Can USC Fix Its Offensive Line?

Bruce Feldman (TheAthletic.com)  —  Why offensive line is the toughest position for college football recruiters to evaluate  

This week when your favorite team announces its signing class, or when you hear about the four- or five-star recruit that your school did or did not get, remember this number: 2.4.

That is the average star ranking of the 15 offensive linemen voted to the Pro Bowl last year who were evaluated in the era of the recruiting star system. None of them were ranked as five-star prospects; four were four-star guys — the same number as there were zero-star players. Joe Thomas, the best offensive tackle of his era, went to 10 Pro Bowls in his 11 seasons. Thomas once was ranked as the nation’s No. 18 offensive tackle prospect. None of those 17 graded ahead of him went on to start in the NFL as tackles. From the 2015 signing class, prospects who are seniors now, Clemson’s Mitch Hyatt is the only four- or five-star O-line recruit (according to 247Sports) to make first-team all-conference.

The online recruiting sites do a good job of ranking high school prospects, but the trickiest position to evaluate — even more than quarterbacks — is the offensive line.

And it’s not just the recruiting analysts who have such a hard time. Coaches have a pretty rough time of evaluating them, too.

“If you can get an O-line coach to tell you the truth, I bet they’ll say of the 16 or so linemen they have on scholarship, that there are at least five they totally missed on,” says Kent McLeod, Duke’s director of player personnel.

So why is it so much harder to evaluate the guys in the trenches than other positions, and why exactly do college coaches miss so often? The Athletic contacted some of the sharpest minds in football to find out and to learn why, when it comes to O-linemen, bigger may not actually be better.

“It’s such a technical position,” UCLA head coach Chip Kelly says. “You have to have the right mental makeup to play it. It takes a whole lot of work and dedication. It’s just different. It’s not like for a quarterback or a receiver — ‘Hey, let’s go play catch.’ No one goes, ‘You wanna come over and drive block? Hey, let’s go hit a sled.’ It’s about very technical detail stuff. Where is your toe pointed? You work on your jump sets on vertical sets. It really is a craft.” 

Almost a dozen coaches, including many of the top O-line gurus, echoed Kelly’s point about the technical nature of offensive line play and stressed that as such a developmental position, it involves a lot of projection. And that’s where things really get dicey.

“If you got a running back or wide receiver or DB, even a D-lineman that is really twitchy with great get-off, the skill set is easy to see on film,” Texas offensive line coach Herb Hand says. “You can take a four- or five-star guy and they may be tapped out. That may be as good as they get. You wonder, ‘How has this guy been coached?’ If he comes from a great high school program and got his butt coached off for the last three or four years, can he continue to develop by getting bigger and stronger? The developmental curve is kinda tapped out as opposed to a later bloomer.

“And God forbid an (under-the-radar) kid has a great senior year because everybody wants their recruiting wrapped up early. So when something like that happens, that kid winds up going to say, Miami of Ohio, because everybody was full.”

When they evaluate a prospect, most O-line coaches first want to see if the kid can bend. Does he have good flexibility in his ankles, knees and hips? Can he really move his feet?

“You don’t want a guy who is a heavy-footed dude,” Hand says. “I want guys who can put their cleats in the ground. You can tell a lot by their stance. Can they keep their heels in the ground? If they can’t, that means they have poor ankle flection. You don’t want them up on their toes a lot.”

Being labeled as “stiff” is one of the worst things you could see in a prospect. Being deemed soft is another killer.

Getting a sense of just how much they actually love football is another must. “I’d take a three-star guy that loves football over a five-star guy that loves recruiting any day,” Hand says.

The best lineman Hand has coached in two decades was Wesley Johnson at Vanderbilt. Johnson was a quarterback in ninth grade who was moved to tight end before becoming an offensive tackle. “He was first-team All-SEC, and I think he played at over 285 pounds and came in at 245,” Hand says.

At Texas, Hand has a redshirt freshman starting right tackle who reminds him a lot of Johnson named Sammy Cosmi. Cosmi once was ranked as the nation’s No. 104 offensive tackle prospect, and like Johnson, he came to college at about 245 pounds. He has blossomed into a solid starter for the Longhorns thanks to his quick feet, smarts and plenty of grit. “He’s the same dude (as Johnson),” Hand says.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, a one-time English lit teacher, has a veritable library of linemen in his background. The Hawkeyes have had 17 O-linemen drafted since Ferentz took over, including seven in the first two rounds in the past 16 NFL drafts. Most of those players were never national recruits.

Ferentz spent most of the 1980s as Hayden Fry’s offensive line coach in Iowa City, a period in which he developed 11 NFL linemen. He later was Bill Belichick’s offensive line coach with the Cleveland Browns. He also coached future Pro Football Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden with the Baltimore Ravens, a player so freakishly talented and on top of things that Ferentz jokes, “My sister could’ve coached him.”

At a place like Iowa, you have to project prospects a little more liberally than at some of the more blue-blooded programs in college football, he says. “We can’t be a size chart team here, like where there’s one of those signs, ‘If you’re not tall enough to get on the ride, you can’t come in,’ ” he says.

“I learned in the ’80s that if we do that here, we’re gonna be in trouble. We keep an open mind. We’ve had some good 6-foot-1 guys. But you have to have some idea of what you’re looking for. Typically, they’re pretty athletic guys. One common denominator is that they work like crazy, and they love being an O-lineman, which I know may sound like an oxymoron. But so much of it is learned, and it’s unnatural to a lot of people.”

One of those Pro Bowl linemen mentioned above is Ferentz protégé Brandon Scherff, a former high school quarterback who threw in the mid-80s as a pitcher, averaged a double-double in basketball, played on the varsity tennis team and won a state title in the shot put. Robert Gallery, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft, was signed by Ferentz as a 230-pound high school tight end and high jumper.

“To me, the guys that do a good job recruiting O-linemen have a profile and recruit to that,” says Clay McGuire, Texas State’s line coach. Five years ago at Washington State, McGuire recruited a 240-pound project named Andre Dillard who this year became a first-team All-Pac-12 left tackle for the Cougars. “We never worried about weight. We felt like we did a good enough job in our strength and conditioning and nutrition program that the weight would come. So we looked for length, height and athleticism.”

 

Andre Dillard grew into an All-Pac-12 player at Washington State. (Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports)

McGuire says when Washington State came across Dillard’s tape, they were “getting their asses whipped in recruiting. We were so desperate so we had to take a chance, and we took a chance on frame and athleticism.” The tape on Dillard, then about 6-4, showed a lot of twitch and snap off the ball, McGuire says. The Cougars’ only competition for Dillard, who was rated as the nation’s No. 128 offensive tackle, were Idaho and Eastern Washington. Problem was, when McGuire went by his high school a few months later to evaluate some younger players, Dillard hadn’t gotten any bigger. McGuire thought, “Oh, sh*t! We’re in trouble.”

But Dillard, nicknamed Starvin’ Marvin by the staff, got up to 265 pounds by his freshman season and 280 by his redshirt freshman season, when he ended the year as the starting left tackle. He played at 305 last year, yet throughout his career he ranked among the team leaders for the fastest 10- and 20-yard splits.

“The kid really busted his ass, and he’s a freak in the weight room,” McGuire says. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he ran the 40 in the 4.8s at the combine.”

McGuire says offensive line is the most over-recruited position because every team is trying to sign three to six each year. “It’s not like a quarterback where you only take one,” he says. “We were also able to evaluate off senior tape. That was huge for us. I was able to evaluate more tape and kids at an older age, so that means you get an added nine months of growth and development.

“What helped us is we had a profile. My advantage was (Mike) Leach always allowed me to take five. So you could take a shot on a kid like Dillard and be willing to miss. I’ll probably hit on two or three.”

Mike Sherman, the former Green Bay Packers head coach, put together perhaps the best O-line class in the modern era of recruiting in 2010 at Texas A&M. Among what was ranked as the nation’s No. 16 class were three future first-round offensive linemen: Jake Matthews, Luke Joeckel and Cedric Ogbuehi. 

“We had criteria — does he fit our program?” Sherman says. “We wanted to make sure he had the height and arm length and we wanted to see his athleticism. I always loved it to watch him play basketball to see how he jumps and moves lateral. The attitude part was also big. Does he want to be an O-lineman, and not because he has to be an O-lineman?”

Sherman tried to stick to his criteria. His old boss in Green Bay once told him, “There’s always an exception, but you don’t want to turn around and have a team full of exceptions. You have to remember why you opened that door for the exception.” 

Also in that 2010 Aggies class was a two-star recruit ranked as the No. 139 guard prospect in the country, Jarvis Harrison. Sherman remembers being impressed watching the 6-4, 330-pound Harrison on the basketball court in high school, noting how he could jump and move well laterally and that he had big hands. 

“I thought he’d be as good as anybody,” Sherman says of Harrison, who started for two seasons at A&M before getting drafted in the fifth round and having a brief NFL career.

Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren produced five first- or second-round players in his seven seasons as Stanford’s offensive line coach. For him, the hardest thing to evaluate with line prospects is their ability to pass block. 

“You just don’t see ’em in pass protection against enough good guys,” Bloomgren says, adding that it’s also tough to gauge because you don’t know what they’re being taught. “In pass protection sometimes you just get out-athleted and guys don’t know how to compensate. For tackle play, it’s an elite dance.”

Asked for a typical reason why his team would miss on an O-lineman, LSU’s Ed Orgeron says it’s usually because they didn’t do a good enough evaluation in camp. Sometimes it is a misread on a kid’s athleticism, perhaps he is top-heavy — which can certainly be the case when you looking at 300-plus-pound high schoolers who are used to mauling lesser competition. But as for the more likely reason for missing, he says, “It’ll get back to their want-to and their heart.”

Judging a player’s desire and attitude is often the hardest thing to get a read on, Sherman says.

Getting to know the kind of person who you are recruiting — what makes them tick, how tough they are, or just how important football is to them — is harder now than ever because the recruiting calendar has sped up so much. 

“You can kinda get to know them over social media,” Kelly says. “Nowadays, a lot of kids don’t like talking over the phone. That’s the hard part. How well can you get to know him based on the rules now? Camps are an important part. You have to see how they work. You get them in camp and you want to see what can this kid pick up when we start doing drill work? What type of learner is he?”

McLeod, who runs Duke’s recruiting operation, says everybody recruits the same 40 offensive linemen. “And then you get past them, it’s like who are we gonna get? That’s why camp is so important. But now everybody’s throwing out those meaningless offers and kids don’t even want to come to camp.”

In 2002, Eric Winston came to the University of Miami as a four-star tight end. The 6-7 Texan switched to offensive tackle before his sophomore season and played more than a decade in the NFL, starting 127 games. The younger brother of an NFL scout, Winston spent a lot of time delving into the weeds of O-line play and evaluation. 

“I think this goes for every position, and this is why I think we fell off in Miami, coaches are always just looking for finished products,” he says. “They’re not willing to let a guy go that doesn’t fit their system. If you’re Iowa, they have that sound outside-zone system. That’s what they do. The 340-pound road grader doesn’t fit their system. They know exactly what they’re looking for. They don’t really give a (crap) about the star system. They’ll take that two-star guy.

“Kids have gotten so much bigger these days. Everybody thinks a guy that weighs 310 as a high school junior is a good thing. I think that’s a negative. He’s gonna have knee problems. They’re not athletic. They may look the part, but they may not be really athletes. Coaches are usually trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. You have this shift where kids are trying to look like at 16 what they’re looking like at 21, and I think it’s setting ’em back. You also have people pushing the single-sport thing and these coaches are idiots. I played with very few guys on the O-line in the NFL that didn’t letter in another sport in high school. That athleticism in basketball or baseball or running track carries over. Thinking on the move always helped me in football.

The two best offensive linemen Winston played with in his NFL career, he says, are Andrew Whitworth — “He’s 6-7, 330 pounds and he’s a single-digit handicap in golf” — and Duane Brown, a high school basketball and track star who also came in as a tight end. “He was on kickoff (coverage) as an offensive lineman,” Winston says.

“That mental side is hard to project,” Winston adds. “As an offensive lineman, you gotta be happy with none of the glory and all of the fault. You’re gonna go through some growing pains. What kind of hardship have you gone through? A lot of five-stars always thought they were really good because of who they are, and not how they worked.”

Maybe the fastest-rising offensive line prospect in the country this fall was a kid in Ohio who played offensive tackle as a junior last season at 205 pounds. In the summer before his senior season, Ron Carr went to a football camp at Notre Dame. Actually, it was Notre Dame College of Ohio. “It was close by and they invited me,” he said this past weekend. He also went to camps at Ohio State, Michigan and Yale, where he was impressive enough to get an offer.

A big focus for Carr, he says, has been gaining weight, loading up on lean meats. He says he sometimes eats six meals a day. College coaches knew genetics were on his side. His mom is 6 feet. His dad is 6-8. Carr also is relatively young for his grade, turning 17 in August.

 

Carr as a junior, then as a senior. (Photos courtesy of Ron Carr)

He didn’t check up on the recruiting sites to see where he rated or whom other schools might be chasing. “I just didn’t want to get caught up in those rankings,” says Carr, now listed by 247Sports as the No. 76 offensive tackle prospect in the 2019 class. 

Don’t be shocked if Carr moves up the board quite a bit. He’s now 6-4, 245. Earlier in the fall, Duke and Vanderbilt offered him scholarships. “The way the recruiting services (that college programs utilize) work now is that once a school offers a kid, other recruiting offices get emails notifying them,” one Power 5 recruiting coordinator says. “It’s like a bat signal.”

And when word gets out that a Stanford or a Duke has offered a kid, many other schools figure the prospect must be a pretty good student. In early November, USC offered Carr after one of the Trojan staffers who goes through Ivy League recruits for possible walk-on candidates noticed that he’d added a Vandy offer. Two days later, Carr officially decommitted from Yale. One month later, Carr committed to Duke.

Carr told The Athletic he wants to major in evolutionary anthropology and hopes to become a physical therapist. 

“This kid is athletic as all get out,” says one college coach who had been hoping to land Carr. “He’s got talent, length and ability.”

For most college coaches, that’s a good place to start.

What’s a story about O-linemen without some leftovers? Here are seven other things that you might be interested to know.

1. Mike Bloomgren’s three evaluation keys for O-linemen: Their ability to bend, understand leverage and it’s the desire to finish. Or as the Patriots legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnechhia says, “it’s tough enough, smart enough and athletic enough.”

2. Washington State’s projection business deserves a lot of credit: It all started for the Cougars when FCS transfer Joe Dahl showed up in 2012. “He walked in the building at 250,” says Clay McGuire. “He played at 305 in his senior year. He took (Andre) Dillard under his wing. And he worked his ass off because Joe did.”

Washington State also took an H-back and DE named Cole Madison in 2013, a 6-5, 245-pound kid, who was trying keep his weight down. Then in 2016, they took a guy who reminded them a lot of Dillard named Abe Lucas, whose only other offer was Wyoming. “He was even taller but was only about 245 in his junior year. He was a tight end/D-end, but we convinced him that he was an O-lineman and he got up to 265 by his senior year and then he was 280  by the time he arrived. He could be pretty special. He has Dillard’s type of athleticism and he’s even longer. He’ll probably top out at 320.”

3. One coach says they tease one of their assistants about missing on an eval on an O-line prospect who was 6-2, 250 but had decent length and moved really well. The assistant had said, “He’ll never be big enough.” That kid is Tremayne Anchrum, who is now 6-2, 310 and starts at left tackle for Clemson and just made second-team All-ACC.

4. Sometimes facing inferior competition can work against an O-lineman. When Herb Hand thinks of “genetic ass-kicking” skewing what he’s seeing on high school film, it’s often of a super-sized player dominating a guy who probably couldn’t even play at the Division III level. “It doesn’t have anything to do with their technique and fundamentals, but then on the flip side, you might have this guy at 6-6 and they don’t look great on film playing against a guy who is 5-10, 210. But then when they get to college, they actually become better facing guys more their own size because it’s hard to get leverage on a guy who is 5-10, so people think, “He’s playing high.”

5. The musings of one college coach when talking about recruiting, especially O-linemen: “No one lies about their weight. They all lie about their height.”

6. Perhaps the biggest outlier Kirk Ferentz has had in an O-lineman was Marshall Yanda: “He was the contradiction,” Ferentz says. “He looked kinda funky doing anything. He’s not pretty. We went two months wondering if we made a mistake, but all he does is block everybody.”

7. What makes former five-star OL Andrew Whitworth so good? Former teammate Eric Winston said the 37-year-old Whitworth, a four-time Pro Bowler, could always watch film and pick up something. “He’s just very perceptive and learned a lot. And people don’t realize how athletic he is. You see the athleticism when he opens up and his ability to bend, you see it when he moves. He’s an economy of motion. He never takes more steps than he needs to. He’s worked at it so much. He’s kind of perfected the craft.”

TheAthletic.com

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SAS
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DE Laiatu Latu committed to Washington.

I guess we know why the two JC DE’s were late to the party.
Drake Jackson is probably going to ASU.
We may be losing Jordan Wilmore but we may have landed the RB from Louisiana.

But overall tomorrow is supposed to be a bad day and probably a wake up call.

Jamaica
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Interesting article and there is a lot to take from it. So many ramifications to consider. The frame, the desire, the smartness…. You still see the top programs seeking 4 & 5-star linement and they keep winning games.

Linkster
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Good article. IMO, It all starts with the players. In 1962 Casey Stengel coached the Yankees to a championship. The next year he managed the Mets to the worst record in the majors. Did Casey get stupid in six months? No, he had crappy players. USC lost its focus in what wins games. It is not all receivers and running backs. You start with basics – guys in the trenches. We have had crappy players on the OL. It is hard to coach up crap. Until we get quality players up front it is hard to evaluate coaches. We lost… Read more »

UtahTrojan
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I know I am in the minority here, but I think Drevno will do a good job. He did a good job with our OL the first time and I think he had them showing some improvement at the end of the year (albeit a vary small improvement). Everybody wants to trash him for the horrible job he did as an offensive coordinator role at Michigan, but he is not our OC.

USCJojo
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He was the O-line coach at Stanford and Michigan when Harbaugh took over those programs. He did a pretty good job as an OC while at San Diego State with Harbaugh. One of the problems the o-line is having is Heltons fault. He tries to fix mistakes on film and not on the practice field. He does not discipline nor hold any player accountable. There is no focus to details which causes constant mistakes. Their success next year will be determined on their spring and fall practices. If there is no attention to detail or physical practices, expect it to… Read more »