State of the Hogs: Pass Protection

HawgsIllustrated.com publisher Clay Henry looks at one of the big keys for Saturday's game: Who will be able to protect their quarterback?

Someone asked earlier this week to list the keys to victory for Saturday night's Southern Cal-Arkansas game. I can do that, I thought. It would make for a nice, easy day-before-the-game column.

But when I sat down to compile that list, what I turned up was just a bunch of tired cliches. I tossed it into the trash. There really wasn't anything new or of substance in the list.

After thinking a bit, I came back to something Merv Johnson used to tell me. For our young readers, Merv was line coach at Arkansas for the 1964 national champs. He was line coach at Notre Dame when Joe Montana passed the Irish to another national title. He was line coach at Oklahoma for two of Barry Switzer's national titles. He's now director of football operations at Oklahoma.

Johnson is still the man who taught me the most football over the last 30 seasons. He's a kind patient person who would listen to my questions and then reply with thorough answers. It was always stuff you could take to the bank.

Merv used to tell me this: The winning team will be the one who can block and get off blocks the most often in key situations.

OK, that's cutting it down to the most simple of thoughts. But, it's right on target for this game when it comes to the passing game.

The critical situations usually come down to when you need to pass or want to pass. Can you protect your quarterback and can you get to the other team's quarterback.

That's been a major problem at Arkansas for the last several years. Not only could the Hogs not protect Matt Jones or Robert Johnson the last three or four years, they could not put pressure on the other team's quarterback without sending six, seven or eight in an all-out blitz that left the secondary vulnerable. Even then, the Hogs often didn't get to the quarterback. Big plays were the result.

That's what I will be watching Saturday night. No one put Matt Leinert or Carson Palmer on their backs with any regularity the last four years as USC rolled to victory after victory. Can the Hogs do something to change that this year?

Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring was asked this week about blitzing John David Booty, the new USC signal caller. It isn't as easy as it sounds, he said.

"First, they don't leave themselves open to blitzes," Herring said. "The reputation SC has had of late is that they throw the ball around a lot, and they can throw. But they don't do anything unsound in the passing game. They are in max protect an awful lot. They don't leave you short edges to blitz almost ever. If you blitz, they have you accounted for and it's tough to get there.

"What you end up doing is play soft coverages -- mainly zones -- and hope you can cover long enough to give your guys up front time to win a one-on-one battle every now and then. That's what they make you do because of the way they play on offense."

That's been the Arkansas approach of late, but they haven't had enough talent at wide receiver to beat safe coverages and they haven't been good enough up front to give the quarterback enough time to wait while things develop down field.

Some have ached for more aggressive formations with three and four wideouts. That's what the arrival of Gus Malzahn as offensive coordinator signalled to many. The Hogs will get to that at some point Saturday night, but don't expect to see it on every play. It's an invitation to blitz and USC's speed can make that tough on quarterbacks.

If you put three and four wideouts in the formation, you've given the defense that short edge Herring and other defensive coordinators dream about. Webster doesn't define "short edge," but it's basically a formation with no one to help protect outside the tackles.

The Hogs have spent much of the last six to eight months trying to improve their pass protection.

Malzahn and new quarterback coach Alex Wood asked line coach Mike Markuson to give them more man protection up front and less of the zone blocking that the Hogs used as their bread and butter the last six to seven seasons. It's starting to pay dividends everyone thinks.

"We are better in protection," Markuson said. "We've had nice carry over from spring to summer to fall. We are much better in our pass sets."

Left offensive guard Stephen Parker, perhaps the meanest and nastiest of the Hog run blockers, sees the improvement and promises the Hogs are better at pass protection. He's taken it on as a personal challenge to become a more complete player.

"I think everyone knows I've always been a let it all hang out run blocker," Parker said. "But I want to be known as someone who can do everything well. I've worked hard on my pass sets. I'm not saying I'm perfect. No one is. But I'm better. Our entire line is better. We've taken it as something we have to do for us to win.

"Everyone knows that Robert Johnson didn't have a lot of time last year. We've got to do better. We have to be balanced and that starts with our blocking up front."

There won't be a tougher challenge for the UA blockers than USC's defensive front as far as pass protection.

"We know what we are facing, basically a track team," Parker said. "They are physically strong, too. But if you look at every man on their defense, they can all run. Their defensive linemen are fast athletes. They are quick and like track guys."

So it comes down to this; can Arkansas block these quick, water moccasin defensive linemen? Well, if they don't block them for more than a couple of counts, Robert Johnson won't have a chance to show us about his new comfort level in the pocket.

There will be no pocket. USC's defensive linemen will close to fast if and when they get off their blocks.

Conversely, can the UA defensive linemen shed the blocks of the SC offensive line. They will have a hard time beating the Trojans' left side where Sam Baker is a three-year starter and a returning All-American. If there's a place you want solid protection, it's your quarterback's blind side.

That's what Baker will be for QB John David Booty, a righty. That's a flip from last year when Baker was the front anchor for lefty Leinart's pocket.

But the Trojans aren't as experienced up front as the Hogs. Aside from Baker, only center Ryan Kalil is a returning starter. That surely means Herring will test that front with the same "fire zone" blitzes that USC coach Pete Carroll brought from the NFL.

"You read a quarterback say that they love to see blitzes, but no one likes to see a blitz," Herring said. "But you can't take a lot of chances with what USC does. They are good against blitzes and they protect well. They keep two backs behind the quarterback and he's almost always under center. They don't run shotgun and don't give you easy blitzes or shots at their quarterback.

"We'll blitz though. We'll mix it up. We'll try to cover some and we'll go after them some. We'll see what they can handle."

That's what I'll be watching Saturday night. Yep, I told you it was simple stuff. Like Merv Johnson told me years ago, it's always simple stuff.

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