Evaluating linemen: Footwork

A lot of people (OK, one.) have asked me what I look for in offensive linemen when I evaluate them.  There are quite a few things I look for that I will break down in a few posts.

Before I start, some of the terms I use might be new to you.  I will always try and explain terminology as best I can, but please leave a comment if you get lost or have any additional questions.  For basics, I will use the words ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ a lot.  Inside means closest to the ball before the play starts.  Outside is farther from the ball.  So if a receiver lines up the farthest away from the ball of any player, he would be the farthest outside. Similarly, the Center who snaps the ball is the farthest inside at the beginning of a play.

I also use the term ‘up-field’ to mean moving towards the end-zone you are trying to reach,. So a defender would move up-field, meaning towards the QB.  Or an offensive lineman would step up-field meaning they step forward first.

Also, even before I evaluate a player, the first thing I look for when evaluating a player is “Did Oregon State offer them a scholarship?”

The reason for that is that it means they think this person can be a Pac-12 caliber offensive lineman.  It also means that they have scouted him out enough to know what his competition is like and what his skill level is so that any highlight film I watch I can rest assured that they know the environment they are evaluating a player in.  For instance, if you see a guy that is just ridiculously dominant, but also seems to be playing teams filled with Oompa Loompa’s, then the offer shows that they saw this, recognize it and found other means of evaluating that player than just their one game against a team of tiny defenders.

The second thing I look for is footwork. Footwork is the most important part of playing offensive line.  While other topics that I will cover like core strength, hand placement, hip flexibility and aggression are important, all of them are lost if you cannot keep up with or get to the player you are supposed to block.

So what is footwork?  In my mind it is three things: Efficiency, Quickness and Speed.

EFFICIENCY:
Before the ball is snapped, most good linemen are taking stock of where the defense is, making calls or responding to other calls and formulating a plan of attack.  Many think they just fire out and blow people up, but for the most part, you have to quickly plan for certain scenarios and know where surprises may come from.  In that planning you have to know where you are going first.  So if I am pulling, or reaching inside, or the back side of a combo block or setting up for a screen, everything starts with your first step.

Pulling linemen want an aggressive first step in the direction they are pulling.  They don’t want a false step, where they lose ground until their second step or, even worse, step with their backside foot first, because they need to get to their responsibility in a hurry. So players that take decisive steps in the direction they are going, tend to be more efficient.  It is not just the first step though.  Being efficient also means not committing until they have to.

If offensive tackle is blocking a speed rushing end, they might start leaning towards the defender and put all their weight on one foot instead of keeping a balanced stance. At that point they are committed to a direction and their momentum will prevent them from being able to change directions quickly. When they do this, there is a good chance the defender will exploit it and cut back to get the QB.

Here is a good example against ASU. If you notice Scott Crichton working up field (towards the QB) and the lineman’s inside eye (in this case the right one) is located in the upfield side of Scott’s body.  This makes him a little too committed to staying in front of Scott.  The QB comes forward, and Scott is able to spin back and get the QB while the lineman blocking him is to committed to one direction to get back.  Now Scott is a very good player, and this tackle for ASU is decent as well.  But if he had been able to stay with Scott and keep his feet, he would have had a better chance of rolling back with Scott when he changed directions.  Once Scott sees Kelly step up, he spins quickly and attacks behind the offensive lineman who had already committed his weight the other direction.  While this is more of a great move by Scott than a fail on the lineman, it gives you a good idea of how important keeping your feet under you and balanced is.  Scott may have still made the play, but this guy would have had a better shot had he not gotten too far ahead of the defender.

QUICKNESS:
In a lot of ways, this is similar to efficiency.  If you take good first steps and are smart with your balance and steps, you are going to appear to be quicker.  Unfortunately, when you are playing against guys like Crichton or Victor Butler, you are going against guys that appear to have been shot out of a cannon.  They are coming out strong and fast and violent.  So you need to be able to have quick feet so that you can keep up with them.

A quick trip to an Oregon State Football practice will introduce you to a phrase “Belly to Belly”.  It is something Garrett says a lot and it is the idea that you keep your belly with the person you are blocking’s midsection.  A lot of people think that this is done by horsing them around with your arms or just knocking them to the ground.

In most cases, knocking people to the ground is rare and often is due as much to the defender tripping as the offensive person hitting them.  The key to the Belly to Belly concept is that your feet will move quick enough laterally that you are able to mirror and stay in front of your opponent.  If your feet lag, you will get blown by, as in this clip of Scott Crichton against Cal.

Not only does this lineman fail in the efficiency department by stepping with his inside foot first to block someone on his outside, but he also doesn’t get much depth and his feet are virtually motionless. If his feet had been quicker, and he had stepped with the correct foot first, he would have had a chance to keep his body in a power stance parallel to Scott’s.  So just like in the previous snap, the player had the quickness of foot to keep up but his efficiency was limited and he got caught with too much weight on one foot, this guy not only has efficiency issues but also just cannot physically keep up with Scott.

Now if you watch the very first clip in this video, look at the left guard at the bottom of the screen.  Juice Andrews not only steps with the correct foot, but is quick enough to basically strafe across the back of the line and then seal his linebacker inside to open a huge hole.  His quickness of foot allows him not only to get there in time, but also to swing around the defender on contact and force him into the pile. Obviously Juice is a strong guy and uses leverage and other things, but that last few seconds of the play where he goes from facing the endzone to pushing the guy 90 towards the pile in a heartbeat is a lot of foot quickness.

FOOT SPEED:
People see 40 times for linemen of 5.42 and think who cares, it is a lineman.  The thing is, linemen still have to block in space and be able to move to the second level.  Now, if you are an offensive lineman and you run a 4.4, you will get moved to defense, but you should be able to move comfortably and quickly to be a lineman.  Screen blocks require running out in space and blocking a smaller and faster person.  Most running plays in a zone blocking scheme will end up with one or two linemen moving past the line to pick up some linebackers.  So along with efficient movements and quickness of foot, it is also good if you can be explosive and fast in small bursts.   You may have to run down the line on a pulling situation and then run up the hole like a full back. It is hard to do your job if by the time you get to the hole, you are following the running back.

So should OSU not recruit huge players?  No, not at all.  But we need to make sure that the ones we get are able to move and get to the second level.  Watch the film of Tyler Moore and Brenden Bowen. Both of these guys are huge and are not going to win a lot of foot races, but they are able to reach block defenders, move to the second level and be athletes.  To show how important this is, Tyler Moore knows he was a little heavy and has worked super hard to shed 35 pounds of fat. So this year look for him to be leaner, meaner and faster.

You don’t need track speed, but what the offense can do and do effectively depends on if it has Offensive Linemen that can block effectively in space, at the second level and can get to a spot quick enough to help.  If you want to know what linemen are fast, look who pulls.  Isaac Seumalo will pull.  Grant Enger pulled.  Juice Andrews Pulled. You know who else pulled?  Michael Philipps.  He was a huge man, but was athletic enough that he could pull and make a difference.

OVERVIEW:
Hopefully this is helpful to people.  Footwork, in my mind, is more important than strength or size.  The rest is complimentary and makes you a better player, but if you have bad footwork, the rest doesn’t matter. When I talk about covering people with your feet, I mean being able to mirror them with your body so that even if you didn’t have arms, you would still be able to block guys to a degree.

I did not get super specific in this, just trying to keep it a general overview for anyone interested, but please comment if you have any questions or want to know more or want to disagree with me.  In many cases, like the first clip of Scott, linemen will do everything right but the player they are going against is just as skilled and maybe move athletic.  You cannot win all the battles, but by being efficient and athletic, you will win more than you lose.

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