A major concern as the season has progressed has been the number of hits quarterback Jeff Tuel takes on a weekly basis. He's been sacked an NCAA-high 29 times -- a rate of over four per game -- and we know from watching the games that the total would be a heck of a lot higher than that if Tuel wasn't as elusive in the pocket as he is.
With news that starting left tackle David Gonzales has broken his arm and is lost for the season, devising a way to overcome that and keep Tuel's head attached to his shoulders would seem to be job No. 1 this weekend. Paul Wulff has said that for this team to realize its potential, it has to have Tuel under center. It's absolutely true: He needs every snap he can get to be as developed as possible heading into a 2011 season that is brimming with potential.
So, what's a good plan for protecting Tuel against the Cardinal?
First off, I like the move of John Fullington to left tackle from right tackle, where he was starting while Micah Hannam was out. Continuity is paramount on an offensive line -- one only need to look at what happened when Wade Jacobson moved to left tackle after Gonzales' injury for evidence -- and moving Fullington allows Hannam to return to the spot he's manned for three years. Jacobson, Zack Williams and B.J. Guerra all stay where they are, meaning there will really only be one guy on the line playing a new position on Saturday. That's important.
Is Fullington ready for primetime? Highly unlikely, no matter what Wulff believes his ceiling is. So he's going to need plenty of help on Saturday.
How best to do that? In an ideal world, you use tight ends to double team the end giving the tackle trouble. But the reality is that our tight ends have struggled mightily in pass protection this year and last. The last we saw major action for the tight ends, against SMU, Tuel was getting sacked four times. It certainly wasn't all their fault, but they weren't real helpful, either.
Because the tight ends are young and not real strong, defensive coordinators had a field day with the Cougs, simply sending blitzers through the B gaps (the gap between the guards and tackles) to force the tackle to block down -- the No. 1 rule of pass protection is to protect from the inside-out -- leaving the tight end singled up with the end. You saw how that ended up more often than not. If the tackles and guards didn't block down? Well, you saw how that turned out against SMU, too. (And pretty much every team in 2009.)
The game against USC saw a fundamental shift in philosophy on offense -- more wide receivers, practically no tight ends, and quicker throws. Most often, you saw what coaches call 10 (one back, no tight ends) or 20 (two back, no tight ends) personnel. Sacks haven't become non-existent, but Tuel has generally had more time, I think.
Faced with the challenge of slowing down Stanford's pass rush with a banged up offensive line, I hope Todd Sturdy and Paul Wulff resist the urge to play the tight ends more. It's a disaster waiting to happen. I think 20 personnel is the way to go the majority of the time.
Using running backs to help in pass protection serves a number of functions. From a blocking perspective, they can be much more fluid and dynamic. Blitzers up the middle? They can pick them up, leaving the strongest blockers -- the tackles -- to handle ends. They also can step up and pick up the first man beat if it's a straight four-man rush and a guard gets his you-know-what handed to him. Or, they can chip or straight help on an end that a tackle is having difficulty with.
Tight ends, on the other hand, are fairly limited and require a bit of coordination with the rest of the line -- a line they haven't really been playing with for a month.
Additionally, running backs are better receiving options, should the opportunity present itself. Our tight ends have exactly one catch this season. The running backs don't have a ton more, but James Montgomery and Logwone Mitz are capable. Montgomery has dropped his fair share of passes, but you might remember that receiving was one of his real strong suits last year before getting hurt. That skill is still in there. If Stanford gets too aggressive, there's much more opportunity for punishing them with a screen than there ever would be by sending this group of tight ends into the pattern. They also can leak out fairly easily into the flat after chipping.
Lastly, there's also a credible running threat with three- and four-wide sets. These guys have shown they can run at times when the defense is spread out, and this gives them that option.
Of course, using running backs as personal protectors for the quarterback requires smart, tough running backs who aren't afraid to throw their body in front of bigger, stronger defenders. Again, I think Montgomery and Mitz have proven to fit this bill -- as has Marcus Richmond.
Look, I'm not completely down on the tight ends; it's just that their time hasn't come yet. They're not ready for this yet. And it's vital that Tuel make it out of this game alive. You can make a strong argument that each of the last four games is winnable. But that's probably only the case if Tuel is the one directing the offense.