Saturday, August 15, 2009

Offensive Line Preview - 2009

Here's hoping we can find a few more O'Callaghans this season.

It's time to talk about the offensive line, my favorite position in the game of football. At no position is there a more pure opportunity to impose your physical will on the opponent, play after play. And that has always been true, in every football era, in every offensive system, on every play, and in every type of weather. It is the embodiment of what football is all about.

Offensive lines don't become less important because of certain situations in the game, the way say a WR, RB or DB does, or a defender who plays away from the ball, because a team is behind and has to abandon the run, or can't throw because of the rain or wind. And linemen don't have to hold back at times to act as safety valves the way certain defenders do. Their job is to dominate their opponent on every play and protect the QB at all times.

The other thing about offensive linemen is that, along with the quarterback, they need to be the most cerebral guys on the field. An offensive lineman needs to know not only his own assignments, which require him to read the defense in the seconds between when he breaks the huddle and when the ball is snapped, but also those of the players around him - the other linemen, the backs, the TE, and the QB. This involves calls and signals at the line, quick thinking and poise.

Then, as if that is not difficult enough, when the ball is snapped and Haloti Ngata or Terrell Suggs comes bearing down on you like a wild animal, you have to stop thinking and start executing. The consummate offensive lineman does all of these things well.

Another thing - I have always felt there is something to how a team takes the field. And I am not talking about DBs and WRs being jacked up and hooting and hollering and running out of the smoke like you're on the set of "Any Given Sunday." It's easy to get hyped in the moment when the fans are yelling and you've been waiting all week to play. I am talking about jogging onto the field with a quiet confidence that you are going to own your opponent, that you are going to shroud him in darkness and never let the light in, not just on the first play, but from kickoff to game's end. If you watch great offensive line units, especially in the old days, that is how they take the field.

I was at the Coliseum in 2004 and watched that Cal team, and in particular, that offensive line, take the field. And that is how they looked. Calm, confident and grim.

In 2005, the unit still had that demeanor. But since then, that's been missing from this unit. Here's hoping it changes this year. With that, onto the preview.

Coach Marshall

When coach Marshall was first hired, I was hopeful he would bring some of the nastiness back to the position that has been lacking on this team since 2005. While the actual product on the field remains to be seen, there are early indications from camp and some player comments that suggest Marshall is a good candidate to revive some of that fire.

From Chris Nguon at Bear Territory: "Offensive line coach Steve Marshall chewed out his unit for not running to the line fast enough and made them do it three times. No big deal? It came on the very first snap of practice. How's that for intensity?"

From Chris Guarnero:
"When (former coach Jim Michalczik) was here, we actually went out to Cleveland with Marshall, so there's some of the same techniques and drills that we do," Guarnero said. "But his energy is just off the charts."

And then of course, there's my favorite piece of evidence, his photo from his Cleveland Browns bio:

Smiling is for pussies.

I have a feeling this unit is going to grow some toughness by the end of fall camp.

Mike Tepper

Getting Tepper back for this season was a big lift for this unit. Though his talents as a blocker are good to have back, to me, the biggest benefit to him coming back is his leadership and poise in pressure situations this season. Since signing in 2004, think about what this guy has seen:

2004-1st and goal from the 9, best season the Tedford Cal program has had;
2005-Ayoob and the booing, agonizing losses in Pasadena and Eugene;
2006-Tenn loss, 8 straight wins, maddening road loss to UofA;
2007-winning in Eugene, seconds from a #1 ranking, the meltdown;
2008-losing at MD, the QB controversy.

He's played on top 10 teams and unranked teams. He's been through three teams with Heisman candidates. He's played multiple OOC road games. And most importantly, he knows what it looks like and feels like for teams of all different make-ups to fall short of their own hopes and expectations, year in and year out. This is Tepper's last year, so you can bet he wants to end the cycle.

Championship teams need guys like this to provide an example to younger players and keep them focused and hungry all season long, avoiding letdowns and distractions, and dealing with pressure. And frankly, this is the most pressure I've seen heaped on any Cal team under Tedford. This team has the talent to handle it - the question is whether it has the mental fortitude and focus.

In terms of Tepper's body of work, he does a lot of things well. The first thing to remember about Tepper though is that he's only had 1 full season as a starter. He was a backup RS Soph in 2006, started all of 2007, sat out 2008 with an injury, and is now entering his second season as a starter. The reason I point this out is unlike a lot of 6th year guys or returning seniors who were already at or near the top of their game, I think Tepper has considerably more upside. I predict we will see some significant improvement from him.

In run blocking, Tepper is very strong at the point of attack, moves his feet really well for a big, tall guy who weighs 320. When he gets in the open field and tries to cut block or get in front of guys, he's as nimble as any tackle I've watched under Tedford. He's also able to get under guys' pads pretty well and control them, which is also hard to do at 6'7".

Regarding pass blocking, this is the area where Tepper flashes brilliance and then throws in some lapses. In 2007, he took on some pretty good speed rushers and was able to stay in front of them impressively at times. Other times, he seemed a step slow to react and guys got the jump on him. Again, some of that is just experience. But this is an area where Tepper needs to tighten up, because unlike Longshore who was good about throwing the ball away early, Riley has a tendency to hold onto the ball. That puts more pressure on the o-line to maintain blocks, but none more important than the left tackle.

Other than tightening up pass blocking (which every lineman is always working on), the one thing I'd like to see more of from Tepper is some filthiness. He's got tremendous strength, but he's still more technician than mauler. And you can just tell by his interviews and the way he carries himself that he's an affable guy. Once in a while, I'd really like to see Tepper come flying in to a scrum 10 yards downfield and take out some DB just before the whistle blows, the way Mack used to.

I think Tepper has first or second team all-conference potential, if he can avoid giving up sacks in the high profile games (MD, Ore, and USC) and Cal puts up big rushing numbers this season.

Mitchell Schwartz

Schwartz is on the way to being a dominant college right tackle, plain and simple. Other than Mack, this team really hasn't had this kind of player on the line since O'Callaghan graduated. Schwartz isn't quite there yet, but he's close. In the run game, at times he just flattens people or overpowers them. He's great at getting angles on guys and sealing the edge. And he gets downfield with excellent quickness. Whereas he's not quite as fleet afoot as Tepper, he shows more consistent ability to just mow people down than anyone else on the line. Of all the guys on the line right now, to me he shows the most NFL potential.

He also seems to have good command of where he's supposed to go and what his assignments are, which was impressive for a RS Freshman last season. I rarely saw him take poor angles or whiff on blocks (other than maybe Maryland, which was possibly the worst offensive line performance of the Tedford era after Knoxville 2006).

His pass blocking is pretty good. Not as refined as Tepper's, as he's not quite as nimble as Tepper, but he compensates for that very well by taking good angles and anticipating well. And being on the QB's right side, he has a bit more flexibility in where he can take his man because the QB can adjust a bit. Plus, he was only a RS Freshman last year. Like every college lineman though, pass blocking is something he'll get better at. It takes ridiculous skill and conditioning to stay in front of 270-lb guys who are going balls out for the QB, without holding them and without losing your balance. And he's pretty good at it already.

Finally, Schwartz most definitely has the filth factor. The guy seems like a classic Jekyll and Hyde - soft spoken off the field, petty and hateful on the field.

I think he's got a legitimate shot at all-conference this year as well, and is probably a shoo-in for 2010. Here are Danzig's clips of Schwartz from the first three games of 08:

Chris Guarnero

A lot is being made about Guarnero filling big shoes. Let's get something out of the way now: in 2009, he is not going to be as good as Alex Mack was in 2007 or 2008. He might be in the same range as Mack was in 2006, but that's debatable. To begin with, Mack had about 2 inches and 30 pounds on him. Second, Guarnero's only started four games or so, and it was at guard not center. But most importantly, Mack was a rare offensive lineman that combined size and strength with freakish flexibility and body control. As a result, he was able to make blocks that most college centers simply can't make.

But here's the thing. Guarnero doesn't have to be a Mack clone to be a good center. Most blocking assignments don't require a center to be the kind of athlete Mack was. Beyond the obligatory good technique and smarts, centers in particular need very quick reflexes, a stable, stout center of gravity, and the ability to play very low. Watching Guarnero last season, the guy has all of those things, except as of now the stoutness.

And that's probably the only thing that concerns me about him -- his lack of heft. At times he seemed to get knocked around a bit, particularly versus Maryland. That was the best acid-test game Guarnero played in last season, as Mich St.'s front was smaller, and didn't slant and stunt as much, and Wazzu and Col. St. just weren't that good up front.

Guarnero does have very good technique, but on more than a few occasions, he got pushed off course and even plain off his feet at least once that I saw. Also, when d-linemen pinch or slant, sometimes an offensive lineman only gets into part of the DL's body but still has to try to block or "chip" the DL off his course. Bigger, stronger OL can manage to stun a guy with a glancing blow even without being 100% locked up with them. That stun can buy the QB an extra sliver of daylight as the pocket collapses. I noticed a few times last season in these situations, Guarnero simply wasn't able to knock his man off course.

In pass pro, he plays with very textbook technique - straight back, light on his feet, and good reflexes. He has good quickness to stay in front of guys when they try to speed rush him or blow by him. His problem is going to be dealing with tackles and bigger LBs with good bull rush techniques. Undoubtedly he will improve in this area, but this is certainly an area of concern.

His run blocking is somewhat similar, in that he has very good technique and is really quick on his feet. He plays with great pad level, gets good angles and is able to seal guys well when they're lined up over him. And he runs very well downfield, making him perfect for screens. But again, even with that technique and quickness, at 275, he's going to have trouble bullying the Brian Prices of the world on 3rd and short. Tedford mentioned at the coaches' tour that he wanted to see Guarnero put on some weight, and if you watched him closely last year, you can see why.

Which brings me back to blocking schemes. Because this team lacks the girth and power in the middle of the OL, I think the coaches are going to look to create angles of advantage in the blocking schemes, using counters, traps, down blocks, double teams and other methods to allow smaller, quicker guys like Guarnero get the jump on people.

Filth factor: check. Guarnero definitely gets after it and likes to mix it up. You can tell he learned a lot from watching his predecessor.

In the end, I'm not sure Guarnero will be an all-conference center, but I think he'll be a very solid, reliable Marcus Ezeff-type player the next two seasons.

Chet Teofilo

Chet, Chet, Chet. Alas. You're huge. You can move decently well. You look like you could be a dominant offensive guard in this league. But sometimes you play more like a teddy bear than a rabid grizzly.

I keep hearing about Teofilo's "good feet" and the fact that he's fighting injuries. But I have to say, I just think he's not a natural offensive lineman. There's something missing in his game. He was recruited as a defensive lineman and then moved over to offense, and I keep wondering why.

Chet's strengths are his massive lower body build, and his ability to turn opponents once he gets into their pads. He definitely works better in small spaces, which is why I think there's promise for him at guard. And sometimes, he pass protects very well, and you see the "good feet" thing.

But for me, more often than not last year (and granted, it was at tackle not guard), Chet just seemed either out of position, a step slow, or unable to control his man. He was initially moved from LT to RT last year because he was getting beaten badly on the edge in pass pro. And in run blocking, he was pretty good when a guy was lined up over him, but he struggled more if he had to try to get in front of a moving target downfield, especially out on the edge.

I do think he will be better inside than outside this season if he gets the start. He's huge, he can move decently well, he can turn guys, and he knows the calls, so he can be trusted with his assignments.

But the thing that concerns me with Teofilo, along with his seemingly affable demeanor, is the fact that he's a senior and I am not sure how much more of an advantage he presents than playing a younger guy and taking your lumps but building for the future. If Teofilo shows more control and dominance at guard, then I think you give him the nod due to his experience. But if he doesn't separate himself considerably, or keeps getting beat, I think you have to start thinking about MSG/Bosko, Cheadle or even Edwards (who I think could be a decent guard).

Mark Boskovich

For me, Boskovich is sort of the opposite of Teofilo. Whereas I keep hearing excuses about Teofilo, all I hear is how bad Boskovich was. I think Boskovich is not as bad as people made him out to be. I actually watched him closely last season because I was curious why he got the nod when Guarnero went down.

What I saw was a guy who was serviceable and was no worse or better than Norris Malele. Norris got abused more than a few times last season, and there was nary a mention for reasons that are not clear to me. Malele singlehandledly almost cratered the UCLA flea flicker by giving Brian Price a matador block. Riley's sidestep was the only thing that saved that play. But all people kept talking about was Bosko being the weak link.

But my point is not that Bosko is the answer at guard -- he's not. The point is that the bar's been set ridiculously low at guard under Tedford, especially in recent years. Merz was the last good guard. Gibson should have played guard but they needed him at tackle. Robertson was pretty good, but not great. But guys like Deemer getting abused like a doll by Justin Harrell in Knoxville opened the door for guys like Malele and De La Puente, who were serviceable upgrades, but certainly not players you expect to control the Sed Ellises and Brian Prices of the conference.

And I put Boskovich (and Teofilo) in the same category. Serviceable, but never going to allow you to start rolling over people in the second half the way we used to in 04 and 05.

Briefly, in both run and pass, Bosko does what the coaches ask him to do. And he makes his blocks pretty consistently. But he lacks the footspeed and agility needed to get angles on guys, to stay in front of linebackers in the run game, and ward off speed rushers. I do think he'd improve this season if given the chance, but as with Cheadle over Chet, I think we're going to see the coaches take a chance on Summers-Gavin.

And Boskovich definitely does not show the filthiness you want out of a guard. Some of that was I think just the need to channel all his energy into his assignments because it was a lot to keep straight as a sophomore. But you can see natural nastiness pretty clearly, and I didn't see it from him.

Donovan Edwards

Edwards is a tweener. Not long enough to play tackle, not thick or powerful enough for guard. But between the two, I've always felt if he could put on some weight, he could grow into being a good quick pulling guard. What he has though is good footspeed and long arms, which is probably why the coaches put him at tackle. But that can come in handy at guard as well.

In run blocking, Edwards was not notably powerful with a man on the line over him. He was quick enough to get an angle and turn guys, and had some decent seal blocks that way. But I don't recall him getting that push backwards that you hope for from a power right tackle. But where he does very well in the run game is getting downfield and getting a hat on a LB. He's fast for a big guy, and has long rangy arms that allow him to get into a guy and disrupt his angle to the ball carrier. In Cignetti's zone runs outside, Edwards got pretty good at pulling and making these blocks, notably in the Emerald Bowl where at least once he put a guy on his back.

In pass blocking, his quick feet made him better, though he needs a bit more bend and fluidity to stay in front of guys. At guard, he probably has the ability to shadow big DTs, but some of the speed ends last year were able to get the jump on him. And he doesn't show the kind of arm strength that can stun speed rushers even as they get to his outside shoulder.

That said, I think they'll keep him at tackle and he'll compete with some of the younger guys for the backup spot.

What I really like about Edwards is his attitude. Watch the USC game from last year. He was jawing with Everson Griffen all game long, clapping his hands in his face and walking over to slap him five when Griffen got the roughing call. And Edwards really seems to relish the competition. That's what you want out of your linemen.

Key Reserves

Right now, the three guys are Fisher, Summers-Gavin and Cheadle.

Fisher to me is the quintissential Berkeley football player, a true renaissance man. First off, the guy's a swiss army knife, having to learn both center and guard last season in case Mack went down, depending on where they wanted to put Guarnero. That shows a lot of confidence in him by the coaches (though the guy is still not on scholarship, which seems wrong to me).

He's also famously a vegetarian, which I don't think people fully appreciate. It is really, really hard to maintain the endurance, heft and strength of a full football season without eating meat. You can live on a vegetarian diet, but it's hard to keep that dense muscle weight on for an entire season when you're burning insane amounts of calories. And, not being on scholarship, he doesn't get to eat at the training table with all the other players, meaning he's got to fend for himself. Hats off to Fisher.

Summers-Gavin was a highly touted recruit who lost a year to a freak slip and fall that resulted in a concussion. Haven't seem him play yet in a Cal uniform, but he's getting the first team reps in camp thus far, which suggests the coaches think he's at least got a shot to be the starter. Don't know much else about him, other than his high school videos, which were pretty good. Not Schwartz-good, but still pretty impressive:

Cheadle did see some time last year vs. USC and Oregon. Against Oregon he played fine - nothing really noteworthy, which for a guard is generally a good thing. He had a lot of double team blocks with Mack. He did sort of get beat on one pass play where he held his block for a second and then the defender shed him and started to collapse the pocket. Otherwise played pretty well.

Versus USC, it was more of the same. A couple guys sort of blew past him in pass pro but otherwise he generally held his ground. He pulled and got downfield for a nice cut block on one play, showing good speed and quickness. He also showed some aggressiveness getting after guys a bit, which given the opponent, is a good sign of his temperament for the position.

Unit Outlook

As I said in my earlier Underestimated Weaknesses post, I have some concerns about this unit's ability to get those critical yards in short yardage situations, simply due to the loss of Mack, and what I perceive to be the lack of maniacal, road graders at guard.

I think there will be some growing pains in pass blocking as well, especially if new guys are given the job, as that is always the technique that takes the longest to develop.

But I am optimistic that Marshall seems like throwback coach - that should instill some toughness. And as I've said before, this has the chance to be a massive starting 5 in terms of size. With the right coaching, they can grown into an overpowering unit. And finally, I am encouraged by what I suspect will be some new wrinkles in blocking schemes that should create advantages, leverage and angles for this group, to free up Best and buy them time to reach their potential as the season wears on.


oldemenlobear said...

Enjoyed your analysis (again).
Yes, the 2004 O-line sure made life simpler: control the line of scrimmage, move the chains, dictate tempo, Bears win!
I hope the 2009 O-line progresses faster than you expect, given the early season gut checks of weeks 4 & 5. And those 2008 tfl stats for Best & Vereen must be improved - Riley could be Tom Brady and it wont really matter unless the o-line steps it up.

dmgobears said...

Spot on analysis. MSG appears to be claiming the starting left guard position, but final depth chart decisions will be made Weds 26 August, or a week and a half prior the opener with the Terrepins. I also believe MSG plays with a real nasty streak.

The best oline news so far in camp, has been the relative injury free play so far enjoyed by this key unit. A key factor in determining whether the team has a successful 2009 season is avoiding injuries to our oline.

JJ said...

Great analysis, especially the observation regarding Cal's recent history with OGs. They really haven't had a "mauler" there in quite some time. I'd like to see them go with Cheadle and MSG b/c there's greater potential there. Even though MSG hasn't really played in a collegiate game, his film shows great potential. I'm also glad that Fischer is getting snaps at Center. Event though Galas will be a good center eventually, I'd be a bit worried if something happened to Guarnero and we had three underclassmen in the middle.


Kyle said...

Awesome, awesome read.

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