This is the second in my series on Evaluating Linemen. While I love all positions, as a former offensive lineman, and terrible one at that, I feel I have more of an understanding of what they need, as well as where I failed. In most cases, it was never chest strength or leg strength, but rather core control, technique and natural disposition.
While many people may laugh at the idea of core strength being important for the monsters of the trenches, it is, in my mind, the most important area of strength that a lineman can have. A solid bench or great squat max is useless (as is maxing in general, but I will talk more on that later) if you are not explosive and able to maintain a strong athletic position for the duration of your combat. I break down core strength into Hips/Butt and Back/Abs.
Those that follow defense have probably heard many people mention the need for fluid, loose and quick hips for a solid corner prospect. You rarely hear it when you are talking about an offensive lineman, yet it is so important. Your hips are the hinge that bridges the power generated in your legs and into your arms and out your hands. For those that are familiar with many martial arts styles, a key element of those is getting the power of your whole body into any strike, even with minimal movement.
A prospect may be able to bench 400 pounds, but if he cannot fire off the line and bring his hips and legs into it, he will just be pushing against a wall. True explosion and drive comes when a player’s hips fire into the opponent. If you look at the 16:05 point of this film, you will see linemen punching bags. If you watch at around 16:20 mark, you will see the point where after contact, the linemen fluidly bring their hips through the block. This is what lifts the opponent up and back and allows you to use all of your strength in your legs in tandem with your chest back and triceps. If you watch the 1:02 mark of Beau Hott’s Hudl film, you will see that the point he starts to drive the defender back is the point his hips get in there and he drives his opponents shoulder pads up and back.
When people talk about pad level, they are really talking about hips and the ability to explode into a defender and raise their pad level. This is why 6’4″ linemen can get leverage on 6’1 defensive tackles even though they start with so much higher of a pad level.
Now for many linemen, this is tough. Especially high school linemen that are in schools without modern weight training help or a system that understands the value of plyometrics and Olympic lifting techniques that improve hip flexibility and explosiveness. Exercises like cleans, clean and jerk, box jumps, burpees and standing broad jumps are exercises that can be done anywhere, with just a make shift box or towel. And all of them will make a huge difference. I had terrible hips so no matter how strong I got in the weight room, I was never able to translate that into force and explosion on the field. This is one reason I like guys that are wrestlers like Josh Mitchell and Beau Hott, and why I also like players that come from programs like De La Salle, Bellevue or San Clamente who not only have great offensive line programs but also have sophisticated training methods that get the most out of their players. There are many of these types of programs out there, those are just three that I know of off the top of my head.
When I was playing, one of the worst parts of my stance had nothing to do with athleticism but with abdominal and lower back strength. In pass blocking, you need to have your back perpendicular to the ground, not a flat back that looks like a table top. The really solid pass blockers are able to get set up, with their back up ready to move and punch as needed. This stance is not only more mobile for keeping up with speed rushers, but it also allows you to punch with more of your chest back and legs than just your shoulders and upper pectorals. Think of how much stronger the average bench press is than the average incline press. If you are more perpendicular, not only can you use your leg and hip base more effectively, but you are punching with more powerful muscles at your disposal.
Back and abdominal development is not just for pass blocking either. When drive blocking, like in the video, you need to be able bring those hips in. Part of that equation is driving your hands up and bringing those hips along. This requires abdominal and back strength to help support and coordinate the movement. You don’t need a six pack, but your abs have to be strong enough to support your body and allow a player to easily transfer the power from their legs through the power in their hands.
How do all these items tie in? Players that have a more developed core tend to be the guys that can really push people around, can keep their balance while trying to change direction and can attack with strength from any position. Some high school kids may not be at schools where they work much on this, so while it is a set back, a year with Coach Miller will straighten them up. Most likely, the players that work on their core (whether they know that is what they are doing or not) and use solid technique are the ones that stand out the most on film and are generally the most ready for the rigors and demands of Division I Football.
A good example of this is Josh Mitchell. When he came to OSU, it was as part of a very good offensive line class. Many thought he was a rough prospect with potentially more upside at defensive tackle than on the offensive side of the ball. With guys like Seumalo, Gavin Andrews, Gerrett Weinrich in the class, Mitchell seemed to be the odd man out to many in that class. For me, I thought he was going to be a great player, and I had two reasons.
First, he was a state champion wrestler. That takes a lot of hard work, a tenacious attitude and generally very good core strength due to having to shoot in on take downs and basically fight with every ounce of their being. The second thing I saw was a workout video of his from his high school trainer. The drills he was doing as well as the lifts were all based on explosion and getting the most out of his core. Clean jerks, plyometric jumps, shuttles, overhead squats and on and on. Seeing him take those on and take them on at a high level for a high school athlete was all I needed to see.
Coincidentally, Josh came to OSU and stood out immediately as a freshmen. While he had a lot to learn and was not as big as his peers, he was the most prepared player not named Seumalo that year. (Well, in Weinreich’s defense, he suffered a terrible injury) I thought Mitchell might burn his redshirt year, but there was enough depth in 2012 that he didn’t need to.
Players that explode into defenders, that blow up their opponents on contact and are able to change direction in their pass stance without resetting their stance are all players who have extensive core strength and control.