Spring camp offensive line review

Now that spring camp is coming to a close, the offensive line has had nearly 15 practice days in which to develop under the new expectations. There were some good and some bad things on display during Saturday's spring game.

First, one of the good aspects of Saturday's spring game was how the offensive line did when it came to targeting and picking up blitzes.

"We're starting to better understand the blitzes, so we're starting to understand that," said Coach Tujague. "We're starting to get that side of the game down much better, and that was something that I saw from the film on the spring game. We still have tons of work with that, but we are starting to get them down much better."

As for what was negative, there was a lack of stamina needed to sustain the high caliber of physicality the coaches are looking for. In order to execute effectively, while playing in a high-tempo offense, the offensive linemen have to be able to perform at the end of the game like they do in the beginning.

"It would have been much nicer to have been a little more physical and active up front with certain things," said Tujague. "That just goes back to just dominating, going hard and then getting back to the line of scrimmage and getting back to the next play."

"This spring is completely different," said Michael Yeck. "I mean, it would be with an entirely new offensive staff, but just the pace of practice, the expectations of us on the field. I mean, we've doubled the pace but we expect the same intensity as far as o-linemen knocking people down, good double teams, blowing the d-line off the ball. It's a lot more taxing and you have to be in a lot more better shape."

Having the film to pull from, Coach Tujague met with his players and showed them the good and bad.

"The major emphasis is to have them see the film and show them examples of when they went hard," said Coach Tujague. "We show them examples of how we like them to finish, and then we go back and show them examples of how they didn't go hard and how they didn't finish. That way they have a comparison, and it was the best thing about the film that we saw from the spring game."

The example that Coach Tujague gave his players was the offensive line's high level of sustained execution on the first series of Saturday's scrimmage.

"I would say that's the main thing, just the conditioning and going hard play after play," Yeck said. "Saturday in our game-like situation, our first drive was awesome. All the offensive line on our first play came right off the ball and we did great. Then as we start going and the pace starts wearing on us, that's when we see us dropping off."

When it comes to both run-blocking and pass-blocking, one is more affected by the increased tempo than the other.

"I would say that pass is affected a lot more in terms of negatively affecting the line," said Alletto. "It is a lot harder to do pass-pro right now mainly because we don't have very much time to read the defense and really understand what we're going to do before actually going out there and doing it.

"Then if you look at the running, it's a lot easier and faster just because it doesn't allow the defense to have time to get set and get going, and we all know our side of things really well."

The tempo poses a challenge for the center, who has to make calls for the rest of the line.

"You know, it's difficult and you have to use your peripheral vision a lot," Terrance Alletto said. "You have to be able to see if you've got linebackers coming from the outside, or if the defense is heavily weighted to one side or not. That can give you some hints, but really it's on-the-fly reading. You have to keep your head on a swivel and decide what you're going to do base on what a few people are going to do."

This year the offensive line has a much better focus when it comes to what the expectations are.

"I think we worked hard last season," said Yeck. "I just don't think that we had a specific focus. It was kind of like an explosion. We were working everywhere. This year we have a focus. It's a fast-pace offense – get up to the ball and get the play off as quickly as we can – so I would say it's hard work like last season except we're more focused. We have our energies focused in the right place."

Along with a new understanding of identity, there has been another benefit that has come from the change of offensive scheme.

"Honestly, we all thought it was a lot easier," said Alletto. "This offense is very simple and it's very easy to understand and get to know very quickly. That's a good thing."

This in theory should cut down on the thinking process and lead to fewer mistakes across the line.

"I think you have to have that aspect so it allows you to go faster," said Alletto.

The efficiency of the offense will be determined by how effectively the offensive line works with the skill players in short-yardage situation. That aspect, along with a suspect kicking game, means more going for it on fourth downs.

"That's very exciting," said Alletto. "We'll see how things go, and if you've been watching practice you've been seeing how we can progress the ball through running and passing, unlike sometimes last year when we had a little bit of trouble. But we're looking forward to it."

However, the offense isn't expecting that going for it on fourth down will be the norm. Rather, it's expected that their level of execution doesn't place them in that precarious situation that often.

"We're looking for a few downs and then touchdown," said Alletto with a chuckle. "So, one and done really."

As spring camp comes to a close, the players that started with the first team have maintained their positions for the most part. The starting line looks like this:

Left tackle: Brad Wilcox has been holding down the left tackle spot in place of injured Ryker Mathews, who had two hip surgeries during the off season. The time Wilcox received has been very valuable, given the demands of the new offense. It will be interesting to see how this experience plays out to his advantage once Mathews returns.

Left guard: Solomone Kafu, a starter at left guard last year after replacing Famika Anae, has had a very good spring camp by all indications. Kafu is strong and has done a much better job in his pass-protection.

Center: The center position is still up for grabs, and it was Terrance Alletto who saw first-team reps following the end of Monday's practice. Manaaki Vaitai worked with the second-team as the two continue to battle back and forth.

"We're working really hard together and we've got three centers that are rolling together," said Alletto. "We're all giving each other looks, and I would consider Manaaki Vaitai a good friend as well as competition. I'm sure he considers me the same thing, so there's that and working together in the weight room and as well as in the meeting room. It helps give us a competitive edge."

Right guard: Kyle Johnson has received quite a bit of praise from Coach Tujague over spring camp for his competitive fire and seeming desire to never quit. Johnson showed well during the spring game last Saturday and is showing that he has first-team potential.

Right tackle: Michael Yeck has also been singled out by various coaches in regards to his pass-protection and effectiveness in the ground game. Once Yeck gets his stamina to a level where he can sustain that high level of play from start to finish, he'll be at the level of his and Coach Tujague's expectations.

"Technique-wise I'm always going to feel like I have miles to go," said Yeck. "I feel like my pass-pro has improved as spring has gone on. Coach Tujague has been very patient and very good with working with us on that.

"One of the main things that I can do better is come off fast on the run game. As tackles we're up in that two-point stance, so it's a little challenging at times to come off the ball fast. But it's doable and I think that's something I need to get better at."

With junior college transfers Tim Duran, De'ondre Wesley and Edward Fusi coming in for fall camp, along with some highly recruited linemen, the competition will only increase for these five who survived spring camp.

"I think Coach Mendenhall said this past Saturday that we have some junior college transfers coming in, and, you know, they're going to be focused on earning a spot to play," said Yeck. "All the people that are doing spring right now, like myself, we have an advantage over them because we have 15 practices under our belt. I'm just trying to work my hardest right to be the best I can be right now without worrying too much about what's to come. I'm just worrying about the present."

"Even when we go into fall we've got more people coming in," said Alletto. "I don't think we'll know who is going to be the starting center until the week of fall camp."

Overall, Coach Tujague was pleased with the progress he saw from his players. He's excited for the future.

"Did we do okay? Sure," said Coach Tujague. "Did we do great? No. Do we have a long ways to go? Absolutely. As long as they're willing to come out here and fight every day with me, we'll make it work. We'll get it going. As soon as their will doesn't match mine, we're in trouble. The outstanding thing about this group of guys is I don't see that. I see a group of guys who want to improve to the level we expect of them, and they're working their tails off to get there. That's a good thing."

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