was very bad O line play that had little to do with individual blocking ability.
Our seats are right behind that end-zone, that was and incredible play to see up close. Not only to get out of it but the arm strength to throw that comeback. Amazing play.
 

josephcook

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Yeah Cosmi was quite good but other spots could be abused. See, e.g., James Lynch

This was kind of my next question, how does the defense respond to the team's best tackle always being on the defense's right? Do you basically have to hope that when the front allows for it you've got your star rusher on the opposite side of the star tackle? For a game so matchup driven, I don't exactly know how you create the matchup you want on defense without sacrificing structural integrity of the formation.
 

sherf1

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This was kind of my next question, how does the defense respond to the team's best tackle always being on the defense's right? Do you basically have to hope that when the front allows for it you've got your star rusher on the opposite side of the star tackle? For a game so matchup driven, I don't exactly know how you create the matchup you want on defense without sacrificing structural integrity of the formation.
I was wondering about this as well. Given teams like LSU last year who used Chaisson as a B Backer that flipped his alignment from play to play, it seems like you're at a disadvantage defensively when that guy is rushing the RT (who gets help) while a lesser end is getting stuffed one-on-one by the LT. I suppose an answer is to bring pressure to the offensive left in those positions, to either get your stud guy one-on-one with the RT or presumably get a free rusher?
 

travisroeder

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I was wondering about this as well. Given teams like LSU last year who used Chaisson as a B Backer that flipped his alignment from play to play, it seems like you're at a disadvantage defensively when that guy is rushing the RT (who gets help) while a lesser end is getting stuffed one-on-one by the LT. I suppose an answer is to bring pressure to the offensive left in those positions, to either get your stud guy one-on-one with the RT or presumably get a free rusher?
This is one of those things where there are infinite permutations. It's all about your surrounding cast, too, and how effectively the role players can take advantage of being dealt a better hand due to the offense paying more attention to the star player. Analogous to using your best WR as a decoy on third downs.

For example, if Lynch is up against the RT, they'll likely chip with a TE and even send the RG to double. If the D has other rushers which can take advantages of the one on ones, then it's probably worth it to do that. But if he is really your only rusher, then maybe it is better to put him against the LT.
 

Ian Boyd

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This was kind of my next question, how does the defense respond to the team's best tackle always being on the defense's right? Do you basically have to hope that when the front allows for it you've got your star rusher on the opposite side of the star tackle? For a game so matchup driven, I don't exactly know how you create the matchup you want on defense without sacrificing structural integrity of the formation.
Teams will set their protection based on the most threatening pass rush.

So if the star pass rusher is near the left tackle, maybe let it play. If he’s on the other side, get help there. Etc.
 

Justin Wells

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For example, if Lynch is up against the RT, they'll likely chip with a TE and even send the RG to double. If the D has other rushers which can take advantages of the one on ones, then it's probably worth it to do that. But if he is really your only rusher, then maybe it is better to put him against the LT.
Glad that guy is gone, tbh.
 

travisroeder

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Glad that guy is gone, tbh.
He was a freak. And he was going to TCU. Mom said they paid him little attention and didn't even ask whether he preferred offense or defense, just had him slated as an OG. Then USC scholly limitations dropped him. Blessings