By Chris Williams
The offensive line.
It consists of guys who don’t get much credit but in lot of ways, are the heart and soul of a football team. It is the perfect place for us to begin our 2009 Iowa State football review/spring football look ahead here at CycloneFanatic.com.
Iowa State’s offensive line raised many eyebrows during their 2009 campaign under first-year head coach Paul Rhoads. One man who deserves a handful of credit for that is Iowa State assistant head coach/offensive line coach Bill Bleil.
Earlier this week, CycloneFanatic.com had an opportunity to go one-on-one with Bleil to get his thoughts on the past, present and future of the big men up front for the Cyclones.
Enjoy this Q&A with the ball coach and look forward to thoughts and analysis from this interview on Friday here at CycloneFanatic.com.
CF: Overall, were you happy with the play of the offensive line looking back on the 2009 season?
BB: I really was. Especially, I thought that we had good leadership in Reggie. Reggie, I thought did a nice job. Anytime that you have a group that plays really well, which in the end, I thought they played pretty well, and I think that there is obviously room for improvement. For a group of young guys who haven’t played many games together, I thought that they played well. Reggie Stephens had a lot to do with that. We had a number of guys on the offensive line. We weren’t very deep, but we had a number of guys on the offensive line that really took ownership and it was very important for them to play good as a group. They did. They did everything that I asked them. They were good guys. They really were. They were always on time. They did the things that they were supposed to do. You correct them. You coach them hard. They are going to take it. They are going to go and get better off of it. That is all that I can ask of them.
CF: Will you miss Reggie more on the field or off the field next year from a leadership standpoint?
BB: He was a very good football player obviously. He is going to get a shot in the NFL. He is going to go to the East-West game, which will be very important for him. Before I knew that he was a great leader, I knew that he was a very good football player. He and I became very close. He is one of the most impressive leaders on the field that I have ever been around. He’s very intelligent, books wise, football wise. He put the time in. He always came in and studied the game. He would always come in on Mondays when we wouldn’t have the game plan completely said. He would come in on Mondays and have already looked at an hours worth of tape, just to get an idea. He would come in and say ‘how are we doing this’ or ‘how are we doing that.’ At that point, I would say ‘this is how we are going to do it’ and bang bang bang. He never came in not knowing already. He knew in his mind. He would say ‘well how about this?’ I’d always say ‘yes, that’s exactly it.” One thing that I always wanted Reggie and all of the other guys to do is to be able to make the adjustments on the field. Don’t wait until you come to the sidelines. That is too late. That is one of the things that we always tried to talk about in the meetings. We’d show that this could easily happen in this particular front. If we are attacking and they have to make some adjustments, this is what is probably going to happen. If this happens, we need to ID it this way. We need to block it this way. Those guys could do it. We didn’t have to wait until halftime. We didn’t have to wait until the sideline. Or, they’d come to the sideline and say ‘we missed it’ and that’s not enough. We won’t miss it again. I thought that was a good group.
Did you see more of that learning towards the end of the season?
BB: Yeah, I think that you see them make some great adjustments at the end of the season in understanding. We were running the ball effectively and people were having to put an extra person in the box to stop the running game. Because of that, you have to block things a little differently. I think that we are going to get the same thing. We are more than likely going to move Ben Lamaak to center. I think that we’ll get the same leadership. I think that we’ll get the same intensity and the same intelligence that we got from Reggie at that position. Obviously, that center position, in my mind has to be a very controlling person. A person who can see the whole picture and not just who is lined up across from him.
CF: How much experience does Ben have at center?
BB: Every week we made him take some snaps all through the fall. There will be some newness there but no more than there was with Reggie when we moved him there from guard to center. I think that with him knowing what I ask of the center and the load that I put on them, I think that he is excited about the challenge.
CF: So if Ben is moving to center, is there a front-runner to fill his open role at this point in time?
BB: I am excited about a person who has gotten physically stronger and played about 200 snaps during the fall is Brayden Burris. We are going to look at moving Scott (Haughton) to guard. I think that will be his natural position for the next few years and maybe if he gets to play after college. We’ll move Brayden to tackle to see how that goes in the spring. Spring is one of those times where you are going to challenge for positions. If you are better, you will be on the field.
CF: Explain to me what your idea of a physically perfect offensive lineman is.
BB: As you watch how the NFL has evolved, more athletic. You obviously cannot give up too much bulk for speed but I think that instead of having a 360-pounder, I would rather have a 305-pounder that can run. Even in the NFL, most of the great NFL tackles are in the 310 range. They were probably great tight ends in high school and 6-6 basketball players who grew into 300-pounds. One of the things about having great athletic feet is that you can make a mistake and you can fix it. It is just like playing basketball. You don’t want a big ole plow out there either. Obviously, you like big bodies inside. Everybody is playing a even front, a 4-2 or a 4-4. You kind of like those guards to be bigger and more physical guys. The tackles in this offense can be the 6-6, 310-pound guys. I think that we are getting to that point with some of those guys. Brayden Burris is one of those guys.
CF: I’ve covered three coaching staffs at Iowa State and this year’s line looked like it had some sort of a mean-streak that I hadn’t seen before. Did you notice that?
BB: I hope that they do. I think so. You have to talk about it a lot. You have to talk about them playing nasty. You want them to play nasty. I don’t think that they will unless they are very confident about what they are doing.
CF: Let’s go back to Lamaak for a minute. Is he the leadership guy who will replace Reggie next year?
BB: I don’t think that we’ll have a problem at all with that. We have some young guys too. KO (Kelechi Osemele) has a great future in front of him. Scott Haughton had a nice season.
CF: Any scout team guys stand out?
BB: Brayden Burris played really well. I was never afraid to put Bradyen in there. I think that Brayden is going to have a great future here.
CF: As far as recruiting goes, you can’t mention specifics but there are a lot of linemen in the 2010 class. What is the first thing that you look for from a freshman the day he steps foot on campus?
BB: Obviously, you want to recruit intelligence. Offensive line is a hard position to play so you want an intelligent man. I think that you want athleticism. You want to see growth potential. If you are taking a kid that you are projecting because he is 240-pounds, you want to see growth potential in him. How big can they be? Are they going to be able to be a 300-pounder or a 310-pounder? Are they going to be able to run? Are they going to be able to be nasty? Do they like to hit? Is football important to them? An analogy that I have always used is that you want to find the kids who will play football whether you give them a scholarship or not, but they are good enough to get a scholarship. You really want to stay away from those kids who if they weren’t getting a scholarship, they wouldn’t be playing football. You want to stay away from those guys. You want to find those guys who have got to play. They have to play. When they wake up in the morning they have to play football. They love to play football. You have to find those guys.
CF: That helps on those cold Jack Trice November nights doesn’t it?
BB: No kidding. No kidding. Exactly. Right now, I have a bunch of guys who like playing football.
CF: Spring ball is up next. What is the main message that you’ll send to your unit before practice begins?
BB: I want to reemphasize the point that we need to be physical. We need to be able to come off of the ball and be physical. Spring is a time that you really emphasize your fundamentals. In the fall, you want great fundamentals but in the spring, you emphasize great fundamentals. You spend so much time in the fall schematically. What does this defense do? In the spring, you work against the same defense for 15 days in a row. You know by the third day exactly where somebody is going to be standing when you go to the line. You have time then. You don’t have to work as much schematic as you do fundamental. Especially with the young guys getting their pad level down. Getting them to play football. Especially this spring. Last spring, we spent a lot of time teaching them the offense. I think that we will be able to spend a lot more time on fundamentals this year.
CF: How much more will you get accomplished this spring due to that?
BB: It is a totally different ball game. You just don’t have that learning curve. There is just a huge learning curve when you transition a new staff in. I think that the learning curve except for the young guys, they are still learning offensively just learning what we expect. For the most part, Paul does a great job of keeping the true freshmen and the red-shirt freshmen involved. We scrimmage those guys every Sunday night. Because of that, they just aren’t down there reading cards all week. They are on offense every week on Sunday nights scrimmaging. Those kids stay involved. They have to keep learning the offense. Because of that, even they are way ahead of some other programs.
CF: Last question…my eyes were really opened this year when Reggie got injured and missed the A&M game. For the first time, I think that I grasped how much of a unit an o-line actually is. It isn’t five guys doing their own thing. Can you elaborate on that?
BB: Of anything, the offensive line is exactly that way. They have to play as a group. One of the terms that we use is that the carpet really needs to match the curtains. That center has to have a right tackle and a left tackle who are on the same page. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. We have five hats on the o-line. As long as we get these five hats going in a coordinated area on these five guys, the center has to understand who are the most dangerous opponents? Who do we want to block? That depends on the greater the threat out there on defense. Defensively, what they do is they always have a plan. They know that they always have one extra guy compared to what we do. They know that this guy is coming. We have to understand that. If we don’t coordinate it, these four guys are blocking here and all of the sudden, we have two unblocked. You really have to understand that those five have to be coordinated. If you throw a tight end or two in there, then those seven guys have to be coordinated. They have to hear the calls. The center is going to always ID the defensive front. With that ID, it gets all seven guys going on the same page. Reggie did a great job and I know that Ben will as well.