When an offensive line collectively plays well during the course of a given game, there are many adjectives that trickle immediately to the tongues of observers and scribes alike during the inevitable post-game analysis. Dominant. Strong. Tough. Punishing. Clever. Clever? "Clever" is not a word often used to describe the mammoth, frontline, modern-day student-gladiators that roam college football fields on Saturday afternoons each and every autumn. The first time I ever heard the words "clever" and "offensive lineman" used in the same sentence was when I played for the illustrious line coach Monte Clark at Stanford University during the 1993 and 1994 seasons. Clark, a personal close friend and mentor of mine who is currently a consultant for the NFL's Detroit Lions, has an impressive resume with over 50 years in the football business. After playing his college ball at USC, Clark was drafted in the fourth round in 1958 by the San Francisco 49ers. He played both ways for three years in the Bay Area and one injury-shortened year in Dallas before settling in as an offensive tackle in Cleveland. There he teamed with offensive guard Gene Hickerson, a 2007 NFL Hall of Fame inductee and the rest of his linemates to block for perhaps the best runner of all-time, a football player/actor by the name of Jim Brown. While in Cleveland, Clark was a member of the Browns' 1964 World Championship Team. During that championship game, a dominating victory over the stunned Baltimore Colts, Clark was widely recognized for neutralizing future Hall of Fame defensive end Gino Marchetti during a memorable 27-0 whitewashing. While in Cleveland "Coach Clark", as I still call him, learned his craft from legendary coaches such as Paul Brown and Blanton Collier. Collier is widely recognized as one of the all-time great line coaches, and Monte would soon follow in his footsteps as he made the transition from blocker to teacher.
After Clark announced his retirement as a player, he was hired as the Miami Dolphins' offensive line coach on April 8, 1970 by another Hall of Famer, Don Shula. In what became a bit of league legend, Coach Shula reportedly hired Monte over the telephone without a face-to-face interview following glowing endorsements from both Collier and former 49ers head coach Dick Nolan (father of current 49ers head coach Mike Nolan). Clark was tasked immediately with an enormous challenge as the collection of blockers present on the Dolphins' roster at that time could best be described as 'moribund'. Students of football history are undoubtedly aware that Clark went on to build one of, if not the finest offensive lines in the history of the professional game. Taking mostly street free agents off the waiver wire, his group helped produce the only perfect season in NFL history, became the first offense to ever have two rushers over 1,000 yards in a season, and set the all-time single-season team rushing total. All five starters received "All-Pro" recognition, and two of the five are currently enshrined in Canton, Ohio, with a third member on the ballot every year. Monte went on to have a successful run as a NFL head coach, pro personnel man and college assistant, which is where we first crossed paths.
Every journey starts with a small step, and that's how I can best summarize the debut of Stanford's offensive line, 2007 edition. Ultimately this group can put itself on a road to the promised land (aka bowl game), which only comes with victories - but for now - to survive a tough first test against a highly-ranked opposing unit, I say "well done, lads, well done." The victory wasn't realized last Saturday, but this line is headed in the right direction. One of the first things that jumped out at me while reviewing the film was the tackle play. Both players really captured the essence of playing "clever" football. They varied the depth of their pass sets, meaning they changed up where they set their drop point and punch on the defensive end so as to keep the defender off balance. You don't see this from many tackles, even at the pro level. Of course this reflects well on our new offensive line coach and my own former OL teammate, Chris Dalman. Chris was an exceptionally clever and versatile lineman in his own right, so it comes as no surprise that his line debuted well in their first test. As I continued to review the film and dig deeper, the quality of the tackle play continued to win me over. Using different pass set depths and techniques - including the "set and cut", which has the tackle setting back and inviting the end to engage and then dropping and throwing a cut block to impede his rush. Not only did our tackles use this technique - they executed extremely well while showing the rare athleticism required to really "impact and stun" the defender. All-in-all, without being extremely nit-picky, there really isn't too much I could point to that was lacking from Stanford's tackles during pass protection. By combining their natural ability with a clever approach, both tackles did a nice job of keeping "TC the QB" clean.
Inside, between the center and guards there was solid work done as well. It was apparent there was some confusion over assignments between the backs and the interior line over responsibility for blitzing linebackers. A good example was the second offensive play, as the middle linebacker came screaming up the middle untouched and hit the quarterback without so much as a look from the center, guards or running back. Since I'm not privy to the playbook, I couldn't say for certain who was at fault there, but that's something that must be cleaned up. Additionally, the pocket wasn't as firm as it needs to be. Sometimes it was a case of mental lapses, as the inside trio and running backs were obviously confused as to whom to block, and other times it was physical as the big men upfront were cleanly beaten or pushed too far back into the QB's lap.
In the run game we again saw the concept of "clever" pop up to help further the Cardinal cause. Featuring primarily a zone blocking scheme, the backside blockers, or the side away from the handoff, did an excellent job of changing up their techniques to keep the Bruin defenders off balance. The right side of the line in particular did an excellent job using backside cut blocks on zone running plays to get defenders off their feet and open up cut back lanes for Cardinal runners. Using this "clever" style of play really drives defensive players crazy as they don't know what's coming next, a traditional block occurring between the waist and shoulder or a vicious effort aimed directly at their knees. This tactic will serve the line well all year long. The one glaring area for improvement in the run game is front side, or point-of-attack pad level. Too many times on zone and draw plays the line was simply too high on the play side. It's really critical for this group to emphasize playing low to the call side and it will be a considerable challenge for them to do so as they are all fairly tall and "high-cut" and appear to be a bit short-waisted. As the football cliché goes, "knee benders are hitters", and this group needs to heed that counsel in order to open up bigger holes for Cardinal runners.
All in all I liked what I saw from this group in their opening test against a tough and fast foe. Their clever use of different techniques and tactical changeups was a welcome sight. It's obvious to me that Coach Dalman already has made a tremendous impact on our blockers, and now it's up to them to take their intensity level up and clean up technical errors during the course of battle. Once they can do this in concert with similar improvement from the backs and tight ends, we can expect to see a well-oiled blocking machine giving our playmakers every opportunity to put points up on the board. Even if you're not all that "clever", you'll note that it only takes one more point than the opponent to achieve the ultimate goal: a "W".
About the Author: Thomas Joseph "T.J." Gaynor (LSJU '96) is a native and current resident of Chicago, Ill. A member of the 1991 SuperPrep All-Midlands team, he was a true freshman on the 1991 Aloha Bowl team and started at guard as a redshirt freshman in the 1993 Blockbuster Bowl against Penn State. A true center, T.J. went on to start a total of 33 games for the Cardinal including the 1995 Liberty Bowl, earning All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention honors as a senior in 1995 and All-Pac-10 All-Academic as both a junior and a senior.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!