Ron Morris

August 18, 2014

Morris: It takes brains to play offensive line

Used to be, college coaches could speak in layman’s terms when it came to offensive line play.

Used to be, college coaches could speak in layman’s terms when it came to offensive line play.

“We lined up and knocked ‘em back,” they would say.

Or, “that was great smash-mouth football.”

Not anymore.

Blocking techniques have changed dramatically with the advancement of the passing game over the past two decades. With more teams operating out of the shotgun formation, running plays are much more about blocking an area or screening a defender. Mix in more sophisticated defenses that disguise their alignments and you now have offensive linemen required to play as much with their brains as their brawn.

Shawn Elliott is USC’s fifth-year offensive line coach who is fast developing a reputation as being among the best in the business. Listen to him describe what an offensive lineman might face as he approaches the line of scrimmage.

“You’re looking for a fit,” he starts out. “You’re looking for linebackers who have to try to fit certain (areas). If you take a backside shade on an inside guard technique and we wash him three yards and the backside linebacker doesn’t fit quite well off his hip, we’re just kind of changing their scheme of things. We’re moving their B-gap responsibility three yards to the right now.”

Gone, obviously, are the days of the 6-foot-6, 360-pound goof who knows only to charge straight ahead and knock the defensive lineman off his feet. He has been replaced by the sleeker – albeit, still huge – 6-3, 320-pound guard, tackle or center who is agile, quick on his feet and quicker with his mind.

“You’ve got to be an intelligent football player to be an offensive lineman,” Elliott says.

Elliott need only point across the room on a recent Sunday for the best example of what he speaks. There stood A.J. Cann, a 6-foot-3, 315-pound guard.

Cann owns a degree in African American studies and is a three-time member of the SEC fall academic honor roll. He was voted a permanent team captain a season ago as a junior.

Cann has started a team-high 38 games over the past three seasons. Despite his girth, Cann says he can run a 40-yard dash in just a blink under 5 seconds. Phil Steele’s preseason magazine rates Cann as the third-best offensive lineman in the country. There is every reason to believe Cann will be an All-American.

Cann’s Bamberg-Ehrhardt High team relied primarily on the running game, even using the wishbone attack. So he knows all about the old-style offensive lineman whose primary duty was to clear out running lanes through brute force imparted on defensive linemen.

Cann quickly learned at USC that there is more to being an offensive lineman at the collegiate level.

“These days, it’s changed,” Cann says. “All these linemen are more athletic, and able to move well, instead of just big, physical guys. You still want them to be physical when the time is right, but I think people would rather have athletic linemen these days.”

In evaluating offensive lineman – both in scouting at the high school level and in grading the performance of own players – Elliott says it begins with athleticism.

“If I’m evaluating a guy, that’s probably the first thing I’m going to look at,” Elliott says. “How well he gets out, runs in space, how easy is the transition from (three-point) stance to getting out there (on the end of the line). It’s a very, very key indicator for me about their athleticism, about exactly what they can do.”

For the most part, offensive line play has shifted from vertical push to horizontal push. Instead of firing off the ball, a lineman is just as likely to take on a defensive nose guard and attempt to push him 3 yards to the right or left, rather than backward.

Elliott says coaches can no longer be stubborn in their teachings, needing an ability to adjust and change from series to series, from game to game and from season to season. That willingness to change and adapt is imparted on his players.

Elliott uses USC’s 28-25 victory at Central Florida a season ago as an example of how a team makes in-game changes. The Gamecocks trailed 10-0 at halftime, having attempted 25 passes to 10 rushing attempts. In regaining the lead in the second half, USC ran the ball 36 times and attempted nine passes.

Most of those second-half runs were out of the I formation with the offensive line providing straight-ahead blocking. It was a second half of throw-back football, one that proved USC’s up-front players were capable of adjusting on the fly.

Smart guys, those offensive linemen.

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