Characteristics of Offensive Linemen
To be successful, an offensive lineman needs to have these five characteristics: intelligence, toughness, work ethic, good character, and athletic ability. A team with five players who have all five of these characteristics will be difficult to beat.
Intelligence plays a very important role on the offensive line. Offensive linemen need to be football smart in addition to being able to perform in the classroom. Many good students are not football smart; other players are really smart on the field but don’t perform well in the classroom. Players who do not play smart will get beat during a game. Successful linemen have a balance of both classroom and football intelligence. Find a player who is serious about succeeding in school and who works hard in the classroom, and you will see the same player working hard on the football field. High school coaches must coach the players they have. If an offensive lineman has difficulty learning but the coach needs him to play, the coach can place him next to one of the smarter players. If all five offensive linemen have trouble understanding the game, the coach will need to keep it simple.
Film study is essential at all levels of football, from high school through professional. Watching film is an important basic tool for players. For example, an offensive tackle who will be playing against a defensive tackle or defensive end should study that opponent on film, focusing on the player’s stance, his alignments, the positions of his hands and feet, and his distance on and off the football. This film study will enable the offensive tackle to find keys that will assist him during the game. The coach could have the players bring in a report on Wednesdays about who they will be playing against that week. It is surprising how much information a coach can receive from the players. Watching DVDs of various defenses can also help offensive linemen in their preparation. These DVDs can be used to show how defenses are called, the coverages used, and the various types of blitzes that may occur. During the first two meetings of fall and spring practice, I like to teach nothing but defense. Once the players know what the defense is doing, they have a better understanding of how they can attack offensively.
Mental and physical toughness are essential characteristics for an offensive lineman. These characteristics are developed through drills on the football field, mat programs, weight room work, and station drills. A player must first create a degree of mental toughness. Physical toughness usually follows mental toughness. Players need to understand that pain is a large part of football, especially in the trenches. Players must be able to play with pain. (Injury is different. An injured player should sit out of practice or contact.)
During the season, our practices include individual coaching time during which only 10 players participate. A player who is not blocking is standing in on defense and getting blocked. Players take a lot of pride in helping each member of the unit perform the best block he can against resistance. This part of practice includes a lot of fast-paced repetitions on drive blocks; zone blocks to the linebackers; and reach, cutoff, and down blocks. It has been said that my offensive linemen do more in 40 minutes than others do all practice. Hydration is a very important part of practice; water is available all the time. The practice schedule is set up so the first individual period—which includes chutes; T-boards; and work on reach blocks, cutoff blocks, and blocking schemes—is considered a buster. (A buster is an all-out grinding period. It is a gut-check, no-holds-barred, give-it-your-all type of period.)
After the individual run blocking period, we work on the inside run versus defense. At this point, the coach wants the offensive line to be tired. The coach wants the line to have to grind out eight plays, or two sets of four reps, to the point of exhaustion. After the work on the inside run is done, the players take a 5-minute break. Although players at other positions sit down during breaks, offensive linemen stand or take a knee. They take their helmets off for the break.
After the 5-minute break, we move on to group work. Group work is run at a fast tempo but not as hard as the individual period; this gives the linemen a chance to regroup before pass progression. Many players consider pass progression, a period of 12 minutes, to be more difficult than run progression. Pass progression is a seven-step progression of drills that consists of partner work, very demanding resistance, a lot of straining, and fast repetitions (this progression is described in chapter 12). On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the offensive line is expected to be exhausted when going into one-on-one pass rush. When working offensive players against defensive players, the coach wants them to be so tired that they have to find that fourth-quarter gear. Then, during the game, when players hit the fourth quarter, they can say, “I’ve been much more tired than this,” and they can then go dominate. This doesn’t happen by talking about it; the coach must take the players where they are going to live.
The off-season program of agilities and mats consists of 60 minutes of pure getting after it. This includes a 3-minute break after every 16 minutes. Players must perform each drill correctly and at full speed or they are required to repeat it. Each player is graded after each station while it is fresh in the coach’s mind. At the end of the day, a reward may be in order. For example, black shirts could be awarded for excellence, grey shirts for average, and orange shirts for below average. This schedule is very demanding and requires mental toughness. The mat program consists of commands, feet position, and football position breakdowns. Players must work hard to stay in a great football position—low with knees bent—and must be able to move and play from this position. Players have a tendency to play high. One idea to break this tendency is to have players run in pens and under ropes at the end of mat drills. Drills need to be set up so that if players lose focus and don’t concentrate, they repeat the drill. Drills are broken down like game situations—play hard, rest, play hard, rest. Players sprint from point A to point B, with an emphasis on finishing. I recently timed a player to determine the actual work he completed in a 60-minute workout with one repeat. The result was a total of 7 minutes and 40 seconds of work. Many players don’t know how or when to rest. This lack of knowledge may get them into trouble with their coaches and teammates. These drills will help create the team leaders and will help all players develop mental toughness.
Players also need to become aggressive about weights and the weight room. Discipline is important in the lifts and techniques. Once a week, we stress mental toughness in the weight room. This may involve tests of mental toughness, such as having two players hang from the pull-up bar to see who can last the longest or having them perform a four-point push-up to see who will be the last one. We often determine the starting lineup based on the order of finishing.
Hard work is the basic foundation of any successful offensive line. My linemen often state that they are the hardest working group of linemen in the United States. This is the mind-set that I want my offensive linemen to have. My reputation for requiring my linemen to work hard is built on fact. Pro scouts often say that they have never seen a harder working group of offensive linemen. The pro scouts relay this message to the players, and this helps validate our work ethic. Similarly, ex-players and visiting coaches can help sell this to players. A great work ethic is one of the first things I look for in an offensive lineman. When recruiting, the question of the player’s work ethic is usually at the forefront. I tell players about our program. I tell them that they will be worked until they think they can’t go another step—and that I will then ask them to do more. The less dedicated player will not want to continue.
Players come from many different backgrounds—such as blue collar, city, or country. Some players may have a good work ethic, and some may not. A coach can teach kids to work hard and to be proud of their accomplishments. When coaching at Glenville State College, a Division II school, I had my players paint the field house, clean the weight room, and put in new lockers and floors. When they were finished, they had a lot of pride in what they accomplished. Hard work will help players win on and off the field.