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Football

JEFF WOODY: What do offensive linemen do anyway?

WRITTEN BY FORMER IOWA STATE RUNNING BACK JEFF WOODY. 

Last week, Iowa State’s backup center Patrick Scoggins suffered a season-ending knee injury. This all-too-familiar refrain of “offensive lineman injured” leaves a majority of fans to react… somehow. The reaction many people have, however, is like watching a foreign movie.

“I will judge the response I should have based on the response that everyone else has because I have NO IDEA what just happened.”

Allow me to explain.

Consider this analogy: The five members of the offensive line are much like the five members of a lineup in basketball. The easiest carry over is the football center. The job responsibilities of the center are the football equivalent of the point guard in basketball. Occasionally, they are the focal point (get the most pancake blocks, score the most points, get the most rebounds, etc.). Their most important job, though, is to make sure that everyone is on the same page. They have to make sure that throughout the speed and chaos of a game, the movements are coordinated and synchronized. Without a functional center or point guard, the talent, physicality and effort may be the same, but it will be disjointed.

When an injury happens here, you have two options.

A) You move your backup center in, who is undoubtedly a worse blocker than all of your other choices but keeps the coordination of the line.

B) Move another position player in at center. This person would be a much better blocker, but the coordination is off. To put that in context, if Steph Curry were to get hurt, you could put in a backup point guard to run the offense, say Leandro Barbosa. Your other choice would be to move a shooting guard like Klay Thompson over to point guard. With Barbosa, your scorers stay as scorers. With Thompson, it turns into five separate games of one-on-one.

The guards are the most purely physical positions on the offense. They have to have the capacity to pick up a 270-pound defensive end when he spikes in on a twist at almost full speed while they themselves are standing still. They have to be able to move a 320-pound human being 3-5 yards out of the way by themselves, against the other man’s will. There are mental components, sure, but there are very few guards who are intelligent but physically not as strong (when I say “not as strong,” I mean they only squat 450 instead of 600).  There are many more physically strong but “need-extra-help-in-the-meeting-room” types than their counterparts. The great ones are strong, smart, and tough.

Tackles are the ones that everyone loves to watch. They have to be athletic enough to keep up with a 210-pound safety trying to run an arc around them to the quarterback. They have to have long arms so they can keep defensive lineman off of their body (when you think of pass blocking, think of the bully putting his hand on the “nerdy” kid’s head in an 80’s movie while the nerdy kid swings wildly at nothing. That’s the goal, so the longer the arms the better). Tackles have to be smart enough to decipher everything that my come their way in a blitz, because there is nothing to their outside to protect them. If they guess and guess wrong, their quarterback is picking his chinstrap up from the bleachers. Inversely to guards, you will have a higher percentage of athletic, smart tackles who are relatively weak as compared to guards (again, relative to a 600-pound back squatter).

Offensive linemen are hard to judge for worth unless you’ve played a lot of football inside the tackles. The nature of the offensive line is that one man is part of a unit. The old expression rings true: "five fingers make one fist.” So how do you know what fingers can get amputated and still make a fist? You ask the guy who has three fingers.

Last year, Iowa State lost a backup center in the first padded day of camp. That reduced their option of a true center playing in place of the starter, since the third stringer is a third stringer for a reason. For the Cyclones, Tom Farniok going down in the first week took away their best two on-field coordinators. They elected to put starting guard Jamison Lalk in at center, which seemed to be a bad move, but it was the best of a bad situation.

With Scoggins going down, Iowa State is now thin at center. Is it time to panic? No. But it is a thinner experience than many in the conference. This offensive line does have great components to it, though. They have horses at guard, athletes at tackle, and a smart technician at center. With health, consistency, and a little bit of luck, this five-fingered fist may be able to punch its way out of the basement of the Big 12 as one of the best units this program has seen in a while.

C

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