A constant refrain in Iowa State football season preview material is that offensive production, and in some cases wins, will hinge on the play of the offensive line. This constant is justified as the play of the offensive line has either been perceived to be, or actually, below standard during the Matt Campbell era.
I, and my colleagues at Cyclone Fanatic, reference the play or potential play of the lineman on a regular basis. It is easy to isolate a missed block or an ineffective block on film and determine the crucial nature of the five positions across the front. What is hard, is to evaluate the individuals and the unit’s effectiveness as a whole. What is harder still is prognosticating an offensive line’s effectiveness with first year players replacing long time starters.
Little detail is given regarding actual evaluation of line play in my opinion. It is hard. It is not an exciting part of a game to describe. The ball is not present or advanced by the line. It looks like a jumbled mess when watching it on TV. It is hard to see five players at once versus isolating vision on a ball carrier and individual defensive pursuit.
Therefore, in an effort to demystify, at a general level, offensive line evaluation and play, I start here and plan a series of articles that will endeavor to provide a framework for understanding (agree or disagree) the mostly generic comments made by myself and others regarding line play.
A disclaimer and premise:
The offensive line is THE most important building block of a program. Offense cannot function without effective line play and a defense may be compromised when the line either cannot hold up to sustain drives or allows negative plays compromising field position. In addition, there are many philosophies on technique, on player skill, on physical composition, and scheme fits. None are wrong in and of themselves. I have my own philosophy that fits what I believe is possible within a program and can be widely taught to enhance this important part of program building. The following is reflective of my opinions and open to criticism at all levels.
Fit , Lock, and Finish
First in the series is a quick look at the physicial attributes I emphasize when evaluating offensive line talent. This sets the stage for the type of offensive line that your program will field. The individual players physical attributes set the stage for their ability to effectively execute the required blocks and work together within the blocking scheme.
I classify each required block (base, reach, angle, bucket, pull) within the same repeatable evaluation. Fit, lock, and finish. This attempts to standardize the evaluation of each block and consistency through a series of blocks. In addition, it isolates physical characteristics required to execute effective blocking techniques from fit, through lock, and at finish.
A caveat here is that in many circumstances a finish is not required or necessary to execute a play. A finish can be required, but can be viewed as a bonus and is more indicative of attitude and the mental aspects of game play. The fit and lock are required on all blocks in order for a play to work properly.
Fit – The “fit” is quite simply a reference to initial positioning wherein the lineman seeks placement in a leverage position against his target. This includes placement of his head, hands, feet, and hips with the feet and hips being the balance and power source of the leverage dynamic.
A note here: there is tremendous similarity between defensive positioning in basketball to fitting a block in football. Many of the same physical characteristics are drawn upon and required to be a good defender that are required to be a good blocker. In addition, the connection between top half (head and hands) and bottom half (hips and feet) and coordinated movement between the two are present in wrestling. One of the more difficult skills to master, teach, and train in Jiu Jitsu is the recognition of and use of whole body leverage and coordination in order to execute movements. The same presents in fitting a block.
On a particular block, the first step must be right to initiate proper contact. The head must be placed on the correct side and at the correct height. The hands must be placed at the proper leverage points — i.e. inside chest and far armpit under to create a proper turn force. The hips must be low and back with knees bent (not high and bent at the waist). Finally, the feet must be positioned in alignment with the leverage and quick enough to maintain contact with the ground through movement be it drive, screen, turn, or give.
Linemen that can consistently fit their blocks are effective and create an opportunity for a play to work.
Lock – In past eras of football you will read about blocks being about fit and finish. The concept in past offensive football, especially those schemes predicated on man blocking schemes, was that once the correct fit was achieved, the lineman was to continue the movement to finish which means elimination of the defender.
However, in modern football and modern schemes I have observed that finishes are more difficult given the hybrid nature of many defenders (speed/strength/size dynamic) and use of modern space concepts do not require a finish. Instead, what is crucial is a lock before finish and in lieu of a finish.
After fit, the lineman is to drive with stable hands and head, move his feet and maintain low leverage. What is required and effective now is the ability to screen and prevent quick disengagement and pursuit to a tackle. It is possible and viewed in each game, a well fit block from which the defender disengages as the play comes into his attack zone and a tackle is made for no gain. There was a fit, but no lock, and the block was ineffective.
Lock then indicates the physical ability to maintain leverage and control either in drive or screen that continues full engagement with the defender until the ball has advanced past the defender’s attack zone.
Finish – The pancake? Yes. Driving to the sideline? Yes. Or simply eliminating the defender and continuing the domination until the ball has passed and emphasizing that dominance. As stated earlier, I believe this portion of the block is not always necessary and was more necessary when the advancement of the ball was predicated on creating space by displacement of defenders.
In today’s game, the martial arts concept of using momentum against a defender is becoming more prevalent. Space is created by formation, by pre and post snap motion, and influence paths. In basketball, space can be created by ball movement. In the modern football context, it can be created by ball delivery options and creating multiple attack points.
Therefore, a finish is elimination of a pursuit threat, a run-down threat by holding the lock or screen long enough that the defender does not have a chance to re-assert an attack zone.
Evaluating linemen in FLF context
If I am trying to stock my offensive line with blockers capable of establishing a consistent fit, lock, and finish skill set, then I need to see certain things on film and have a standard of performance that determines who I choose to bring into my program.
All coaches have physical size minimums. Size will be discussed extensively in a later article. But, the coach must determine a minimum (and I think maximum) size or evaluate the player and determine that they can reach the minimum size. Also, all coaches have minimum strength requirements, but the discipline showing that strength may vary (bench/squat, vertical/broad jump, film, cleans, etc…).
Many coaches will have certain pet drills that they want to see a player perform in order to evaluate if they have the potential to develop into the consistent FLF player they want and need. It may be a strength drill, an agility drill, or a conditioning drill testing overall athleticism.
Regardless of the evaluation tool, when watching film of a player, there are certain things that must be seen in order to project that player to the next level. Below, I categorize what I look for when looking at a recruiting class’ highlight film.
** What I can’t teach or only marginally improve.
Athletic movement. I can improve physical characteristics – running, jumping, strength, agility — but only marginally from the starting baseline. I can’t make a slow footed player to quick twitch. I can’t count on a 5.4 being turned into a 4.8. But, if there is a baseline level of athleticism, then I can improve technique and physical training to optimize performance.
When I say athleticism, I want to see an ability to move upper and lower body together to maintain and gain a leverage advantage. Some linemen, due to their size and body composition cannot drop their hips low enough, or move their feet fast enough to fit, let alone lock, a block at the collegiate level. It is a function of natural athleticism and can be improved, but I want a player that shows a natural tendency to snap into power position and continue to move fluidly through a block.
I can’t teach size. And, I can’t teach feet in the sense that I can improve them, but I need to see a natural quickness and predilection to move on balance in order to establish the standard that I want to achieve on the offensive line. Do they cross-over, long-stride, have to raise their hips to move quickly, or do they chop quickly, maintain a base while moving, and maintain or improve hip level while moving their feet?
I watch feet and fluidity of movement first and knee bend/hip position as 1-A. This establishes the athletic base on which a potential player and how fast I think I can get him to a competitive level.
Fit, Lock, Finish. High school film will often highlight dominant blocks predicated on size and strength mismatches. That is unavoidable. But, the key is how that dominance is achieved. Is it pressed down from the top with a bend at the waist? Is it a use of length with extended arms, narrow foot placement and high hips? Or, is it with extended arms, low hips, balanced base and leverage placement?
Do they fit correctly or close to correctly? Are they able to lock as they progress through a block using their feet and positioning?
This is where finish comes in. Are they nasty on the finish? Do they give an extra shot? An emphasis push? Is there a violent nature to their fit — meaning does it come with punch and aggression or are they catching and reacting?
Punch and aggression is where every block is born. Catching and reacting makes the fit harder and a lock almost impossible. Initiation of contact and making sure the defender knows they were blocked indicate a hard-nosed disposition that can molded.
I want an offensive line that begins with an attitude of domination and will maintain that attitude play to play regardless of results. Because it is just the way they play the game. It is possible to be attracted to an outstanding athlete with good technique and a more passive attitude, but I am more likely to trust my development skills with a player that starts with a streak of nasty.
Let me see a guy who finishes and is intent on establishing dominance from the first strike and I will take a chance on cleaning up the other categories if they meet minimum standards.
Offensive lines and linemen are hard to predict. They are big men who often take time and many repetitions to develop the required skill to play effectively at the collegiate level. It is prudent to have a three year schedule for significant playing time if you can recruit to that level of depth.
That stated, having the athleticism, technique, and attitude to fit, lock, and finish a block is the starting point of evaluating talent to provide that depth. It goes without stating that the further along that line a player is, the better chance that player has to pan out.
In the ISU context, the final article in this series will evaluate the new talent in the context of the previous articles to provide as close of a look as an outside analyst can get at what may be in store. However, I will note initially that the roster depth exhibits the characteristics mentioned above in greater measure than what has been present in the past. There is reason for optimism though the full offensive line re-build remains a work in progress.
As a post read exercise, get on YouTube or dig into your DVR and watch some ISU football. Or, just football in general. Watch an Iowa game and focus on Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson. Watch Texas and take a look at Sam Cosmi. Those are top level NFL prospects, but provide a standard you are trying to see a base for becoming when evaluating recruits and positional replacements. Watch for fit, lock, and finish and test the theories placed herein.
Then, enjoy the 4th and be prudent in these unprecedented times (pour one out for a football season starting close to on time).