If you think the only requisites for being an offensive lineman are to be big, strong, tough and surly, think again.
There is a lot more thinking going on up front than meets the eye. Way more, perhaps, than at any other position on the football field, with the possible exception of quarterback.
Strength and brawn are critical. But so are finesse and brains.
“The offensive line is one of the most difficult positions to play. Not just being big and physical, but being able to think in tight spaces,” Greenwood Community High School football coach Mike Campbell said. “It takes strong intestinal fortitude, and you have to be physically tough.
“But mentally, you have to be prepared to adjust to those tight spaces.”
Finding players who possess those traits, or rather the right combination of players, is essential to the effectiveness of an offensive line — the literal gateway to the offense. A sound front can lift an average or weak attack. A porous one can cripple or ground an otherwise explosive set.
Even the best skill-position players need a crease of daylight to accelerate. And that’s were the line comes in.
What might appear as a chaotic scrum at the point of each snap is actually a highly structured, oft-rehearsed action that requires all five linemen to react — and think — in unison. Plowing into a defender isn’t enough.
Plowing into the right defender at the right time is everything.
“The offensive line is such a choreographed group of guys,” said Indian Creek coach Mike Gillin, who’s in his 37th year as a varsity head coach. “It’s like dancing with a girl. The more you do it, the more times you execute it, the better you are.
“Experience is of the utmost importance on the offensive line.”
Which is what makes assembling a formidable one a formidable challenge.
Although size and strength are important qualities, so are athleticism and acumen. Trench warfare, as it pertains to football, is as much a battle of wits as it is physicality. Linemen not only have win at the point of attack but have to understand where the point of attack is.
That means knowing the playbook, knowing roles in complex schemes, knowing what defenses are attempting to do and, working as a five-man unit, knowing all of it at the same time.
And it all starts with the center, who initiates each play and is often regarded as the quarterback of the line. His job is not only to snap the ball but to assess what he sees, direct teammates and, of course, block.
“This needs to be our smartest and and most athletic linemen,” Franklin coach Adam Reese said. “This person has to be able to block a nose guard alone but also needs to be able to move to the second level to block linebackers much of the time.
“Our best lineman has a tendency to go to the center position because they need the attributes of both guards and tackles.”
Although blocking schemes vary from team to team, the standard offensive line set is two guards, two tackles and center. Guards line up on each side of the center. The tackles are on the outside. The more highly structured an offense, particularly at college and pro levels, the more refined each position role.
For example, in many high school offenses, there are no major distinctions between a right guard and left guard or right tackle and left tackle. Guards, however, tend to be the bigger and stronger players because they constitute the interior of the line. Tackles, on the outside of the front, tend to be quicker and more athletic.
But regardless of where they line up, all linemen have — or should have — one thing in common: Intimate knowledge of the playbook and a heighthened awareness of what is happening and what is about to happen.
“They’ve got to understand not only blocking schemes, they’ve got to understand what the defense is doing and what the guy next to him is doing,” Gillin said. “The type of guys you have, they have to be unbelievably team-oriented.”
That’s because of all the positions on the football field, the blockers are arguably the least heralded. If they execute correctly, they don’t get noticed. If they slip up even once, they are the center of unwanted attention.
“They can be involved in 75 offensive plays, and 74 of the plays they might do a really good job or a really great job, and nobody would ever hear their names spoken,” Franklin College head coach Mike Leonard said. “Yet they can flinch, just one muscle slightly, before the snap-count, and that’s when they get called out by number.
“They’ll never get their name called, but their number will be called. That’s the only time time they get their number called, when they screw up.”
In light of such circumstances, it’s easy to understand why assembling an offensive line is one of the most difficult coaching challenges. Assigning the stoutest, toughest and strongest players to the front isn’t enough.
Selflessness, teamwork and IQ are equally important in the qualification equation.
“A lot of people don’t realize how many adjustments linemen have to make on every play, based on where the defense lines up, what play is called and what scheme is called,” Campbell said. “I think offensive line is one of the most difficult positions to play.”
DEFINING OFFENSIVE LINE TERMS
CENTER: As the name implies, the center lines up, with few exceptions, in the middle of the offensive line and initiates each play by snapping the ball. Besides blocking, the center often directs blocking assignments and makes adjustments depending on how defenses line up.
GUARDS: Typically the biggest players on the line, guards are on either side of the center. On running plays, guards typically are lead blockers for inside runs, outside runs and screens. They also play critical roles in pass protection.
TACKLES: Often the more athletic and quicker players on the line, tackles line up outside the guards. They block on running and passing plays and have heightened pass-blocking roles in pass-oriented offenses.