What does it take to play offensive line? It's definitely the position I personally know the least about. While we can't get into all the little nuances of the position, and I certainly don't have the ability to explain it in writing, I did think it would be interesting to talk to a former Irish offensive lineman to get some explanation and clarification on some things in regards to line play.
Former Irish starter Sean Milligan was nice enough to field our questions about offensive line late last week, and I think you'll enjoy reading what he had to say. My hope is you'll at least find this educational if nothing else. I decided to just do a question and answer format as there was just too much information for a story.
What's the biggest misconception normal fans have about offensive line play?
"I think the biggest misconception is that people think we just go up there and block people. There's a lot more that goes into it than that. There's a lot of preparation that goes into it. We block things differently depending on what the defense does. You wouldn't know that unless you played the game. It's a lot more complicated than just blocking the guy in front of you."
On how big of a jump it was from high school ball to college ball.
"High school is a totally different game than college. If you're a DI recruit, you can get by with just physical ability and how strong and quick you are. When you get to college, now you've got to have your technique down. You've got to be a lot stronger than you were in high school because you're not pushing around 250-pound guys anymore. Plus you have to get used to the scheme. There's a lot of different ways you can run a lot of different plays. That's the biggest challenge you have. In high school you'll have one set of plays for an offense and defense. A high school defense won't hide safeties or roll guys over the top. It's just basically straight up play. You get to college and it's a totally different game. It kind of overwhelms you. That's why I think some guys don't pan out. They don't take that next step and they get overwhelmed with the mental or physical aspect of it. Or, they might not ever gain the self-confidence they need to play."
On if he felt prepared when he came out of high school for college football.
"I was at a high school where we put a lot of kids in DI schools for football. I also had a coach who understood how to coach the position. I felt I had an advantage compared to some of the guys based on their physicalness and how quickly they adapted. You don't learn the plays unless you run the plays. You can watch it all day, but you really don't learn until you play. When you have safeties blitzing, linebackers drifting and defensive linemen stunting, and defenses are shifting, you can't really learn it until it happens to you because you can't believe how quickly your assignment might change until you're actually in the battle and they're trying to confuse you with different looks, shifts, stunts and blitzes. You can know what you're doing in theory, but you will never really know until you actually do it."
On differences between blocking schemes.
Zone blocking is fairly easy to explain. As a lineman, you have kind of an area. As a right guard, running a zone-right play, I have to the tackles back to my left arm. That's kind of my zone area. Anyone that comes into that area is kind of my man. I'm in charge of taking care of anyone in that area and making sure the tackle doesn't get slanted over. Everyone is moving in unison and going in the same direction. Basically you get a hat on a hat and you let the running back make his moves off of that.
"In a zone play, the linemen covers up the bodies and creates push off the line and the running back presses the line and makes the cutback. That's what having a great running back like Julius Jones can give you. He can hit the backside of a hole and you don't have to worry about it. If the play is going outside, he can hit backdoor on that and have the vision and speed to make that happen."
"Smash-mouth football is man-blocking. You have an assignment. You know you might double-team a guy and then go find a linebacker. With zone blocking that might change depending on who comes into your area."
"A reach block is more if you're doing an outside running play. When the defensive ends are stretched way out, you've kind of got to take a deep drop step and get your body around them. You can't really turn yourself around, you've got to hit their outside shoulder and drive them up the field. This is a harder block to do. A lot of guys will just seal them off and turn their butts, but that creates a problem in the hole where the running back can't hit the hole like he wants to because there isn't enough space there.
"Reach-blocking is tough, but if you can do it well, you can hit big plays. You need quick tackles to be able to reach-block well. Defensive ends run 4.6 so you need a guy who's quick and can get the outside shoulder. When you see teams run outside well, they usually have good tackles that can reach-block well."
On needing a good back to run a zone-blocking scheme.
"Absolutely. It's more on the back. When you watch the NFL teams, they zone-block well. Most running backs in the NFL have the quickness to be good zone-blocking backs. They press the line and they have the patience and confidence in their offensive line to find the cutback. These backs can go right to the heels of the offensive line and still make the cut. If a back isn't patient and hits it up too early, he'll run into a contain man or something like that. It's not all on the running backs. The offensive line has to give the running back confidence. If the offensive line can get a hat on a hat and knock guys back during zone-blocking, the running back can run all day as long if he's got good vision."
On how much zone and man blocking the Irish did these past years and why.
"They did a little of both and that depended on who was in there. I would say that Ryan Grant is more of a smash-mouth, man-blocking back. He doesn't have the wiggle and elusiveness and cutback ability that Julius or Darius (Walker) have, but he was a strong runner. When Ryan was in the game, it was more of a ‘pound them' philosophy."
"With Julius and Darius in the game, we saw more of the zone-blocking and cutback running. It all depends on what the offensive coordinator wants to run. If they show tendencies, they'll zone them. If they show they're weak up front, they'll try to pound them. It usually depends on the defense and what they've shown in the past as to how they scheme against them."
On how and when the game plan is implemented during the week.
"They take a look for tendencies and then we game plan around that. If (the defense) is getting hit on the cutback, the defensive end overflows, you'll run a lot of zones. If they show more discipline and the cutback isn't there, you have to go with more of a man-blocking scheme. Still, everything is on the fly. It all changes during the flow of the game and what's working. You'll scheme against the other team's tendencies, but it's a chess match during the game. You want to do something that you think your team is good at, and that the other team is not good at defending, but it all changes during the flow of the game."
"If they've got what you think are weak inside guys, you'll go with more of a power man-blocking scheme and try to blow them up inside. If you think they're weak outside on the ends, you'll probably go more with a zone. It really depends on what the other team has and what's working."
On pass blocking and knowing which guy was his guy.
"It's not that hard. In a man-up pass protection scheme, you have a guy. If I have a guy, and the linebacker is coming, I can help right or left, but I've got my guy.
"I think the hardest thing for a lineman, it's not the blitz, it's the twists and stunts from the defensive lineman. You can have a guy on you, and then all of the sudden he's gone and you have a guy looping around coming into the crease. It makes guys over-commit to a spot. That's why you have to be really patient and trust the guy next you. That's why having an experience guy and an experienced line is so important because they feed off each other. I had a better feeling with Brennan (Curtin) in passing off these stunts then I did when (Jim Molinaro) came in. That is no disrespect to Jim, but I played with Brennan a lot and I knew where he would be and how we worked together. When you get a new guy in there, you're somewhat unsure as to how it will flow. Again, I'm not disrespecting Jim, I just had more familiarity with Brennan."
"When the defensive stunts start working--and all they have to do is rush four guys--then you're in trouble. They can put that extra guy in coverage. As an offensive line you want to stop their stunts and make them blitz you. If you make them blitz you, and you can pick up the blitz, that means there's one less guy in coverage. A lot of big plays will come on blitz. If a safety blitzes, there's no guy over the top so you have a great shot to hit a big play."
On some of the pass blocking problems the past few years.
"Offensive linemen usually get blamed whenever there is a sack or pressure. That's just part of the position, but it's not always their fault. It could be a bad call at the line of scrimmage, or a tight end missing a block, or a running back missing a block. Usually if you see pressure coming from the outside, or the safety blitzes and he isn't picked up, it's a running back or a tight end missing a block. Unless the safety is up in the box, it's usually the running back's guy. So it's not always the linemen's fault. Sometimes it's the running backs or the tight ends. I saw a lot of missed blocks from all of them so it wasn't just the offensive linemen or the tight ends or the running backs. It happens, but it shouldn't happen near as much as it was."
On the importance of having an experienced line.
"It's huge. You know what the person next to you is capable of, and you know when they might need help or what they can handle. As an offensive lineman, in pass protection, it's kind of like a flow. Everyone is flowing and has their space and you know what the guy next to you can do.
"You really count on your line-mates a lot. You really count on your tackle to make a block and they count on me. Experience is great because you've seen all the blitzes, you've seen all the stunts, you've seen all that they can throw at you, but to have the guy next to you returning is also very key because you know what he can and can't do, and you know when he needs help."
On how much confidence can improve an offensive line.
"It's really huge. That's why you'll see teams start rolling and then dominate. Early in the game it's kind of a feeling-out session. But once you get into the game, what happens usually dictates a game. If you're pounding your guy into the ground, you'll get more and more excited. If you're getting your butt kicked, you're just holding on at that point."
Once you hit that groove—you hit for five yards, then eight yards, then 10 yards--you start looking around and everyone is pumped up. That's what this team needs is some confidence. I think they'll get that this year. I think you'll see a lot of good things happen on offense this year."
On how much does a great running back help an offense?
"It helps a lot. If you have a back you can trust, and you know he's going to make the right cut and right read, it makes your life so much easier and you want to block for that guy. A great running back can't do much without a great line, and a great line can look average without a great running back. When ND starts getting more All-American backs, you'll see the running game really take off. I think they've got some good ones there now. I like Darius Walker's vision and ability to cut back."
On how important leadership out of the quarterback is to an offense.
"I think it's one of the most important things--to have the command of the huddle, and to have that confidence that let's everyone know that you're going to succeed. He's got to be the guy you look at for direction and for leadership.
"If a guy screws up, he's got to be the guy to tell him that he needs to shape up and he's not going to tolerate that crap anymore. I think it's hard to ask Brady to be that guy as a freshman. I hope now that he's become that guy. He needs to be able to grab one of the big linemen and say ‘you've got to pick up your game, you've got to make that block.' He's got to be a leader on the field, and also off the field."
On how ND fans can tell if the OL will be dominate this year.
"Finishing blocks. If you see guys taking guys out of bounds and burying them in the ground, then you know they have confidence and they're playing hard. When you see guys throwing people off of piles, throwing people around, they're having fun out there, and that's something we need to see more of."
A big thanks goes out to Sean for all that he does for us here at Irish Eyes.