The art of building an offensive line in fall camp

Ian Boyd

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Staff member
Jan 14, 2014
22,761
75,322
0
Ypsilanti, MI
Offensive line evaluation and development is truly tricky. The superficial analysis of a team from one year to the next is to evaluate the two-deep, who’s playing each position and who’s backing up all five starters. In reality things virtually never work that way.

Even if a team did have 10 players that they really trusted to start along the line, a line needs a high number of repetitions together to build the necessary level of chemistry. More than can easily be distributed across 10 different players, particularly during the season when practice snaps go mostly to the first team. What tends to happen instead is that every fall a team will look to find about seven guys for five positions and give those seven as many reps as possible.

Ideally a team would have three guys that are strong at tackle, three guys that are strong at guard, and then two who can snap the ball from center and make line calls. That’s technically eight but there’s often overlap. Maybe one player can manage at both guard and tackle, perhaps one of the guards can also play center, etc.

These early stages of fall camp for every team are when everyone is looking to figure out their top seven lineman so they can get as many reps in as possible to allow for that kind of positional flexibility and as cohesive a unit as possible. Manufacturing depth from a smaller number of lineman is generally how every team handles the creation of an offensive line. Even talent-rich programs like Oklahoma struggle to otherwise get everyone the reps and teaching they need to have a true two-deep.

Inside zone and offensive philosophy

The majority of the Big 12 runs some variety of smashmouth spread offense designed to hammer opponents between the tackles with inside runs in order to create space outside for RPOs and play-action. Consequently, most every team in the league makes inside zone a major part of their offensive scheme.

Inside zone is the most basic of run blocking schemes. The play starts with every lineman identifying which defender is in the next gap over he’ll be stepping toward in order to size up the combinations and double teams on the defensive linemen. Then at the snap every lineman takes a step to the playside before looking to move vertically and move people out of the way. The design of the play is to allow big people to do what they do best, work in concert to build a wall that eliminates penetration from the defensive front before ultimately just shoving opponents out of their way.

In spread world, basic strategy tends to come down to ensuring that there are only as many defenders in the box as there are blockers. The big evolution in the 2000s was to run zone-option schemes with the backside defensive end unblocked and read by the quarterback while the offensive line would block the rest of the line and linebackers. In the 2010s it was to control extra defenders with pass options (RPOs). Play-action has always been a key feature as well and has tended to increase in importance as quarterbacks and receivers have increased in skills with time.

The simple nature of inside zone combined with the increasing emphasis on passing, either by RPO or play-action, has decreased the emphasis on offensive line blocking with inside zone. So long as your zone runs are A) not yielding tackles for loss and B) can effectively punish teams when they present a light box to stop the pass, then you’re getting a passing grade.

So what sorts of players does everyone want on offensive line? Generally big, interchangeable players that project to be 6-4 to 6-6 and 300+ pounds after a few years of college development. A big guy who knows his assignment and how to work in concert with the guy on his right or left can more easily avoid giving up penetration on either zone runs or in pass protection (and in some cases, what’s the difference?)

People get excited about having a large offensive line out of a belief that it will lead to bullying the defensive front. In reality, being tall doesn’t necessarily help a player drive block a defensive lineman off the ball and inside zone schemes don’t really count on it. Instead the ball tends to hit an open gap up front behind a double team, everyone else on the line is just looking to “hold serve” and prevent the guy across from him from making the play.

I’ll draw this against Iowa State’s increasingly popular “buck” front:

Tight zone vs broken stack 3-3-5.jpg

On the surface at least, this is a nice set up for the offensive line. They get two double teams in the cutback lanes on the backside of the play where inside zone runs tend to hit and they have a blocker for all defenders in the box. Defenses often adjust by sending numbers to the cutback side, but if the offense does a good job of controlling the play side defensive end and will linebacker the ball can slip out there. That job is almost like pass protection, if the left tackle controls that end or shoves him sideways or upfield, he can create a big crease the defense will struggle to seal.

The trick with the Iowa State front is that they do a good job of taking on and tying up those blockers with movement and technique before adding a sixth defender (Free safety? Nickel? Sam linebacker?) from an angle that the offensive line can’t anticipate before the snap or effectively find and block during the play.

Inside zone also tends to make every position extremely similar in terms of assignment. The rules are pretty consistent across the line and the expectations are as well. If you’re working with a double team, drive that guy, if not then make sure you control him and keep him busy.

Choosing personnel

The emphasis on denying tackles for loss, having consistent rules on inside zone, and then having sturdy pass protection often leads to teams stocking up on as many guard/tackle swing players as they can reasonably expect to find.

Check out the last three years of Oklahoma State offensive line recruiting. Their 2017 class was particularly scanty, including only JUCO Arlington Hambright so they worked hard to restock the room starting in 2018 in order to build the group that will need be called upon to try and overcome the losses of Dylan Galloway (left tackle), Bryce Bray (right guard), and Jacob Farrell (guard) in the offseason:

OK State 3-year OL restock.jpg

Obviously losing both Bray and Farrell was a heavy blow, as those were two of the oldest players available from the first class signed with the intention of replenishing the pipeline after the disastrous 2017 class that cost the O-line coach his job. The two Hunters (Anthony and Woodard) will now need to get on the development fast track.

You can see a consistent pattern in all of the signings. Just about everyone came into school at 6-4 or taller and 280 or heavier. Oklahoma has been hoping to build a line of interchangeable parts.

Now, when it comes to choosing who’s going to play where in a given season there are additional rules that dictate the process.

Rule 1) The best athlete/pass protector plays left tackle.

This one is obvious. Ideally our best athlete learns to translate his physical attributes into being able to hold up on the edge against pass-rushers in space. It’s very hard to do that job well unless you’re a legitimate athlete with some real reach. The 6-2 athlete with short arms probably ain’t going to cut it here, although a 6-2 dude with long arms can be surprisingly effective (see Isaiah Wynn).

In terms of protecting the quarterback, teams can often survive without a great pass protector at right tackle. You can generally send help in the form of an outward looking guard or a chipping running back or tight end if the other team weights one side with a great edge-rusher or shows a blitz. But things get tough if the left tackle isn’t good.

Rule 2) Weight the two best run blockers together.

The 2017 TCU Horned Frogs that took a sizable leap in year two with Kenny Hill did so in large part thanks to a very solid offensive line that was good at run blocking in their zone blocking schemes. While left tackle Joseph Noteboom was the finest player on the line and subsequently drafted in the third round, the Horned Frogs actually did a lot of work with a right side pairing of 6-6, 300 pound redshirt senior Austin Schlottman at guard and 6-7, 350 pound redshirt senior Matt Pryor at right tackle.

For one subsection of the schedule their center was injured and they slid Schlottman inside to center and Pryor inside to guard. In either event, they worked well together and helped propel a run game that lacked a feature back but helped Kyle Hicks and Darius Anderson combine for 1405 yards on 267 carries at 5.3 ypc with 12 touchdowns.

Another positive feature of inside zone is that it isn’t designed to be particular about where the hole opens. You get five brutes moving in one direction and then downhill in tight formation and then the running back can make his cut based on how the blocks develop and how the defense responds. If you have two guys that work well together and can consistently generate creases the back can follow them regardless of whether the play call was “zone right” or “zone left.” The best strategy is to punch hard enough with one dimension of your unit to force the defense to have to react to them rather than trying to avoid weak spots. A weak pass protector or run blocker is best served by the defense having to send numbers or better players to the other side of the line to avoid getting gashed.

This weighting often occurs on the left side, because a top notch athlete that locks down left tackle is often also one of your best run blockers. It’s not always so though. Up until the last month or so it appeared that the Oklahoma State Cowboys would have the more technically savvy left side pairing of Dylan Galloway and Josh Sills while pairing big Teven Jenkins and mauling young Bryce Bray on the right side. Now they are bereft of a proven pass protector at tackle and figure to pair Teven Jenkins and Josh Sills on the left side together. What those two are able to accomplish together as run blockers combined with the ridiculous athleticism of the Cowboys’ quarterback, running back, and receivers should cover a multitude of sins in pass protection.

Rule 3) Experience at center, cobble the rest together

The center position is a different animal, even with inside zone teams, and tends to play by different rules. The center needs to be effective at snapping the ball and teams tend to make him responsible for making calls for the entire line. I suspect though that because the center has a big guard to his right and left and has to be an effective snapper that teams will often play a smart, hard-working guy there and give him responsibility for making calls to get more out of him. There’s no reason another lineman couldn’t orchestrate the calls and some do.

This is the position where you’re most likely to see a sub 6-3 dude, a walk-on, or both. Of course teams that have a big, dominant center who can manhandle a nose without help in addition to making line calls for the rest of the unit and reliably snapping the ball are at a decided advantage. Mario Cristobal's Alabama offensive lines would always field a big, All-American at center to power their zone schemes.

An ideal set-up is for a team to have their left tackle also be a great run blocker. From there they can weight the left side of their line with the best guard, stick the most savvy veteran or best snapping guard at center, and cobble together the right side from there. Teams like Oklahoma State that recruit lots of guard/tackle swing players can generally fill out the right side pretty easily because their next best veteran blocker is likely to have already been cross-trained at both guard and tackle and can slide into whichever spot makes room for an up and comer.

To use the 2020 Oklahoma State line as an example…

Teven Jenkins at this point is their most proven pass protector on the edge, so sliding him over to left tackle is simple enough. He’s definitely a good run blocker, so playing him alongside Josh Sills achieves the outcome of weighting the left side in the run game. Center will go to walk-on Ry Schneider, a 6-3 and 327 pound redshirt junior who’s been in the mix at center and guard the last couple of season. For the right side they’ll figure things out between whichever up and coming youngsters recruited in the last couple of seasons end up proving the best players. If they have to play someone at right tackle who should really be at guard they’ll just shade help that way and lean on Jenkins and Sander’s running ability to make it work.

It’s a similar story with Iowa State or Texas. The Longhorns will start with Sam Cosmi at left tackle, top guard Junior Angilau joins him on the left side, experienced guard/tackle swing player Derek Kerstetter is moving to center, and then they’ll figure out the right side with guard/tackle swing player Denzel Okafor and the best youngster (probably RS freshman Isaiah Hookfin). Iowa State will probably play top young tackle Joey Ramos on the left side and pair him with strong run-blocking guard Trevor Downing. Young top interior guy Colin Newell returns at center and then they’ll figure out the right side with guard/tackle swing player Robert Hudson playing right guard or tackle based on where the fifth best option fits best next to him.

Right now every team in the Big 12 is working out the answers to these questions and most of them are following something very close to the process above, save perhaps for the more gap blocking oriented teams like K-State and Oklahoma.

The fall camp reports worth noting should indicate teams having strong answers for getting a top athlete at left tackle and then successfully weighting one side of their line with proven players. If a team can do that then an appropriately stocked offensive line room can typically fill out the other positions with rising upperclassmen or talented second/third year players and get a starting five up to speed (with injury luck) in time for the season.

Sorting out protection and then building cohesion is the name of the game in the Big 12. Why do you run the ball in the Flyover Football league? So that you can throw it.
 

rodofdisaster

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Nov 27, 2016
3,831
18,999
0
Northeast USA
@Ian Boyd worth the price of admission right here. IMO, I would say that there could be such a thing as someone who’s too tall to be an effective lineman but am consistently amazed that these 6’7”-6’8” guys are able to pull it off.

Every line coach I’ve ever talked to suggests RG is a particularly difficult position because he is most likely to not have help. I don’t know if that’s true anymore as the pieces seem to move around a bit more but it piques my interest to see if Hookfin can pull it off. A good RG is a game changer in that respect.
 

Ian Boyd

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Staff member
Jan 14, 2014
22,761
75,322
0
Ypsilanti, MI
@Ian Boyd worth the price of admission right here. IMO, I would say that there could be such a thing as someone who’s too tall to be an effective lineman but am consistently amazed that these 6’7”-6’8” guys are able to pull it off.
I think some of the things I mention above are a reason for that.

In these inside zone spread teams the assignments often look like this:

Pass pro: Not bad to be tall
Single block: Okay to be tall, you just want to cover up your guy and prevent him from making the play, it's almost like pass pro.
Double team: Okay to be tall, it's not as easy to get under his pads and drive him but that's why you have help.

Everyone forgets that a lot of the run-centric teams of yesteryear had shorter linemen. 6-3 and under guys that could get under your pads and take you on a ride.
Every line coach I’ve ever talked to suggests RG is a particularly difficult position because he is most likely to not have help. I don’t know if that’s true anymore as the pieces seem to move around a bit more but it piques my interest to see if Hookfin can pull it off. A good RG is a game changer in that respect.
I don't really know why that would be the case. We talking pass protection?
 

rodofdisaster

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Nov 27, 2016
3,831
18,999
0
Northeast USA
I think some of the things I mention above are a reason for that.

In these inside zone spread teams the assignments often look like this:

Pass pro: Not bad to be tall
Single block: Okay to be tall, you just want to cover up your guy and prevent him from making the play, it's almost like pass pro.
Double team: Okay to be tall, it's not as easy to get under his pads and drive him but that's why you have help.

Everyone forgets that a lot of the run-centric teams of yesteryear had shorter linemen. 6-3 and under guys that could get under your pads and take you on a ride.
True. My point was more that as they get taller, it’s harder to find the bend and the athleticism. Not going to mention a 6’10” guy from 2017. Amazing when they find it though. IIRC, Dan Neil wasn’t particularly tall or massive.

I don't really know why that would be the case. We talking pass protection?
Moreso pass but also run. The idea being that the LT is usually the most athletic and the LG will usually get help from the C (all things being equal which they aren’t always). The RT can be helped with a TE or back and they’ll frequently leave the RG to manage. That doesn’t apply to every situation obviously but I found it curious that I heard it from 2-3 different coaches and then one day it was also stated by Ross Tucker on NFL Radio. Not sure it’s still the case.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Ian Boyd

Ian Boyd

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Staff member
Jan 14, 2014
22,761
75,322
0
Ypsilanti, MI
Moreso pass but also run. The idea being that the LT is usually the most athletic and the LG will usually get help from the C (all things being equal which they aren’t always). The RT can be helped with a TE or back and they’ll frequently leave the RG to manage. That doesn’t apply to every situation obviously but I found it curious that I heard it from 2-3 different coaches and then one day it was also stated by Ross Tucker on NFL Radio. Not sure it’s still the case.
I wonder also if when teams attack an OL they tend to want to avoid the LT and LG because those are often the dudes, so they attack the right side. And then what you're saying about the RT often getting help on the edge means you get after the RG.

On 1st and 10 I may put my best DL across from the left side so I don't get crushed by the run. But on 3rd and 6 he's moving to the RG because now I'm on attack.
 

sherf1

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Dec 8, 2018
10,155
32,678
0
Thinking about pass protection, obviously an average Big 12 offense is throwing the ball around 40 times a game (we averaged 36.2 last year), but with a good chunk of those being screens/bubbles/RPOs, how many times a game do you think an O Line actually has to execute an honest pass drop?

Even including play action I would assume it's 20 or less in a normal game (something like the Texas LSU game was probably way more).

Not sure what my point is, more just to note the way offensive strategy really builds around protecting your weaknesses, and with the elite athleticism of edge players on defense for pretty much every good team, that generally means limiting the number of honest pass protection plays for your guys to deal with.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Ian Boyd

stilesbbq

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Oct 2, 2019
3,529
13,777
0
How much better in practice would the UT line be in practice if Walker Little were holding it down at Right Tackle right now?
 

stilesbbq

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Oct 2, 2019
3,529
13,777
0
Interesting. One day I'll stop worrying about the Reagor, Lamb, Little, Chaisson misses from that class.

Are there any advantages to play a gap running scheme vs a zone scheme? Does a gap scheme lead to more big running plays despite needing better athletes to execute it?

I’m not sure if that’s where the breakdowns are.

Wouldn‘t hurt though.
 

Ian Boyd

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Staff member
Jan 14, 2014
22,761
75,322
0
Ypsilanti, MI
Interesting. One day I'll stop worrying about the Reagor, Lamb, Little, Chaisson misses from that class.

Are there any advantages to play a gap running scheme vs a zone scheme? Does a gap scheme lead to more big running plays despite needing better athletes to execute it?
Gap scheme is a little more complicated than zone. It’s better for play-action because a pulling guard triggers in defenders. You just need the pullers to get things right and be good on the move.
 

sherf1

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Dec 8, 2018
10,155
32,678
0
Gap scheme is a little more complicated than zone. It’s better for play-action because a pulling guard triggers in defenders. You just need the pullers to get things right and be good on the move.
Would also think gap schemes are a bit more prone to being blown up by penetration if the blitzing LB beats the guard to the spot? So perhaps a bit more big play potential (including the PA advantage) but a bit more TFL risk.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Ian Boyd