While no competition captures the American attention span quite like football does, perhaps no position group across any major sport is less heralded --and less understood-- than the offensive line.
Though fans might not be as passionate about sports like hockey and soccer, they often have a better grasp on the role of forwards and defensemen than they do guards and tackles.
But for any football team to be successful, it's the work of the guards, tackles and centers that lifts a team up and enables skill position players to become household names. Without the blocks set by Arizona State left guard Sam Jones, there is no N'Keal Harry. Without the plays made by the Sun Devils' right tackle Quinn Bailey, there is no Kalen Ballage.
Traditionally celebrated in generalities, linemen are the players who bring their "lunch pails to the office," or "put their head down and grind." The stereotypes proliferating the position group and the sport aren't going away any time soon, but at Arizona State, Jones and Bailey are redefining how linemen are perceived.
On a side of the ball boasting a returning starter at the quarterback position, a pair of senior running backs and a returning Freshman All-American at wide receiver, it's two linemen earning their coaching staff's praise as the leaders of the Sun Devils' offensive unit.
“Sam Jones and Quinn Bailey are emerging as leaders up front,” head coach Todd Graham said. “I really like their work ethic, and there’s a lot of competition up front. You’re going to be as good as you are up front, on both sides of the ball. That’s why I’ve got a lot of confidence in our guys.”
On a team that lost six straight games to end the 2016 season, within a unit that finished 10th in the Pac-12 in rushing yards and dead last in sacks allowed, it's Jones in particular, a player who watched five of those defeats from the sidelines, who's attempting to spark a turnaround.
“I would say if I had to tag somebody as the leader, not only of the unit, but of the offense right now (it's Jones)," first-year offensive line coach Rob Sale said. "He (Jones) does a good job, he affects everybody next to him, not only the left tackle and the center, but he affects Jay Jay (Wilson), the tight end, the wide receivers, he holds guys accountable. The best leaders on the team are usually outside skill guys, maybe sometimes, but he’s definitely the leader on offense and what we need.”
Jones began the 2016 season as ASU's starting left guard, and the 6-foot-5, 297-pounder was rapidly developing into one of the Sun Devils' most consistent offensive players. All that changed, though, on the final play of ASU's 40-16 defeat at the hands of the Colorado Buffaloes in mid-October.
On what was supposed to be a meaningless snap, Jones suffered a devastating injury that left him unable to play for the duration of the season.
“It was kind of a tough pill to swallow knowing just kind of the situation, but it could have happened at any point, that’s what I had to tell myself," Jones said. "I just didn’t really focus on it at all and just said, alright, I got hurt, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do to get back.”
Jones' attempt to battle back from injury and regain his footing this spring is the perfect metaphor for what ASU is trying to accomplish. A program that began last season with a promising start hit a wall, and now Jones is one of the players working to engineer a resurgence.
With 12 career starts to his name, Jones is tied with Bailey, who started all 12 games for the Sun Devils a season ago, in terms of most returning starts.
Though Graham singled out the juniors as ASU's leaders, neither player is vocal in an off-the-field setting, as both would prefer that their work ethic do the talking. When asked about being the most experienced offensive lineman on ASU's roster, Bailey essentially shrugged, saying his fellow linemen all possess the type of maturity needed to lead the Sun Devils' offense.
“I think we have a really mature offensive line even though the starts don’t say that," Bailey said. "Everyone kind of is able to lead themselves.”
Easing the burden
Like most offensive lines at the college level, the Sun Devils are building around their most experienced players, Jones and Bailey. But at the same time, ASU is hoping the duo doesn't just help ignite change up front, but also helps the offense tap into potential it wasn't able to reach a season ago.
With new offensive coordinator Billy Napier taking over for departed predecessor Chip Lindsey, ASU's linemen agree that Napier and Sale are attempting to ease the burden on the unit by providing the group with more tools to identify different fronts, adjust protections and prepare for any situation that might arise during the course of a game.
To help implement sweeping changes to the way ASU protects its quarterback and paves the way for its running backs, the Sun Devils need players like Jones and Bailey to pick up new concepts on the fly and become accustomed to making the most of the new knowledge they'll have at their disposal.
“We have a lot more tools to use as offensive linemen, there’s a lot more running schemes, so I think it’ll help us a lot," Bailey said. "There’s different approaches to the run game.”
While some ASU coaches and players have minimized the amount of change taking place up front, others have been more candid and explained that Napier is attempting to open up the Sun Devils' playbook and give the offense more options to work with on a play-by-play basis. While the Sun Devils' run plays may not look different to the casual fan --there's only so many ways zone, lead and power can be blocked-- the pre-snap communication process and the manner in which ASU's line is identifying shifts, movements and fronts from a defense has changed.
Sale said that regardless of how similar or different ASU's approach to blocking may be this season, the success of the Sun Devils' line will ultimately depend on how capable the program's line is of executing at a high level and how much the linemen buy into what the coaching staff is selling.
“At the end of the day, they had zone last year, they had a few gaps, the year before that it changed, but ball is ball," Sale said. "There’s things you hang your hat on and things you believe and sometimes you might use different personnel to give the defense more eye violations and have more 12-personnel settings. It’s pretty much, not all the same, but there’s a little bit of things that are different here and there. But as long as you’ve got big twitchy athletes and those guys buy in and believe in what we’re doing, we’ll be fine.”
As Napier and the Sun Devils make adjustments to the program's running schemes, the linemen are also responsible for learning new protections this spring.
After spending much of the 2016 campaign running away from opposing pass rushers, junior quarterback Manny Wilkins said the way ASU's protections are changing should help put the offensive linemen in a better position to block, because he thinks the demands of the new protections are less challenging to pick up on.
“I think the way that we’re doing protections and stuff like that are kind of set up a little bit more for them (linemen)," Wilkins said. "I think it’s something that’s a little bit easier for them, still a lot of new things going on with them. Still, like I said, acclimating and everything but they’re doing a great job picking everything up and I think we’re really on the same page with the quarterback and the offensive line. Really communicating very, very well.”
So much of a linemen's ability to execute assignments comes from relying on prior experience, and Jones and Bailey are the two players fellow linemen can look to when they need help.
Sophomore left tackle Cohl Cabral said working alongside Jones this spring has provided him with the opportunity to learn from a teammate who possesses invaluable knowledge, and Cabral said that alone has eased his transition from the second-team offense to the first-team unit.
“It’s so nice to have him (Jones) next to me," Cabral said. "We’ll be sitting there and just kind of go blank and him playing enough, he can just kind of wad that out of his mind and really remember what we’re trying to do or what we’re supposed to do, what our pickups are and having him next to me has been a big help.”
Outside of helping Cabral, though, Jones said he's trying to foster deeper relationships with the rest of his unit this spring, something a handful of ASU's linemen agreed was lacking last season. As the Sun Devils were ravaged by injuries and dealing with moving pieces coming in and out of the lineup, chemistry began to fall by the wayside.
This spring, Jones said he and some of his fellow linemen have reached a point where they know what other linemen are thinking when they walk up to the line of scrimmage, and that makes the process of identifying fronts and calling out protections that much easier.
“That’s one of the most important things for a line obviously," Jones said. "We’ve been mixing it up out in spring ball just trying to find the group to go but I feel good playing next to all the guys. We’re all comfortable with each other, we kind of know what each other are thinking when we probably shouldn’t, but yeah.”
Prior to his injury last fall, Jones was the only ASU linemen who was in a position to play his way into contention for a spot on an All-Pac-12 team. Though Jones' ceiling last year may have been as an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention candidate, it's possible the additional year of experience under his belt and the seemingly linemen-friendly scheme could help spur additional improvement this year from one of ASU's most important offensive assets.
And while Jones would certainly like to reach the point where his play earns him recognition around the conference, he said he has more important goals this season, and all of those involve helping the Sun Devils back into the win column.
“I’d like to be All-Pac-12, All-American, but I really don’t think about the long-term stuff like that," Jones said. "I don’t really need to be rewarded with accolades and stuff, I just want to win games.”