Coaches Breakdown: Scouting O-Linemen

As part of's ongoing series, college coaches talk with National Recruiting Analyst Allen Trieu to give an insight into what they are looking for when they evaluate each position. Today, we look at an important position on the field: the offensive line.

- Part I: Quarterbacks
- Part II: Running Backs
- Part III: Wide Receivers

Offensive linemen are often considered one of the toughest positions to project due to the amount of growth the players experience and the amount of technical development that takes place over four years.

The numbers tend to back up that claim as there are often a number of lightly recruited players who end up making it to the professional ranks. There is also a growing number of players who move from other positions. Tight end has been a popular position to pluck players from, but also defensive line and even quarterback.

There is a premium on offensive linemen, particularly athletic tackles, as evidenced by the number of offensive tackles regularly going in the early part of the 1st Round in the NFL Draft.

As offenses change, the requirements for the position have changed, but at the root of it, the position is built on, and will always be built on toughness. It is no surprising then, that every offensive line coach is looking for that quality first and foremost:

  I think the number one thing is, does he finish? I can teach kids a lot of things, but I'm not sure you can teach the mentality to finish blocks and play through the whistle. The second thing for us is, you should be able to tell what kind of person they are by how they play. Do they play with attitude? If they play with attitude, you should be able to see that on their tape."  
  “How we’ve always defined offensive linemen is toughness/character. What we mean by that is, what does your video tape look like from snap to whistle on every play? Offensive line, you’re going to get beat, that’s the nature of the game. I don’t care how you play – this talks about your toughness and your character – if you get beat, I want to see the next play. If you dominate someone, I want to see what the next play is. I want to see how you respond to each scenario within the game. I think that defines your toughness. What kind of player are you when the s**t hits the fan?"  
  “On a highlight tape, it’s important to see – does this kid finish? Is he tough? Does he block to the echo of the whistle? But I think you can also see a character piece of it, how does he respond to each individual situation or scenario? ”  
  “We can give the kids technique, we can teach them. We can, through our strength and conditioning programs, make them bigger, stronger, faster, but what we can't give them is toughness and the desire to want to dominate somebody and put the guy across from them on their back every play.”  
  “Honest to God, you can watch a guy’s offensive line video tape, and everyone always makes fun of us, but I feel like four plays, you have a pretty good idea of is this kid tough? Because if you’re not tough, we can’t recruit you no matter how good you think you are. With that, also, we like to see a game tape. The character piece is, what do they say about you at your school? What does your janitor say? What does your lunch lady say? What does every kid in the hallway say? That doesn’t mean we want all saints, but what do you stand for?”  

Being mean, being tough, having that "nasty streak" that has become a buzzword when talking about offensive linemen is great, but when it comes down to it, offensive linemen also have to have the athletic ability to handle the speed and athleticism that they face from the defensive side of the ball.

  “We're looking for agility. Hip flexibility is important, how well they bend, how quick their feet are and can they sustain blocks? Something I do that might be more unique is, I like to watch them block movement, especially at the high school level because they're so much bigger than everyone else that they can just lean on people when they're face to face, so I like to see a kid block movement. That's important too. Also explosion coming off the ball. The most important thing is attitude and finish, size, then we look at athleticism, flexibility, foot speed, all that type of stuff."
  “The first thing I really look for is, can he get to where he needs to get to and then what does he do when he gets there? Ok, can you move and get to the spots you have to and then, now you're there, what do you do? Are you physical and do you finish, but the first thing is being able to get there. That's a major deal.”
  “What kind of hip snap do you have? Do you have flexibility? Hip snap and flexibility kind of go along with each other because if you're flexible, you’re flexible with your whole body. We want guys that are flexible at your ankles, which allows their hips to snap. They really have the ability to generate leverage by their bend, but also to finish leverage by their ability to snap their hips if that makes sense. Agility is defined by lateral quickness and foot speed wrapped in one. Are they guys where, I put you on a basketball court, you're not going to embarrass yourself? How they get through bags, foot quickness, rapid fire type stuff.”  
  “My checklist is a little bit archaic than most. Guys now are looking for more athletes, that's higher on their priority sheet, and we all need athletes the way the game is going. It's transitioning because there is so much more speed, more throwing the ball and I think the position is evolving from brute force mauler type guys to guys where, you better be able to move your feet and still be athletes. It's not the worst athlete on the football team and just because they're big, they play O-line. If they've never played other spots or other sports, that's a red flag because you want great athletes.”  

Obviously, strength is important too, but as one coach explained the relationship between size and strength:

  “You have to be big enough, because obviously there are size limitations for the position, but I also think with that is, what's the ratio of strength to size? You have a guy who's 6-foot, but man he's really strong, so there's a sliding scale. Obviously, the bigger and stronger you are, the better, but there's a sliding scale somewhat within there, but the other thing is, if you're strong in the weight room, can you transfer that strength to the football field?"  

With that, college coaches are increasingly being forced to look at high school tight ends, quarterbacks and defensive linemen and say to themselves, does this kid have the shoulders, the hips, the general frame to grow into an offensive lineman. That can be a difficult task, especially in the case of evaluating high school sophomores and juniors.

  “I do think it’s hard. But I can tell you that, some of our best players on the offensive line -- we have a young man in the NFL that didn’t play one snap on offense his whole career in high school. I personally like defensive linemen. Those guys had to be athletic their entire life. They’re farther along in development with their hands, how to use their hands, they understand leverage really well. Especially a good 3-tech, a guy who can really run around and move. I think, there are guys in the NFL that were tight ends. It's hard to project what their size is going to be, strength, how that’s going to grow and develop, but the way football is going now, the way offensive line is played, it's important to find the most athletic people you can find that are going to be big enough and strong enough to do it...and are tough enough to do it. The days of finding the biggest, fattest guy are over. The game is spread out and what offenses ask their linemen to do is different.”
  “I think the last thing you want to figure out is -- how big do you really want them to get? You don't need everyone to be 300 pounds.”
  “A lot of it is, you take the size and those things, but a lot of it comes down to the player and what's his makeup? Is he going to work hard to gain the weight, and good weight? You can look at bone structure and some other things, but it's not an exact science. I think we all want a guy who's already 290 and can move and you can see how he moves at 290 already, but there are only so many of those guys out there so you end up projecting more. I think it's a self-evaluation on me too, where I say, where am I missing the boat and what do I need to better or how am I teaching each kid? Where am I successful in teaching? If I know a kid is good in this area, but here are his weaknesses, and OK, I'm good at coaching that area, I can give him the knowledge he needs in that particular area, then that's a good fit.”

I asked one BCS conference offensive line coach if that projection and the difficulty in evaluating how kids will grow and develop is why some of the non-BCS schools have produced a number of NFL Draft picks on the line. Central Michigan's Eric Fisher is the poster boy example of that.

  “I think no question. Those guys at that level are forced to project more than say a BCS school. It's feast or famine when you’re doing that. For every one guy in the 1st round, there are five that don’t play a down in college football. You project like that, sometimes you hit big homeruns because a kid is super athletic and has great athleticism and mobility and now you just build them up. Even at our level now, you have more of that. You have less ready-made guys, more projection, developmental players that have to put weight on, and the science behind strength and conditioning has become more elaborate and advanced. You can do more than you could 10-15 years ago bcause you're not worried about a kid being able to add the weight. It's never a problem with our strength and conditioning program, so that allows you to project more. The last two years, we've taken tight ends and defensive linemen and projected them to offensive line. It takes time and usually they're not play-early finished products."  

When college coaches get kids in camps along the line, a big misconception is that the 1-1s are all that is important. I also believe that too many people believe charting wins and losses is the best measure of success at a camp. So I asked a couple coaches what they're looking for in a camp setting and point-blank, how much does winning a one on one even matter?

  “We can assess their quick twitch, how athletic they are and how quick they are much better in person than we can on tape. Just because you're winning 1-1s doesn't mean we still project that you can do that at our level. There are a lot of variables. We have 300 kids at a camp, we might have five we think can play. The other thing I factor in when having kids in person is, are they coachable? There's no way to tell that until we get them. A big thing to me is to be able to watch a kid do one thing, take one rep, me telling them what to correct and one or two reps after that, it's corrected. There are some kids I can tell for five years straight to do something and they won't and other kids can do it in one day. So you can see if they can change and fix things you ask them to change and you're evaluating athleticism -- if they can do the specific movements you ask them to do and are they doing what you want to see and the way you want it done? "  
  “There’s a difference between some of the kids that come to camp. Some kids we haven’t checked off everything on the list and we want to put them through the test and see are they tough enough? 1-1s are important, but number one, I can win every 1-1 against a kid that is awful, but for us, we go through our checklist every camp. If a kid came four hours to come to camp, we do everything in our power to evaluate them thoroughly. We want to see how they react, are they coachable? We coach them hard at camp and we want to see how they act when challenged. Are they a guy that's at the back of the line or walks from drill to drill? Are they our kind of guy? Are they a tough kid.

Do they, not only win a 1-1, but what method did they win it by. I think there's a misconception in what winning a 1-1 is. Did you throw him to the ground and fall on him, hold him, tackle him? Or did you use the techniques that were taught, and not just that, are you capable or able to do the techniques taught? Some of the techniques on the offensive line take a great deal of athleticism to do correctly. When we ask you to do it a specific way and some may not have the mobility or athletic ability, and some guys can't bend certain ways or get into certain postures, and can’t play at certain angles, it makes it hard to generate force to do things later. You may win a 1-1 but in what fashion did you win?"
  "A lot of guys want to just do one-on-ones, but in one on one, you're really not coaching, you're watching. I always want more individual time because I can run them through agility and we really put our big men through a combine like situation where we can see change of direction and how quick their feet are."  

I asked one coach how he handles kids who may not be asked to pass block as much or at all at their high schools or just aren't taught certain things on that level versus guys who maybe more polished. That lead to an interesting point about how difficult it is to tell some of the above in a one-day camp situation.

  "The migration here in our business away from three-day camps to one-day camps has really hurt that aspect. We have some knowledge of where a kid is coming from, but it is super hard when there are that many kids and you want more background of specific players. If it's a three-day, I don't care where they came from -- in 16 hours of practice, or whatever it is, 12 hours, it's all individual work, so if you can't do it after three days, then you're not going to be able to do it. I don't care where you've been, 12 hours of individual is almost a whole spring ball. So you hope you have a chance to evaluate those kids, give us a chance to coach them for a period of days instead of a one day because sometimes a kid needs to sit down and think about it for a day, so we take that into account. Some kids are really well coached, some aren't, and that's important for me to know. If they're more polished, the less improvement we should see. The most raw guy there, a lot of times for me, you sit there and say, hey, this guy hasn't had great coaching or hasn't been asked to do the things I've asked him to do, but he's a great athlete that's tough, with a great attitude and plays with a purpose, so let's take a chance."

Fans and media sometimes get too caught up in highlight tapes, but as has been established with other positions, that can only be one piece of the evaluation.

  "I watch a highlight film to get interested, but I've watched game film on everyone I've ever signed. Anyone can get 25 good plays, well I don't know about everyone, but the highlight film has to pique your interest, but to really get to know the kid an how he plays, I think you have to watch the game film."  

Then of course, you have to have things taken care of in the classroom. Offensive linemen, on average, finish with the highest Wonderlic scores at the NFL Combine. Does that mean you have to be a rocket scientist? No, but work ethic, classroom results, and character all fit together.

  "What's really important is what kind of student they are. It goes into the character piece. To play offensive line, people always say you have to be so smart. I don't think that's exactly true. You don't have to be really smart, but you do have to work really hard. What a kid's all about and his grades need to compare to his test scores. A guy with a 26 ACT and a 4.0, that's awesome. What we don't want is a 2.1 student with a 26 ACT... not interested. I'd rather have a 3.8 GPA and a 17 ACT because that kid works hard and is an overachiever. You work hard in the classroom, it translates pretty well to the football field. Not everyone has to be a straight-A student, an honor student, but there has to be a good relationship between ACT and GPA."  

To finish it off, all positions are a projection, and offensive line may be moreso than any other spot. And there are a lot of great high school offensive linemen out there who never earn any big offers or offers period, and there are always some big, athletic, but raw kids who don't do well in 1-1s at camps and people wonder how that kid has so many offers or why he's ranked so high. That can be summed up here:

  "I think what people need to understand is that we're not as interested at all in what you are now as much as what you can be at 22. It's the same thing the NFL does with our guys. If it were that easy, the Heisman Trophy winner would be the first pick every year, but that's not how it works."

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