Put it on the line.
That phrase has many meanings to the Missouri offensive line. Aside from the obvious play on words, it has become the rallying cry and T-shirt slogan for a group of guys that has, aside from quarterback Brad Smith, one of the toughest jobs in football.
The offensive line is, perhaps, the most important position in the game. Most coaches would say a good offense starts with a good line. Running backs and quarterbacks routinely give credit to their line for success.
Historically, huge athletes with cruel intentions filled the line. Broadcaster Keith Jackson dubbed offensive linemen the “Big Uglies,” an example of how the stereotype came about. Linemen were supposed to do the dirty work and play nasty in the trenches. Along with brute size and strength, the stereotype has another prerequisite to play on the offensive line, lack of intelligence.
Breaking the stereotypes
Tackle Rob Droege said that pigeonhole is no longer true.
“I don’t think you can find a dumb O-lineman anymore,” Droege said. “There is just too much involved and we have to know pretty much exactly what the quarterback knows. There’s so much scholarly material involved on the offensive line that people don’t even realize.”
Much like the quarterback, offensive linemen must know all of their responsibilities before the game begins. Center A.J. Ricker estimated the line spends 20 hours every week looking for weaknesses on film and preparing for a defense.
On any given play, the linemen must know their assignments (whom they are supposed to block), the direction of the play and the tendencies of the defense. After the huddle, they have about two seconds to recognize the defensive package and make a judgment on whether it will be a blitz.
When the line approaches the ball, it is Ricker’s job to call out the defense to his team. If the quarterback sees something he doesn’t like in the defense, such as a blitz, he can audible. The audible moves from the center to the guard to the tackle and each player adjusts to a new assignment.
When Smith takes the snap from Ricker, the linemen must find their defenders and remember the proper technique. Blocking is more than just hitting a defender; the linemen also have to be in the correct position.
The beginning of the play is probably the most important part. The line must establish, what it calls the “point of attack,” as soon as Ricker snaps the ball. Each lineman picks up his assignment and attempts to turn the defender to an angle where he can’t make a play.
Dave Christensen, MU’s offensive line coach, said the point of attack performance is crucial to the play’s success.
“If you’re at the point of attack and don’t execute your assignment, then the play is not going to work,” Christensen said.
On a tailback sweep to the right, for example, the left guard might have to “pull” to the right to seal off a linebacker and spring the running back for a big gain. Missouri’s run-oriented offense often uses delays and draws.
A typical quarterback draw requires the linemen to know more than assignments and technique. They must also have some acting skills. The linemen sell the play as if it were a straight handoff and hold the block for a little longer than normal to give the idea that it’s a regular running play.
Something as simple as which foot the lineman plants first could determine whether the play succeeds. Each lineman has to know not only where the defenders will be and where the tailback is running, but also, most important, where the other linemen will be.
Guard Tony Palmer said the line being in synch is the most important part of playing the position.
“Everything starts with the offensive line,” Palmer said. “We pretty much control the tempo of the game. Everybody has to know their assignments or we could be in trouble.”
Constantly improving - on and off the field
Each game, Missouri’s offensive line has improved. In the 62-31 win against Texas Tech on Saturday, the group opened huge holes for Smith and tailback Zack Abron, paving the way to 469 rushing yards.
The unit isn’t the nation’s biggest or strongest, but it might be one of the most intelligent, on and off the field. Ricker was Academic All-Big 12 Conference in 2002 and Droege has been on that team for the past three years.
Ricker said the stereotypes of the “dumb” offensive linemen are changing, but nobody can understand everything they do, with two exceptions.
“Those people have probably never played offensive line or never dated (a lineman),” Ricker said.
DROEGE HONORED: Droege was named a National Scholar-Athlete. Droege, the ninth MU football player to earn the award, will be honored with the 14 other winners Dec. 9 in New York City.
Droege, who graduated with summa cum laude honors in May, is an education administration graduate student.
He will receive an $18,000 post-graduate scholarship.