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What college coaches look for in an offensive line prospect

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The hardest position to evaluate is the O-Line, let’s take a look at why this is true and what coaches are looking for

NCAA FOOTBALL: NOV 12 Miami at Virginia Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The most difficult position to recruit in all of college football is the offensive line. For as many misses as there are all over the field, and especially at quarterback (I took the deep dive into QB recruiting here), offensive line is an even bigger crapshoot of evaluation. The issues along the offensive front are typically of a physical variety, in all reality there just aren’t that many 17 year old student-athletes that fit the baseline size restrictions of an FBS, or even a D3, offensive lineman.

Physical attributes aside, the ability to miss on an evaluation also has to do with what that position is allowed to do at camps and combines. Also, coaches can often be misled by recruiting services that base their star rankings on offers (which can be fabricated or at least blown out of proportion by players as often as they’re accurate) and not on actual ability.

The film can lie at times, too. There’s no position quite like offensive line for seeing absolute mismatches from the high school to college level. A big time tackle prospect might be going against another equally talent player one week, but then a 6’0 190 pound kid who is going pro in something other than sports the next. It takes research, experience and a keen eye to see the difference. I’m hoping that Coach Garin Justice has a better eye, and has better recruiting chops, than the two predecessors before him.


The highlight tape

When it comes to highlight tapes there are a ton of mistakes that players make that can adversely effect a college coach from being able to asses the film. Players will do things like have graphics and flashing arrows and circles which makes it difficult to see which player they’re even pointing at. Another drastic error is that players will put the highlighting circle or arrow in the middle of the play which keeps a coach from seeing the full athletic ability and speed of play.

Another mistake is to put highlights of a 6’4, 300 pound DNA Lottery Winner across from, well, someone that looks like me- at the beginning of the tape. If you want your best 10 plays up front, dominating a vertically challenged future teacher and blog slappy probably isn’t the best way to show your prowess on the football field.

What are the recruiters looking for on the initial viewing of the tape? In Bruce Feldman’s Meat Market, Ed Orgeron’s staff at Ole Miss had a few particulars they loved seeing on tape.

A few of the things they look for are:

1- Are both cleats in the ground in their stance? (See the side by side shot above)

2- Is the player quick off the ball?

3- Are they flexible?

4- Do they dip their hips and strike with force?

5- Do they knock a guy back on impact?

Particular prospects were “gonged” by Orgeron from things like their stance and first step. From there he was particularly unimpressed when certain O-Line prospects would run standing straight up, or wouldn’t engage their core and hips on contact. One particular story left Orgeron asking former Miami offensive line coach Art Kehoe if he had seen the player in the squat rack, asking if Kehoe could remember if the young man’s heels had come up on his squat.

Squat University

Heels coming up on a squat is typically a sign that the player’s ankles and achilles (part of the posterior chain) are weak and tight. Better athletes that are properly trained will keep their heels down and claw their feet on a squat. If the knees turn in and the heels turn out it’s a sign of tight hips and groin.

Art Kehoe used to literally carry a resistance band around with him and force players to squat and overhead squat the resistance band in front of him. It’s the baseline indicator, along with size, that someone isn’t cut out of the Power 5.

When evaluating the OL, Coach Orgeron was looking for toughness, tenacity and flexibility first and foremost. Coach Kehoe was looking for the player to coil (almost like a baseball swing regarding the hip explosion) and explosion into a defender. Kehoe wanted maulers, but also guys with agility and some upside.


At camps

Again, when guys show up at camp there’s an initial size requirement they need to meet. For certain schemes and positions that size can vary. At the college level most would agree that long and athletic tackles with basketball skills are a must to slow down the athletic defensive ends and edge rushing linebackers of the modern era. Those ends have gotten more and more athletic as run-pass options and read option plays have put defenders in more and more post-snap conflict.

Orgeron is a firm believe in competition, and focusing on technique later. His belief is that it’s the college position coach’s job to fix technique, but some things are God given. Just ask LeCharles Bentley. Bentley, a former Pro Bowl offensive lineman in the NFL and Rimmington Award winner in college is the current offensive line guru across America. Bentley’s manual, Building The Block: The Definitive Guide to Building Offensive Line Athletes, is a must read for any offensive line coach.

But even with Bentley’s countless certifications, degrees, and NFL pedigree- he believes that there is a baseline talent needed that’s granted via the DNA Lotto, and the icing on top is hard work. Just take the difference between an undersized Chris Myers or the mammoth Seantrel Henderson. Bentley reteaches the stance, and the block itself. He doesn’t believe in kick-sliding and if you watch closely, few NFL/XFL or NCAA programs are still kick-sliding in 2019 and beyond. Most are using Bentley’s drive-catch method which pushes off the opposite quad and instep of the direction the lineman is pass or run blocking.

Once a player fits the height and weight minimums, they’re tested in a variety of ways at different combines in camps. Combines will get a player’s height and weight, and then test 40-yard dash times, 20-yard shuttles, Vertical Jump, Broad Jump, and Power Ball Tosses to get empirical data. From there, they’ll evaluate if a player can mentally, emotionally, and physically survive the pressure, competition and hard coaching of the camp; and whether or not the player is up to snuff at the camp against other top level players.

Where Kehoe loved the squat rack and resistance band test, Orgeron loved putting the offensive and defensive linemen through the hoop drill. To Orgeron, two guys chasing through the hoops shows flexibility, stability and balance. This is where he feels a big man’s athleticism is either proven or broken. Guys sink or swim in two places for Coach O at a camp: on the hoop and in 1-on-1’s.

1-on-1’s aren’t necessarily the best judgement of how good of a football player you are, as they only focus on pass protection and the defender knows what’s coming and against whom. But if done right, it can truly show who is the toughest, grittiest, nastiest guy at the camp with the resiliency to keep fighting. That’s what a lineman needs, grit. If you can win a 1-on-1 (if they’re done right) you truly are the baddest dude, and that’s needed on the line.


The offensive lineman total package

One Group of 5 program’s evaluation goes as follows:

1- Body Quickness (first step)

2- Foot Quickness (second step)

3- Ankles & Knee Bend (stance, squats)

4- Balance and Body Control (the hoops)

5- Hip unlock (explosion)

This is all before they get to any technique work, such as: Pass Pro, Set, hands, Pass Pro- Lateral Movement, Pass Pro- Anchor, Sand, COD- 2nd level, in space (think working to linebacker or on screens), and Athletic Ability.

The priority for the three sub-groups of the O-Line? A center’s main attribute should be intelligence, in guards they’re look for toughness, and from tackles they want length first. The “OL Critical Factors” start with mental instincts, move to toughness and competition before size and body control as the 3rd factor.

A Power 5 Assistant Coach evaluates to eliminate some of the baseline issues before a player even has their film popped in. His program’s evaluation goes as follows:

1. Size: length, lower body frame, hip width, and growth potential.

2. Bend: Lower body flexibility, can he bend in his stance with his feet in the ground? Hip flexion, ankle flexion, can comfortably squat into the hole with his feet flat in the ground. Power angles (ankle, knee, hip).

3. Power: Can he get his second step in the ground quickly and generate power? Does he play with leverage? Can he unlock and explode through his hips?

4. Strength/Body Control: Can he move people once he’s engaged? Can he drive with power? Does he have balance, can he stay on his feet?

5. Athletic Ability/Feet: Foot quickness, foot fire on contact, base, effective getting to the second level, can run in space (think: screens, too).

6. Hands: Can he punch effectively and strike THROUGH a DL? Strong hands once engaged? Punch in pass pro?

7. Pass pro: Is he effective in getting in position to pass pro, punch and anchor in place?

8. Physicality/Toughness/Finish: Does he play with tenacity? Can he/is he willing to finish? Is he nasty?


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Miami at FIU Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What does this mean for Miami?

We can watch the tale of two tapes and see which fits the mold of the G5 and P5 programs above, and what Orgeron and Kehoe were looking for in Meat Market.

Issiah Walker versus Jalen Rivers

I want you to keep in mind, too, that this is Walker’s senior film versus Rivers’ junior film.

In my evaluation Walker and Rivers both check the size box. They’re obviously large humans who fit the baseline needed to play at the FBS level. Rivers measured in at 6-foot-5, 330 pounds out of Oakleaf High School in Jacksonville, FL. His SPARQ score is a 75.12 while Issiah Walker from Miami-Norland is listed as six-foot-four, 275 pounds with a SPARQ of 71.94 (both players’ scores, heights and weights are via ESPN).

Size: Walker has the size to grow into where as Rivers will work on turning his body into a professional form. 6’5, 330 is typically where someone tops out.

Bend: As you could see in the side-by-side image earlier (above), Walker lacks bend. Rivers on the other hand has great bend, especially for how large he is. If recruiters are checking for whether or not someone can get both heels down in their stance, Rivers checks the box while Walker does not.

Power: I don’t see the hip explosion in Walker that I see in Rivers. Rivers looks like a legitimate four-star prospect on tape that plays low and drives from his hips.

Walker showing little explosion at the point of attack

Rivers makes contact, stays low in the hips, then locks on and drives

Body Control: Walker is on the ground in his tape far too often. If that’s a major cue either for college assistants- that’s not good. Rivers stays up and often looks for his next block after dominating at the 1st level or never lets go of his 1st level assignment.

Pass Protection: Walker is ahead in his pass pro than his run blocking. In pass pro it seems he’s using the drive-catch method while in the run game he’s working on natural instinct. Rivers excels at both in the run and pass game.

Toughness: When Walker makes contact the players, often drastically smaller than him, don’t move. In fact, there are plays (below) on his tape where he makes contact with two smaller players and neither hits the ground or even flinches after contact.

Walker is at the top as the left tackle

Rivers dominates the 2nd level, and doesn’t hit the ground

The play below sold me on his lack of flexibility, hips, and lower body drive. Not only can’t Walker get into his stance, but his initial footwork is so poor he has to flip his feet. Then he can punch and drive but the defender doesn’t move. Walker is up too high and he slips as the defender comes free.

Walker is on the bottom as the left tackle

Rivers at left tackle pass setting

Evaluation

Walker gives up on plays that go away, or after a few seconds of making his block. He’s often seen letting his man go or having his block get shed, even when he outweighs the opponent by nearly 100 pounds. Rivers, on the other hand, dominates his blocks and even on blocks that could be pancakes he stays up showing great balance and spatial awareness.

Walker and Rivers are both solid in pass protection. They are nimble on their feet. I like Rivers’ punch a lot more than Walkers. When Rivers makes contact the defender’s head goes back. When Walker makes contact it’s often not enough to stop the pass rush.

When it comes to things like toughness and finish- that is 100% going to Rivers based on their film. Even as a junior Rivers is finishing and dominating while staying on his feet. Walker is often upright tall, leaning, and falling over after some contact.

It’s good that Miami is bringing in more competition but where Rivers is absolutely checking the boxes that three different FBS evaluators look for I can’t say the same for Walker. If there are character issues there, this could be another odd transfer portal addition from Manny Diaz. If there aren’t, Walker is a project who needs to gain healthy weight and fix his deficiencies in his strength and conditioning via a redshirt year.