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PULLMAN, WA - APRIL 9: Washington State Cougars football program takes to Rogers Field for spring practice

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Paralysis by analysis

Or: Why sometimes offensive lineman forget to move.

Jack Ellis/CougCenter

This is the next installment in our series of stories previewing the 2022 Washington State Cougars football season. Other installments can be found here.

You sit at a four-foot-long desk, topped with nothing but a white binder, a cheap-but-empty clothes hamper, and your left elbow. The binder is about two and a half inches think and contains nothing but squares, circles and arrows which you have been assured diagram football plays.

You are a true freshman offensive lineman, sitting in your dorm room at Streit/Perham, trying to learn some of the plays you will be expected to run for the first time in practice, precisely three hours and twenty-seven minutes from now. Slightly panicking, you call your position coach on the phone and ask which position along the line you will be expected to play. Left guard, he tells you, slightly taken aback that you would actually call him, but certainly more pleased than annoyed that you did. Probably. Hopefully.

Regardless, you spend the next two hours or so learning the numbering scheme, a few of the play names (colors are pass plays, numbers are run plays, and weird stuff is more than you can figure out right now), and what the left guard does on the plays you understand. Though you can’t quite be sure how you’re expected do to them. The playbook kind of says what the technique should look like, and it totally makes sense … expect when it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Undaunted, and with plenty of time to get dressed and ready, you dash off to the locker room.

On your way, you wonder if you really should pick a fight with the biggest guy you can find in practice today, like your high school coach suggested, but ultimately decide against such an action.

After warmups, you jog over to the offensive line’s section of the field for individuals, and the first thing your coach does is place everyone in a depth chart. Vaugh is the starting left tackle, Bobby the starting left guard, Kenny the starting center, Dan the starting right guard, etc. etc. You can see how this is going, relax, and start slowly gravitating towards where the third string left guard will inevitably be asked to stand.

But something happens.

You hear your name too early. They haven’t gotten to the third string yet, they haven’t gotten back to the left side of the line at all yet. They’re on the backup right tackle position, and inexplicably your coach has just called your name. Huh?

Your consternation makes its way into your eyes, which makes your coach chuckle, and your hesitation makes everyone else tense. It’s time to go to your appointed position, and who are you walking into the twos as a freshman?

“Things change fast around here son!” There is vigor in your coach’s voice, not to mention a good helping of mirth as he points to a spot two yards behind Micah, the starting right tackle. Your coach is clearly pleased to have confounded you without having coached you yet, and upon reflection, you think he was also pretty happy to have caused a bit of tension across the unit by placing a true freshman in the twos before he ever played a snap in practice.

Somewhere across the multiverse, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is an offensive line coach.

If I’ve done it justice, you have imagined my first few hours as a player for the Washington State Cougars. My coach was George Yarno, and while I didn’t play for him past that season, he taught me a valuable lesson that day: Things do, indeed, happen fast in football.

This is especially true for the offensive line when it comes to positioning. Tackles become guards, left guards become right guards, centers become right guards, and so on and so forth. In truth, it is never really what is best for the individual. Everyone benefits from staying put and becoming familiar with the eccentricities each position offers to those who seek to become black belts. However, it is almost universally best for the team to have at least one player become versed at multiple positions.

Often it is necessary to have all players major in one spot and minor in another. The best line is one that is the most capable, and the reality is that your backup right guard might be much better than your backup left tackle, so coaches do what they must to put the five best guys out there.

It’s a reality that made my first hours of anxious studying totally useless to me at my first practice on Rogers Field. In the long run it was still beneficial, as I was asked to play all five positions on the line that fall, but in the moment, I was a touch distraught at the little gift of chaos Coach Yarno had handed me.

Because here is the thing about offensive line play: It’s complicated.

Each play has an assignment for you to do. That assignment is impacted by where the defense lines up, and by where they go after the play starts. On top of that, each play has a specified technique, with is dictated by a given play’s assignment and a given defense’s alignment. Many of those techniques will be used by all five positions on the line, but rarely all at the same time, and at the highest levels of football, each technique needs to be tweaked depending on which position you are playing.

This is especially true of the center position, which comes with the added benefit of beginning each play with your hand stuck between your legs while still carrying the same expectations of your ability to understand your assignment, see the alignment of the defense, and execute the correct technique at a high level. Shoot, typically the center also has to make all the line calls, so you lose a hand and gain a responsibility for your trouble.*

*Oh, and of course centers need to snap the ball too. My first snap that fall, which doubled as my first snap ever, somehow went over the head of our 6’7” backup QB. George insisted it looked like “a bad long snap! What the hell are you doing!” What I was doing was staring directly into the eyes of our starting nose guard. Whom I was recalling watching on TV less than a year prior.

Before we move on to why I’m sharing all of this in the first place (I’m getting there, I promise), let me explain the two basic types of run plays a lineman might be asked to understand.

Sometimes, a run play has a specific place in mind. The play caller has determined that there is a gap, or a spot across the defensive front, that they think we can take advantage of. So they call a play that is intended to go to that specific place on the field. I like to call those ‘gap’ run pays, and in that kind of a scheme, lineman need to execute a specific subset of techniques to make it work. This involves footwork, aiming points, coordination with the player to your left and/or right, and — of course — excellent and varied usage of your hands.

Other times the play caller calls a zone play, or a running play that has no particular place on the field in mind at all. The point is to just get the defense moving one way or another and let the running back find the weak spot as things get rolling. Understandably, bringing about that intention requires an entirely different subset of techniques from the offensive lineman — entirely different footwork, aiming points, coordination, and usage of your hands.

To get one level deeper here (I pinky promise we’re getting to the occasion for this message), a gap scheme and a zone scheme will both typically require a double team or two up front. However, depending on which type of scheme being called, the purpose of that double team is different. The definition of ‘success’ for that double team is different. The technique used to accomplish that double team is different. IT’S ALL DIFFERENT.

That’s even before we get to pass plays, and for the sake of brevity let’s just get to the point here.

Offensive line play is complicated.

That is before you have guys bouncing from one side to the other. Tackle to guard, etc. While no lineman would consider it a gift to pass block as often as Mike Leach asked his lineman to, in some ways, it actually simplified the job.

By running so rarely and carrying such a limited number of running plays, there was less stuff for each position to learn. Even if they flip flopped hither and dither across the line, players could focus on the details of pass blocking in a pretty unique way. Leach also insisted on wider gaps between offensive lineman, which would have made the pass blocking technique used by each position a bit more similar than in offenses which keep their lineman a bit tighter together.

While passing so much under Leach might have made line play a bit simpler, it certainly didn’t make the job easier. Dealing with a defensive lineman unafraid of having to play the run is akin to dealing with a shark that smells blood in the water. However, the hyper focus of the task must have made it easier to develop athletes for the position because it gave coaches and players more time to master those specific techniques. The lack of tight ends in the program likely made it easier to bring in a few more lineman to develop along the way as well.

As a program, we are no longer in that world. We are asking our athletes to master run blocking and pass blocking. Gap schemes, and I imagine zone schemes, though that is yet to be seen. Add in the fact that fall camp reports have featured a near daily churn on who is playing which position, left moving to right, guards moving to tackle, etc. as the coaching staff tries to find the best five or six guys available, as well as the reality that 15 of the 20 lineman in the program are in their first two years of college football, and … well … there might be some head bobbing and paralysis-by-analysis** going on in the Palouse right now.

**Head Bobbing: Similar but in contrast to head nodding (which someone does to indicate they both hear and understand you). Head bobbing is what a group of athletes do to indicate that they hear their coach, want their coach to believe they understand, but definitely do not understand.

Note: A coach can differentiate between head nodding and head bobbing by paying attention to the intensity, speed and frequency with which an athlete shakes their head in agreement with what they are hearing.

Note: As a coach, I have been accused of inspiring more than my fair share of head bobbing. Though this accusation is typically lobbed by a man who thinks the word “perturbed” is well beyond the understanding of the typical high school football player … so I’ll let you be the judge.

Paralysis-by-analysis: When an athlete freezes in the beginning or middle of a play because their brain can’t quite process everything going through it. Said athletes often resemble the spinning mouse icon common to computers pre 2010 which encountered a problem too large to calculate a solution to in a reasonable amount of time.

Note: As a player, paralysis-by-analysis was absolutely my greatest sin, so all people who think more than is good for them have my sympathies.

All this to say, it could take a little while for our guys up front to settle into the new Air Raid system Eric Morris will be dialing up in a couple of weeks. That said, know this: It will be worth it in the end. Jaws is a great movie, but it’s much better for an offense if we limit the number of sharks we’re dealing with. Hitting defenses in the mouth with some good old fashioned running plays is an excellent development.

If the big boys need a bit of patience, let’s give it to them. After all, no other position in sports plays entirely with its back to the ball. It’s unnatural. They deserve a bit of time to make it all come together.

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