The O-Line Relay: Cristobal’s New Weapon to Win the Pac-12?

Mike Merrell Editorials

Anyone who’s ever had to compete single-handedly against a relay can tell you that it’s not a level playing field. Could this concept be formulated into a strategy that Coach Mario Cristobal utilizes to win and, ultimately, dominate the Pac-12? Let’s look at some unknown aspects of the offensive line and see if we can determine the unique new tactic that Oregon will use in its resurgence.

The difficulty of trying to beat a relay is something I learned the hard way when I was seventeen. I was first-team All-Inland Northwest in the 400-meter individual medley when my team was invited to put on a demonstration in a nearby small town that was just starting up a swim team.

Coach Mario Cristobal

Our coach was Dan Cole. Dan later served as the Ducks’ head swim coach (back in the day when Oregon had an NCAA swim program) and currently coaches at Willamalane in Springfield. Anyway, Dan got this great idea that it would be fun (for him, maybe) to have me race the fourteen-year-old girls’ medley relay.

He made it a little more of a challenge by having me swim medley relay order (backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle) instead of the more user-friendly individual medley order (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle). The girls also had the advantage of starting each leg from a dive instead of a turn.

Let’s face it. I was doomed from the start.

Nonetheless, I had a good lead after the backstroke, even if it was my weakest stroke. Then the advantage of the dive gave the girls the lead. But breaststroke was my strongest leg, and I regained the lead – barely.

Then came butterfly. It’s a hard enough stroke when you’re fresh, and can become impossible once you get tired. The girls got me again on the dive, and I had no answer. All I could do was curse Dan Cole, which, for that experience, I do to this day.

But there was a lesson learned: It’s mighty difficult to compete against fresh bodies when you are beat on your butt.

We’ve seen the “relay” advantage in football. Who doesn’t remember Kani Benoit break long runs after other teams had suffered through two-and-a-half quarters of trying to tackle Royce Freeman? Or Kenjon Barner coming in behind LaMichael James and ripping off huge gains?

So, what’s with Mario Cristobal and all these offensive linemen? Is he just trying to field the best five, or is he setting up to run relays?

Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu

The Ducks currently have twelve O-linemen on their roster, and not one is a senior! The 2018 recruiting class due to join the team next month includes five more. The newbies weigh an average of 330+, and every one of them is ranked among the top fifty offensive linemen nationally in the 2018 class. Also joining the team is grad-transfer and former Alabama O-lineman, Dallas Warmack.

The number one JC player in the country, offensive lineman Malaesala Aumavea-Laulu (6’7″, 345) is committed to join the program next year. And Cristobal is still looking for more linemen to add to the 2019 class!

Add all that up, and you have nineteen offensive linemen on next year’s roster. Of course, that’s before attrition, but it’s also before any more additions. With nineteen players to fill five positions, it doesn’t feel like Cristobal is just hoping to find five starters, plus another couple who can fill in if someone gets hurt.

Cristobal has made no secret that he hopes to wear opponents down by the fourth quarter. No doubt, “bigger and stronger” is part of the package.

But there’s some pretty strong evidence that Cristobal plans to run a relay against opponents’ defensive lines. And if it makes sense to do it with running backs, why not do it with offensive linemen?

If anything, it makes more sense. Let’s face it: offensive linemen are the eighteen-wheelers of the football world. Tell me this, which gets better gas mileage? An eighteen-wheeler, or a Volkswagen? Keeping a stable of fresh O-linemen running in and out will pay higher dividends than a fresh stable of running backs.

Need to control the ball and run the clock in the fourth quarter? If the O-line is fresh and the D-line has hands on hips, you know it’s going to happen.

Another huge advantage of this strategy is that — to the best of my knowledge — it’s something that has never happened before in the Pac-12. Chip Kelly took the league by storm with the hurry-up spread offense. Perhaps we are about to see Mario Cristobal do the same thing with the 330-pound O-Line relay.

A final factor that works in Cristobal’s favor is the change in the redshirt rule. Ordinarily, you would expect to see most, if not all, of the incoming freshmen redshirt and then start the 2019 season with no college game experience.

Penei Sewell

Not so, starting this year. The five freshmen linemen can play up to four games each without burning their redshirts.

Thankfully, I’ve never lined up across from a 330-pound offensive linemen. I can only imagine that by halfway through the third quarter, if not before, it would become a bit tiring. I would not like to see a fresh body appear across from me at that point, especially if that fresh body were, say, one of the top five offensive lineman in his class and happened to weigh 340 pounds, like Penei Sewell. Or if he was, looking ahead to 2019, no. 1 JC prospect Aumavea-Laulu.

And I really wouldn’t like it if the guy was trying to prove that he belonged in the starting lineup at my expense. Shoot, I didn’t even like it when the fourteen-year-old girls ganged up on me, and I’m pretty sure at least one of them had a crush on me.

I can only be thankful that it wasn’t the sort of crush that Pac-12 defensive lines are about to experience.

Mike Merrell
Sandpoint, Idaho

Top Photo by Kevin Cline

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