Stepping-Up: Offensive Line Edition

The system that the Oregon Ducks employ, in theory, allows for any player to come in and be successful. Years of recruiting less-talented athletes than other elite universities forced the coaching staff to adapt to what they were given. This mindset led to developing one of the best offensive systems in college football.

None of the above would be possible without the stellar play of the offensive line.

Last year, the O-Line protected Marcus Mariota superbly. With their help, he was able to command the offense and do just about whatever he wanted. The offense scored more than 45 points per game because the O-Line allowed opportunities for players to be successful.

The system might be the same, but there are plenty of new faces on offense that fans will have to get used to in 2015. Let’s take a look at what the offensive line unit might look like this year:

Experience

Welcome back big boy!

Craig Strobeck

Welcome back, big boy!

Call me what you will, but I think the offensive line unit will be better than last year’s. Yes, that’s a bold claim, especially after losing such great players such as Jake Fisher and Hroniss Grasu. This year, however, the return of Tyler Johnstone will impact the offense in ways we couldn’t imagine last year.

Johnstone stands at 6’6″, weighing 300 lbs. His presence is daunting and his experience is scary. From 2012-2013, Johnstone put together a string of 26 straight starts. He left the Alamo Bowl early and missed all of last season with knee injuries, so Ducks fans likely forgot about him.

He was supportive all of last season, mentoring his teammates on the line and giving his feedback during practice. Every time the camera panned to show Mariota, Johnstone was right there making sure he knew what was going on. Having such a leader back on the field will pay dividends come game day.

Crosby celebrating the successes of last year, with his pal Royce Freeman.

Kevin Cline

Crosby celebrating the successes of last year, with his pal Royce Freeman.

Standout freshman tackle, Tyrell Crosby, got his call last year due to the injury to Johnstone. Fisher moved to left tackle, so there was a void that needed to be filled at right tackle. Crosby came in as a true freshman — and for anyone to say he had a “major impact” last season is an understatement.

In an interview with Aaron Fentress of csnnw.com, offensive coordinator, Scott Frost, praised the young talent: “It’s hard to play on the offensive line as a true freshman. Jake Fisher did it, Tyrell has done it. I expect Tyrell to improve leaps and bounds next year. And with him and Tyler we should be in line to have really good offensive tackles.”

With those positions almost set in stone, the focus turns to the interior. Losing Grasu is huge, but I expect players to step up in his place. Though nothing has been finalized, expect to see Jake Pisarcik in the mix at the center position along with Cameron Hunt and Matt Pierson at left and right guards, respectively. Haniteli Louisi is another player to look out for along with big freshman recruit, Zach Okun.

With Johnstone’s return and Crosby coming in with a year of experience under his belt, I expect the O-Line to be very mature this year. The QB position is still up for grabs, but the offensive line seems to be locked-down.

Familiarity

The success that the offense had last year is still shocking to me. Athletes such as Bralon Addison and Devon Allen went down with torn ACLs. And who can forget Pharaoh Brown‘s leg being used to demonstrate right angles in a geometry class? The offensive line suffered too, which made last year’s success so incredible.

The success of any offensive line unit is predicated on communication. Being able to understand each other’s line calls and ability to recognize defensive schemes is something they learn to do with their teammates. With many different line combinations last year, Mariota and the rest of the offense operated around an unfamiliar O-Line unit — and they somehow made it work.

This year will be different. I can’t predict the future, but if this O-Line stays healthy, nothing will come in its way (knock on wood). Having a solidified group going into summer ball is incredibly important. When practices start to speed up and the thought of that first game becomes real, it’s important to know who you are playing with.

When players are familiar with each other, they can run the inside zone read — seen below …

… or the outside zone read whenever they choose — seen below.

When plays seemed like they were blown last year, Mariota made miraculous things happen. Whether it’s Vernon Adams or Jeff Lockie, those types of things won’t happen as frequently as they did last year. This year, the system will play itself just like it should, because the O-Line will make sure it happens that way.

It was brutal last year when Grasu went down with his leg injury. The center is responsible for making many key calls that not only affects the rest of the O-Line, but the QB as well. Whoever becomes the center, look for his teammates to rely on him a lot. Becoming familiar with the main signal caller in the trenches will prove to be a key factor for the Ducks offensive success moving forward.

The Numbers

Last season’s stats: 4,687 pass yards, 3,518 rush yards, and an average of 45.4 points per game.

It is a bold statement to say that I think this offense has the capability of putting up similar numbers to last year. However, without Mariota, there is some uncertainty. But this offensive line unit is set to be one of the best in recent years, and with the skill players who coach Mark Helfrich has to work with this year — the sky is truly the limit.

No matter what, remember that every play starts on the line.

For the Defensive Line edition, click here.

Top Photo by Craig Strobeck

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