Reading between the offensive lines
DCTF's Greg Tepper explains what he looks for when scouting offensive line recruits.
It’s important to be honest, so here’s a moment of honesty: I am by no means an elite talent evaluator.
Folks like DCTF’s resident talent evaluator and scout Randy Rodgers dwarf my knowledge of how to judge players’ acumen. Seriously, if you ever have a chance to talk to Randy, he will make you feel like you don’t know fact one about the game of football and how it’s played. He’s that good.
But from talking with a variety of talent evaluators, and in reading extensively on scouting, it’s possible to gain at least a decent idea of what to look for in scouting high school football prospects.
To me, one of the most difficult to understand positions to evaluate for the average fan is the offensive line. What are college coaches looking for when they recruit an offensive lineman?
In this space, I’d like to provide a small overview of what you, as a fan, can look for when looking at an offensive lineman. Now remember: I don’t claim this to be complete – you’d need to go to someone like Randy Rodgers for that. But here is a general overview of what scouts are looking for in an offensive lineman, and what you can look for when you watch highlight videos of recruits (hundreds of which you can see with our Extreme Access subscription, available in the TexasFootball.com store).
This one should be pretty self-explanatory. You obviously don’t want your starting left tackle to be 5-6 and 140 pounds. There’s no “minimum” size for an offensive lineman, but it matters how you’re filled out. If a prospect is 6-4 and 260 pounds, he’s got a lot more room to fill and remain athletic than, say, someone who is 6-1 and 290 pounds. And it matters where the size is; a great big fat kid who is thick around the middle isn’t going to be much use, since it likely affects his athleticism. Ideally, you’re looking for someone who is tall and relatively heavy, but with muscle rather than fat, with long arms (especially for the tackle spots).
It’s like Chubbs said in Happy Gilmore: “It’s all in the hips.” When you’re watching a prospect, take careful note of his hips, specifically how he uses them in blocking. Ideally, he will load his hips (dropping them, squaring them to his target and keeping them back), then explode with the hips, driving his hips through the target in order to best maximize his leverage. This is most certainly something that can be taught (unlike, you know, size), but the truly elite players will be blocking with their hips and not just their size.
[And on the bigger issue of technique: when a player is 6-5 and 300 pounds in high school, he can usually dominate with just his size. It’s so important to pay attention to his hips and the other things listed in this piece to determine if this is a guy who is just big, or a big guy who can play offensive line at the next level. There’s a huge difference.]
The key phrase is “knee bend.” Do a small exercise for me: stand up, right where you are. How straight are your knees? Chances are, they’re pretty straight; after all, that’s how most of us live. But that is a dangerous spot for an offensive lineman to be in. Instead, he needs to have good knee bend rather than bending at the waist, as that will allow them the mobility to stay with blocks longer. Furthermore, knee bend – when combined with a straight back – will give the blocker a sturdy base from which to block, making it a lot less likely that they will get knocked over. Just remember: straight knees are bad, bent knees are good.
I’m as guilty as anyone in praising a player for having “good feet.” What does that even mean? Once again, another exercise for you: stand up and walk to the wall across the room from you. How many steps did it take you to get there? Did you go in a straight line? Did you waste steps and motion? Unless something was in your way, chances are you didn’t. The same thing applies to offensive linemen: linemen with “good feet” are both quick to their target and take direct routes to them. The best chance to see this in action is when players are asked to pull (that is, to drop-step and move to the opposite side of the line in order to provide extra blocking). How clean is the drop step? How direct of a route to their target do they take? Do they waste motion or steps? How quickly do they get there? All of these things matter, and go into the evaluation of a player’s feet.
Another thing that seems simple and, really, is when you think about it. Ideally, you want to see a player strike with his hands, then quickly reload and strike again; you never want to see an offensive lineman who has to wind up his hands, as that wastes valuable time and energy. Beyond that, you want to see a player keep his hands inside; obviously, if the hands tend to stray outside the shoulders, they’re a lot more likely to be called for holding.
This is obviously the hardest one to measure, but it can often be the most important. How does he play? What kind of attitude does he bring to the field? Is he always looking for someone else to block downfield on big plays? Does he take plays off? Is he, well, mean? I know these seem like intangibles – and they are, which makes me feel icky, since I usually try to ignore intangibles – but aggressiveness can be the difference between a good prospect and an elite one.
Greg Tepper is the associate editor of Dave Campbell's Texas Football and TexasFootball.com.