This is the third post in my series on Evaluating Linemen. I really hope that part of what you get out of this series is that being an offensive lineman is not just about attempted homicide in six second intervals on the gridiron. There is a lot that goes into it mentally and physically. Much like a Boxer or an MMA fighter gets tired hitting and getting hit, offensive linemen deal with the same thing every play, while also having to mirror the defender and keep them from hitting the ball carrier. You are not just protecting yourself, you are protecting others and that is VERY difficult to do.
While i think true blocking comes from footwork, and that the mechanics of this comes from a strong core, the part that really just wears you out but is so important is what you do with your hands. Many times, holding calls come from poor footwork as a player gets caught reaching and grasping for a defender that is running past them. The other way holding calls happen is due to lazy hand placement. There is also a boxing type mentality to resetting hand placement to maintain a block. Knowing when to let go, when to punch, how to punch and where to punch is all part of understanding how to use hands as a lineman. It is probably the most teachable technique, but also the one you have to work on constantly. I break hand work up into three areas: Punch, Placement and Activity.
Those that have gone to practices at Oregon State, or anywhere, know that sometimes there are drills where you hear a series of “Pops!” that can be heard across the field. While the Tacoma resident in me is looking for a drive by, what actually is happening is that linemen are working on their punch. If they have a good one, you will hear a pop and you will see the head of the person getting hit snap back while the shoulder pads go up and back.
A solid punch is the single best weapon for stopping a bull rush. While I mentioned before that punches come from legs, through hips and out hands, they are also not immune to genetics. Just like some skinny guy can throw 100 MPH fast pall but a big strong dude can barely throw 60, some guys have a better natural punch than others. A guy that was a walk-on who i felt was far better than his recruitment status was Grant Johnson. Grant had a punch you could hear across the field and when he was up in a punch drill, you could see his opponents shoulders rock and head snap back. He had a fast and powerful punch that was beyond just hard work or strength.
The first thing to know about a punch, is that it is not just hands. It is a whole body movement, that ends with explosive contact with hands, and helmet many times. Sometimes in pass blocking it is shrunk down to its core of just punching out an arm, but most of the time it is a violent whole body movement that ends with your hands ripping upwards and forward to blow your opponent up and back.
The key to punches is that they require great timing and one is usually never enough. In a drive block, that great explosion and punch gets the defender stalled, but it is the ensuing leg drive and continued attack with your hands that drives them back. In some cases one big punch and leg drive is enough, but against good players, you are going to have to reset your hands periodically and you need to do that with authority. In pass protection it is especially important because your first punch might stop their rush, but as they move and plan a counter move, you have to be ready. The ability to punch and reload and punch again quickly and with similar force is one of the techniques that separate good linemen from great.
So what is a solid punch? Well it is pretty fluid what a good punch is, but there are a few things that you should see. First, it needs to be quick and forceful. You should notice that the defender slows down, stops or has to change direction. If you get them solidly, while you may move back a bit, your opponent’s momentum should also lessen. Secondly, the defender’s pad level should rise. Whether you are punching on a drive block or a pass block, that motion should move the shoulders up a bit and their head back a bit. Finally, punching is not just a two hand blast. Punching is just like in boxing, you might start with two hands, but you may have to use one hand to punch out or the defender my knock your hands down so you have to punch again. The goal is to win the leverage and hand placement battle, and that battle often doesn’t end until either you dominate them, get dominated or the whistle blows.
For a good example of a punch, check out Jalin Barnett at the 3:35 mark of this video. He fires off the line, but when he hits the guy, you see head rock up, shoulders rock back and he just drives him into the secondary basically. That is the advantage of a good punch. Often times you see guys that look like they are just laying hands on someone. They still might get good leg drive and win the battle, but there is definitely a huge advantage to exploding into someone and knocking them off their feet. The punch is a huge part of that.
Placement is important in tandem with punch. There are two basic reasons for this:
1. If you put your hands inside their shoulders, your opponent has to reach around you to get a hold of you. Punching to the chest means you most likely are mirroring your opponent and that you are in front of them and by hitting them square in the chest you have the best opportunity to stop their momentum.
2. If you get your hands outside, you lose power and the defender will most likely win the leverage battle and when your hands are outside you will most likely get called for holding.
Holding is a drive killer and the biggest fail a lineman can do next to whiffing on a pass play. Holding brings back great plays, turns second and short into second and long and basically is the bane of any lineman’s existence. Most importantly, holding is avoidable. If you have good, fast hands, placed inside their shoulders and your feet can keep up with you, you can literally grab jersey and pads and you will never get called. The moment your hands get outside their body or your arms get away from being perpendicular to your body, you run the risk of getting called for holding.
Active hands are dangerous hands. While a great punch and placement are super important for offensive linemen, active hands are what separates the good from the great. Fighting to maintain that positioning is one of the key elements to maintaining your block and driving your opponent where you want them. It is a constant battle in the trenches and good defenders are not going to let you just grab their jersey and hold on, they are going to attack your arms, head, shoulders and whatever they can to disengage you.
So you have to be able to lose your grip on them and re-punch your hand or hands to get back into the center. Good linemen are able to maintain position, great linemen are so aggressive with their hands that defenders try and find any other way around them. You watch Fred Ulu-Perry take on the defender at the 8:32 point of this film and you can see the defender fighting him to get inside position, but he keeps resetting his hands and maintains position. There is nothing that defender can do.
Fred’s film is filled with plays where you see all three of the techniques I talk about in play. Once he realizes that the UCLA depth chart is terrible and he should come to OSU, we will all dance in the street because he has it all. The great foot work to stay with defenders, the great core strength to deliver a blow, the great punch to knock guys around and to stone incoming speed rushers and the discipline of position to keep fighting for his spot.
There is no secret to how you use your hands as a lineman. Punch, Position and Activity are just three simplistic ways to say you fight like hell for position when you are on the line. Players need to constantly be the hammer in the relationship with the defensive line, not the nail. Even in pass protection, you need to have the hands to counter whatever gets thrown at you. If you get a swim move, you need to punch them in the ribs and redirect them. If you get a spin move, you need to keep your hands and feet moving and spin them like a barrel down a river. If they bull rush you, you need to stop them cold or redirect them with a punch, recovery and then more punches. If they try to do a push pull, you need to get your arms extended and in good position so they cannot grab you and force you to step forward or backwards.
Just like footwork, there is some natural advantages some players will have with their hands, but anyone can learn to be violent and aggressive, even if you just have to make a game of it. Even if you have to challenge yourself to count how many punches you get in during a play. Set a minimum and use that to motivate you if you are not naturally aggressive. Whatever it takes, active hands, constant punching and great hand position will win a lot of battles.