Why Offensive Line Play is Similar to Mathematics EDIT: Now w/ more SC

Submitted by Pit2047 on August 27th, 2014 at 6:59 AM

Because the one thing we haven't done is talk about the OL enough this offseason, I would like to address some misconceptions about what OL recruting rankings actually mean and what it takes to play OL on the collegiate level.

First up on the mound, recruiting rankings.  Recruiting sites rate offensive lineman on pro potential, not college readiness and "pro protential" for a high school lineman is bascally looking at your frame (aka height and arm length) and how well you move your feet.  This is why a guy like LTT, who barely knows what he's doing can be a consensus 4*.  Scouts saw long arms, wide hips, light feet and 6'7" and named him one of the top 10 high school tackles in the country and all he did to earn that ranking was grow, it had almost nothing to do with his play on the field.  When sites say Kyle Kalis is "college ready," they mean he is 6'5" and has 300 lbs of good weight and that's about it.  These guys are graded on the physical part of the game which is only about 10% of what it takes to be a good lineman.  HOWEVER, it is important because it is the first 10% and if you can't hold up physically, it doesn't matter how good the rest of your game is because DL will just bench press you out of the way as seen here.

 Joey Burzynski(LG) is stiff armed by CJ Olaniyan and gets no movement.  While it helps, having an NFL body is not required to be good in college and there are plenty of examples of players who dominate in college but struggle to make NFL rosters (see David Molk).  What makes those guys special is the level of technique they play with and the ability to anticipate the defense.

Which brings us to the main point of this diary, OL play is basically football math.  Think of every play as a math problem, and offensive lineman have to figure the solution to the problem in their heads presnap, while alsonknowing the problem may change as soon as the ball is snapped, meaning that they have to figure out the solution to the problem at hand and anticipate every way it can change and solve those problems as well, all in the space off the few seconds they have once the defense aligns.  This is why a certain long haired blogger we all know and love screams at his television every fall Saturday for the offense to hurry to the line of scrimmage, so the line (and the QB) can have more time to solve the defensive equation.  Every second not at the line of scrimmage solving the defense is a second wasted, and a win for the defense.  

College OL play is like Calculus, and 95% of lineman come into college with a just basic understanding of simple arithmetic(Addition, subtraction, mulitplication and division) and some come in basically knowing how to count (LTT).  This is because the vast majority of high school offensive line coaches have the equivelent of an 8th grade education in line concepts if they're lucky and the physical advantage a lot of these guys have in high school makes the equations they face pretty easy.  At that stage, it is about 80-90% physical and 10-20% mental, because the DL that can challenge them physically are few and far between and overpowering guys doesn't take much brain power.  Once they get to college, the physical advantage goes away and defensive equations get much more complicated and they have to realize that they have to learn real math, which can be shocking to some guys.  It is the job of the offensive line coach to take these guys who are coming in at some level of elementary school math and get them up to speed. They have to learn the high school level concepts of algebra (run blocking), geometry(identifying who to block) and precalc (pass blocking) before they can even dream of doing calculus i.e. getting on the field.  Every different play and protection scheme has its own set of techniques and they change for every different front the defense throws at you.  Offensive line man have to know what foot to step with first, in what direction and how far, what their aiming point is, who they are supposed to block, how they are supposed to block them when they get there, where each hand goes, where their head goes, and where their eyes should be looking, all while remembering to play with good knee bend and pad level.  All of this has been calculated down to inch level precision and each mistake opens you up to exploitiation by the defense so you have to be perfect, and even then there is no guarantee that the play is successful because everyone else has to do their job too.  And they have to learn all that so well that they can do it in their heads so fast they barely think about it, because if every play is a Calc problem, you can't be struggling with the algebra because there is no way you can solve and execute the solution in time to make your block.  This largley is what lineman are doing their first 2-3 years on campus, along with getting in the weight room, and why they shouldn't see the field on a good team.  For most guys, things start to click in their 3rd year on campus, which explains why most players on the line who meets this criteria under Funk have at least put forth solid production.  

Last year, Borges demanded that a line where the most experience guard (post GG to center) was a RS FR, the equivelent of about a High School Sophomore mathematically, to solve differential equations, limits, integrals and applied calculus.  The young guys understandably got overwhelmed and didn't improve as much as they could have and when they didn't, they got taken out, further stalling said improvement.  That is one the biggest reasons we have a new OC, because the responsiblity of a Coordinator is to put their players in the best possible position to succeed and Borges didn't do that nearly enough.  What we don't is if Funk is a good Math teacher because this will be the first year the 2012 class (his first full class) should be expected to fully understand what they are doing.  The only players Funk has had the oppurtunity to mold from scratch are Glasgow and Miller, Glasgow has worked out well and Miller didn't meet the requirements for the physical 10%, which is not on anybody but Miller. Whether they come in as a 5* (Kalis, Kugler), 4*(LTT, Bosch, Dawson, Mags, Cole) or even a 3* (Braden, Samuelson) they all must learn the mental part of the game to have any sort of positive production.

What we should be looking for this year if fot the RS Sophomores to be around where Glasgow and Schofield were in 2013 and 2011 respectively.  By the Ohio game we should have a middling B1G OL, we won't be good, but we shouldn't be the tire fire of last year either.  I think we had the possibility of being 10-1 heading to Columbus with a loss at MSU and competing for a title.  If we see more of what we saw last year, it is probably time to start looking for a new OL coach.

EDIT:  Space Coyote actually has two great write up on pass blocking techniques and schemes on Maize 'N' Brew:

Technique: LINK

Scheme: LINK




August 27th, 2014 at 9:22 AM ^

while recruiting kids.  Perhaps a 3* kid with really sharp mind is much better to have than a 5* kid who is slow.  May be that is why Cole could be playing and LTT warming the benches.

The question is whether Funk, which I suppose recruits/evaluates all OL players, looks at their college potential or at their pro potential.


August 27th, 2014 at 10:23 AM ^

Ted Spencer, UM's admissions director, had the following to say in the recent SI article on Hoke:

"“He is looking for kids who will both academically be successful and whose character is strong enough to participate in Big Ten sports and represent the university very well,” Spencer says. “I’m very pleased with the kind of young men he is bringing to us. I give him an A-plus in that area."



August 27th, 2014 at 11:13 AM ^

We are starting these young lineman with ODE and PDE instead of calc I.  They need to go through their 3 semesters of calculus! Though other schools have young lines and some seem to do very well. But may be the teacher is outstanding!


August 27th, 2014 at 11:35 AM ^

Borges's schemes certainly did not help the development of the young OL, but I am not sure that all the shuffling is demanded by him. As the OL coach, did Funk have more say on who to play.

Hoke may still have faith in Funk since he probably had a green light from Brandon to replace him with a high price-tag guy to come with Nuss. 


August 27th, 2014 at 12:10 PM ^

interesting, but watch some parts of the really bad games and what stood out to me was it was very seldom  a total failure. there was always a breakdown somewhere, and quite often it was a back that missed the hole or made poor choices on the play. this year will tell you everthing beacause you have more experience coupled with new leadership. think about it if you cant make big strides from last year to now, then why would they ever improve? it wont just happen beacause one more year goes by.


August 27th, 2014 at 12:36 PM ^

Very good logic and I agree. 

But have to ask...how do you explain Patrick Omameh looking good as a red-shirt freshman in Rodriguez scheme and then looking totally foolish and inept as a 5th year senior under Borges, and now poised to be an NFL-starter for TB?



August 27th, 2014 at 1:07 PM ^

this is why football is such a great game. i coached for 20 years at many levels, the one thing i can tell you is unless you coach on the field with the players and then studied hours of tape even the coaches them selves cant not say for sure what the real problem is. but a football team really is made up of other smaller teams which are called units of course. one breakdown anywhere happening over and over make you a very inconsistent football team. thus experience over the long run will make a big difference over time. if these coaches are good you will know by the results of this year.


August 27th, 2014 at 1:16 PM ^

but Omameh's performance was bad enough that most people thought his departure was a good thing and the OL play "couldn't get worse".

Experience matters, sure, but this year's OL is less experienced than last years. On the high end, you had two NFL bound 5th year seniors and now you're most veteran guy are (at best) two RS Jrs who have only a handful of starts to their name.  On the low end (least-experienced) you're starting a true freshman LT compared to RS Freshman last year. In aggregate, the starting lineup this year is less experienced than last years.

So, if you acknowledge that this OL is less experienced, do you also expect it to perform worse? I do not, because I expect the coaching to be better and the problems that last year attempted to mask to be faced head-on.


August 27th, 2014 at 1:27 PM ^

it isnt just one thing or player you look at and say, oh there is the problem.they must work together as a unit, and you could field an all soph line if the chemistry was better and you had solid rbs. by the way you look at some of last years film and it was very common for lewan and or schofield to be the problem. remember they where both drafted  beacause of potential and their physical skills that pro coaches believe they can develop.


August 27th, 2014 at 8:10 PM ^

from what I could see is he could not pull to save his life.  This thought was confirmed by opposing players in Michael Spath anonymous quotes after the season.  He was very good at pass pro and zone blocking but struggled with the man blocking scheme Borges implemented that year.  The problem with the 2012 line IMO was we didn't have a center and struggled to adjust and make line calls in game to get every one on the same page.  The worst blocker I thought by far was Barnum so idk why you chose to call out Omameh.  I thought it was strange last year that people were saying it couldn't get any worse because while we weren't that great at run blocking, we weren't awful and we were actually a pretty good pass blocking team.  Go back and watch the Outback Bowl, that was a very good SEC DL and for the most part we stoned them.  Last year I was worried about the freshman and Miller because he was undersized, and I was proven right.  This year I'm worried about the left side in the run game and hoping that they can at least stay in front of guys it the passing game and not get destroyed physically.  I'm in a wait and see mode on Miller because he gained the weight.  Braden is the guy I have the most hope for, he has got a great punch and if he learns how to latch on and finish blocks he could turn into a dominate run blocker.  He will also get his a-- handed to him in pass pro about 3-4 time a game because he's not done developing there yet but I'm hoping he holds up for the most part.  I have no idea what to expect out of Kalis, he needed to realized he can bully people and REALLY work on his footwork.  Graham will be a monster because he hails from the clan of Glasgow.


August 27th, 2014 at 2:26 PM ^

Not sure if this was intentional or not but its interesting to me how you listed each discipline in terms of relative difficulty (run blocking easier than block identification easier than pass pro). I naively though that pass pro was easier for young linemen to execute than run blocking since it seems to be less of a test of straight-up strength.

Can you expand on what skills/traits are needed for run blocking vs pass pro?

Is run blocking less demenading mentally but requires more physical development thus takng 2-3 years of development to really become successful?

Thanks for sharing.


August 27th, 2014 at 8:42 PM ^

Run blocking is basically go forward and hit somebody, there is a lot of technique to it and its mostly about footwork to put you in position to better hit said body but is the most enjoyable for lineman.  You ask them and they would rather run the ball down peoples throats. 

Identifying is different for every front and alignment the defense throws at you.  It matters if a guy is lined directly front of you, shaded play side or back side, in the gap etc.  All of that changes your footwork and if you have help or not.  And that's just presnap, that's not even counting slants, angles, blitzes from various positions, and stunts that happen after the snap you have to adjust to almost instantly.

Pass pro is an art.  Pass pro is extemely hard, there is a reason the great ones are usually the second highest paid player on NFL teams.  Space Coyote actually has two pretty good write ups to give you an idea of what players have to know that I will put up in the OP.


August 27th, 2014 at 2:39 PM ^

Nice analogy. When I clicked on this, I was worried you'd say that olinemen were line mathematicians because they peak at a young age.