“Most of the work, none of the glory.”
That’s a line that could accurately describe the battle that goes on in the trenches every week.
Because it’s true: most fans only notice offensive lineman when they’re playing poorly and getting beat. When the line is playing well as a unit, observers tend to focus on the running back that makes a big play or a receiver juking in the open field rather than the big hog mollies up front that made the play possible.
It’s no secret that the Miami Hurricanes have struggled on the offensive line in the past few seasons. In fact, it could be argued that they were the main position group that was holding this team back from achieving its lofty goals. No holes in the running game and quarterbacks constantly running for their lives was a common theme for Miami’s O-Line coming into 2017.
After some inconsistencies earlier in the season, particularly against UNC, the offensive line has taken the next step forward in its maturation during Miami’s most important stretch of football. While the defense and other offensive position groups have held steady, it can be argued that the offensive line’s improvement has played the biggest part in Miami’s undefeated season thus far.
Growth of a few key players like Kc McDermott and Tyler Gauthier, as well as the addition of highly-touted true freshman Navaughn Donaldson, has helped to turn it all around this year. Miami established the line of scrimmage and paved top 15 opponents Virginia Tech and Notre Dame in the past 2 weeks, assisting in gaining 223.5 rushing yards per game and allowed only 2 sacks combined.
Actually, in all of 2017, UM is averaging 179.9 rushing ypg and allowing only 15 sacks. That’s an improvement from 2016, when an unstable line wasn’t opening much room in the run game (151.8 rushing ypg) and was a sieve in pass protection (25 sacks). Ditto for 2015 (119.9 rushing ypg).
But, these are only the surface stats. We know so many other variables go into these numbers, as well as truly assessing offensive line performance, that we’d have to dig a little deeper to really get answers on how the offensive line is playing.
Well, thanks to the guys at Football Outsiders, we can get advanced metrics compared to the rest of the college football world to get a better idea just how much Miami’s offensive line has improved.
Take Adjusted Line Yards for example. Adjusted based on game situation and the quality of opponents you’ve faced, Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) is a statistic that attempts to, even to a small extent, separate the ability of a running back from the ability of the offensive line and measures how many yards the line itself is helping create in the running game. ALY is presented on a scale in which 100.0 is perfectly average, above 100 is good, below 100 is bad.
The Canes were at a 96.6 in AYL in 2016, good for 97th out of 130 FBS programs, indicative of a unit that did not do much work for its running back. Now? That number has shot up to 113.2 in 2017, which is 26th in the nation, telling us the Miami offensive line is well above average at creating space for guys like Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas. For comparisons sake, Oklahoma’s offensive line is #1 nationally in AYL with 137.3.
Next, let’s look at Opportunity Rate. This metric measures the percentage of carries that gain at least five yards (when at least five yards are available), a number most coaches are looking to hit on early downs. In other words, Opp. Rate is the percentage of carries on which the line is doing its job in the running game.
And the Hurricanes O-Line was one of the worst in the nation at consistently performing in the run game in 2016 with a 37.1% Opp. Rate, which was 101st in the country. This is another area where Miami has made a massive jump in 2017, trending into elite territory at 12th in the nation with a 44.3% Opp. Rate. This means that when five yards are available to be gained on the ground, Miami’s offensive line is “doing its job” and helping pick up at least that much nearly half the time. Ohio State’s offensive line is the best in the country in Opp. Rate with a 49.9% figure.
Nobody likes seeing the defensive front seven swarm into the backfield to end a play before it begins, so Stuff Rate is just what it sounds like: the percentage of runs that are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage. Again, Miami was one of the worst in the nation in this area a year ago, at a whopping 22.9% (117th in FBS). They have made a small upgrade in this department, now at 20.4% this season (82nd in FBS). So while the line is liable to breakdown at times and allow a tackle for loss, it is a far cry from the frequent stuffs in the backfield we’ve seen in previous years. Army’s triple-option offense is #1 in Stuff Rate at 10.2%.
Here’s a number that doesn’t lie if you’ve watched Miami at all this year: a 46.7% Power Success Rate (PSR). PSR measures the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown and Miami is last in the nation in this metric. The Canes have really struggled to impose their will when the whole stadium knows a run is coming and these short yardage issues are one of the main problems holding the UM offense back from becoming a more efficient scoring unit. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Army again pushing defenses off the ball with a 89.3% PSR.
How well is the line holding up when Miami takes to the air? Looking past mere sack numbers, Sack Rate represents sacks divided by pass plays, which include passes, sacks, and aborted snaps. It is a better measure of pass blocking than total sacks because it takes into account how often an offense passes the ball. Adjusted Sack Rate (ASR) adds adjustments for opponent quality, as well as down and distance, ie. sacks are more common on third down, especially third-and-long. 100 is perfectly average, above 100 is good, below 100 is bad.
Miami’s ASR this year is a solid 122.8 (45th in the nation), slightly up from 2016 at 117.9. So, when taking various factors into account, Miami is above average at protecting Malik Rosier when he drops back to pass. Fresno State is way out ahead of the pack with an outlying 374.9 ASR.
Now that we have a total ASR, let’s break the sack numbers down into down and distance. Miami actually gives up more sacks on early downs (1st and 2nd down), allowing a 5.4% Standard Downs Sack Rate, which is 77th in the country. However, the Canes’ offensive line is much better at keeping a pocket on passing downs (3rd and 4th down) with a 3.2% Passing Downs Sack Rate, good for 10th in the country, a big improvement from 5.9% in 2016. So, when the opponent is expecting pass, UM’s offensive line is able to dig deep and stay in front of their man, but oddly has more trouble when a pass or run play is a mystery to the defense.
Miami’s offensive line has made outstanding leaps in 2017 when it comes to creating holes for the backs to plow through and has been more consistent at doing its job in the run game. While small improvements have been made allowing less tackles for loss, the power run game in short yardage situations leaves much to be desired. They’ve also held up in the passing game for the most part and are actually even better at keeping their QB clean when the opponent is expecting a throw on typical passing downs.
Developing a strong running game to set up the pass is a big part of what Mark Richt wants to do on offense, and the offensive line plays a huge role in that; you’re starting to see the fruits of Richt’s labor pay off with the improvements in the trenches. As Richt gets more and more of his personnel into the program, the sky is the limit for how great this offensive line can be.