Being kind, offensive line play was down throughout the SEC in 2016.
The lack of quarterback play has been discussed ad nauseam, but the drop-off in the quality of the guys who protect them has been equally stark. Skill position talents are those who become household names, but they’re only able to achieve that, for the most part, with support from a competent line.
Here’s my ranking of each unit in 2016, based on tape study and some key metrics.
Top to bottom, Tennessee’s offensive line was mostly a mess throughout 2016. Fortunately, the Vols had a quarterback and running back who could make plays outside of the offensive structure.
When an offensive line filled with physical talent struggles, mental processing and communication are often the flaws. That sums up the Vols’ line. In pass protection, the line showed an inability to handle simple gap exchanges, stunts, twists and basic blitz-designs. Often, it conceded free runs at Josh Dobbs while two or three linemen stood around blocking one defender.
The run game was no better, and at times was frankly embarrassing. Early in the season, many of the offense’s gap elements — which are a foundational component of its run game — were shut down due to defensive linemen slanting and angling through gaps. It’s a basic technique that requires offensive linemen to stop the defenders getting across their face. Collectively, the Vols’ unit failed.
Worse than that, there were several instances when linemen were asked to pull or move and they had no idea which defensive player they were supposed to be locating.
In fairness to Butch Jones and his team, there were some subtle improvements, particularly when they shuffled pieces around. However, it came at the cost of offensive concepts that would have been more effective.
Who starts at quarterback next season will dominate Tennessee’s offseason and preseason narrative, but sorting out the line is of far greater concern.
13. Ole Miss
Another year, another campaign in which the Rebels struggled to run the ball with any kind of consistency. Like other teams in the conference, too much of their offense relied on quarterbacks moving around and creating magic all by themselves.
In fairness to the Rebels’ line, each lineman is often left on an island. Against top-level competition, the Rebels were just overwhelmed by individual talent.
12. South Carolina
I really believe Gamecocks fans should be excited. Yes, this group is raw and they were among the most ineffective in 2016. But they were also extremely young, and were working out some of the teething problems — particularly communication — that other groups were still dealing with when they had a number of juniors and seniors.
Mentally and physically, they need development. But that can come only with reps in which young players fail and learn. Four of their starters from 2016 will return in 2017, and I project a jump into the top 5 in the conference by season’s end.
Florida’s line is really an enigma. Physically, it’s extremely gifted. These players have bulk, length and athleticism. However, it hasn’t correlated into a consistent push in the run game — finishing 99th in the country in adjusted line yards.
The Gators’ line struggled for the majority of the season, but really stepped up in big spots. Its game against LSU — which I detailed here — was far and away the unit’s best performance, and is certainly something to build on, as was the Outback Bowl performance vs. Iowa. In both games, Florida lined up and pushed powerful fronts off the ball. It also used more movement, which should be a key competent of its offense given the athletes up front.
The biggest issue for Jim McElwain’s unit was mental processing: knowing who to pick up and where players are coming from. Developing that requires continuity and quality self-scouting from the coaching staff. I think the Gators’ line will take the biggest leap forward among SEC schools in 2017.
10. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs’ line — like many others — was aided by having a quarterback who is such a significant factor in the run game.
With that said, MSU runs some creative split-zone packages that rely on the offensive line blocking sequentially and playing with a cohesive rhythm. Those aren’t easy traits to find in individual players, and it’s even tougher to develop as a unit.
They finished ninth in adjusted line yards in 2016 in large part because the talent of the line allowed the Bulldogs to run plays that others cannot.
Vanderbilt’s offense, by design, put a heavy burden on its offense line. It wasn’t always pretty, but as the season went along, the Commodores developed into a much stronger unit. It certainly had plenty of in-line power, but like many across the league, it struggled in pass protection with the mental processing.
Derek Mason may be more concerned than other head coaches. Unlike other schools that went through teething problems with their lines in 2016, the Commodores had a bunch of veterans, and they still struggled in pass protection.
Georgia’s group was not an overwhelmingly powerful one. In fact, the Bulldogs routinely got lit up at the point of attack, costing them in short-yardage situations.
However, in Jim Chaney’s first year as offensive coordinator, he laid the foundation for what will come in the future — even if he isn’t there to reap the benefits. Chaney runs a sophisticated blocking system compared to most of the modern spread-to-run schemes throughout the SEC and college football.
It’s a system that stresses technique, fundamentals and the understanding of which leverage is needed on each lineman’s block, rather than just trying to beat teams with power and athleticism. That doesn’t please folks when the line fails to create a surge and convert on a crucial third-and-short, but it’s huge in terms of recruiting and developing a program.
With line technique at an all-time low across the country, developing techniques that players will need at the professional level has become a market inefficiency. Teams that run complex gap-schemes, and demand an awful lot from each lineman’s understanding of leverage, will see far more players get drafted into the NFL as soon as they’re able. Send a bunch of linemen to the league and the rare athletes — who can overwhelm a defense at the point-of-attack — will follow in recruiting.
The real bright spot for the Bulldogs was guard Isaiah Wynn. Whenever he pulled or moved, he showed just what a technician he is. He just has the knack for playing with the perfect body position and leverage on the majority of his plays, sealing run lanes and creating alleys for running backs.
I’ll be honest, it was really tough to evaluate Missouri’s line. It finished 13th in the nation in adjusted sack rate. But that figure is inflated by the speed of the Tigers’ system. Given the high volume of predetermined reads, the ball was out of quarterback Drew Lock’s hand before pass rushers could even get upfield.
As a unit, the Tigers need to develop as run blockers. There were flashes throughout the season, and the entire line returns for 2017.
One of the biggest compliments I can give Arkansas’ unit: It’s fun to watch. The Hogs run an intricate gap scheme that relies on lots of movement and linemen knowing when to pass a defender off. They also utilize a lot of six- and seven-man protections, which factored into the ranking.
I cannot understate enough just how important center Frank Ragnow is to the Razorbacks’ system. Not only is he the guy who identifies the defensive front and calls out all the assignments, but he’s often the point man, charged with sealing interior defenders and allowing others to pull and move around him. Ragnow was one of the few guys who really held up against Alabama’s onslaught of pass rushers and dominant front players in 2016. His return for his senior season will be invaluable.
5. Texas A&M
Given what they’re asked to do, the Aggies have a case for having the most well-rounded unit in 2016.
They finished 14th in the country in adjusted line yards and 14th in adjusted sack rate. Unlike others that finished above them in pass protection metrics, their system features less rhythm dropbacks, meaning the line had to stand in and protect longer.
This certainly wasn’t a vintage Alabama offensive line. It was good, but not great.
I was disappointed by All-American Cam Robinson, who stepped up in big games but struggled against inferior competition, and was consistently beaten the same way over and over again — inside rush. Robinson won a bunch of awards, probably because he’s one of the few names voters actually knew, but ‘Bama’s right tackle Jonah Williams — a freshman — was the best of the group. I anticipate he’ll move to left tackle next season to replace Robinson.
Interestingly, we saw more line movement from Alabama in 2016. In previous seasons, when the Tide lined up mostly under center, they would run all manner of trap concepts and have linemen pulling. But when they switched to a spread-to-run system that saw them play the majority of the time out of the shotgun, they switched to mostly zone concepts, with linemen creating an initial double-team before moving up to the second level. In 2016, with a greater reliance on the quarterback run and the limitations of the passing attack, the trap, power and movement concepts were back.
Overall, LSU had the best collection of athletes up front.
The Tigers’ run game was built atop explosiveness, as much from the line as the star pair of running backs behind it. They ran a traditional outside-zone system with the line constantly asked to kick-step and reach block in order to distort the levels of the defense and create creases for the backs to sliver through.
In fact, Derrius Guice and Leonard Fournette routinely went untouched to the second level on stretch plays, with the line all crashing one way and overwhelming the defense. They also mixed in some intricately designed angle blocks, showcasing the line’s cohesion and rhythm.
It doesn’t get much better than this:
I ranked LSU third because it was flat-out whipped by Alabama’s front, and because many of the team’s play designs involve a tight end or receiver wham-blocking or trapping a down lineman. That’s not a knock on the players, but it is a slight knock when power ranking just the offensive line.
Yes, Kentucky’s line was aided by the option elements of the offense. Essentially, the quarterback is blocking a defensive player by reading him, making the line’s job slightly easier and assignments simpler to define.
Even with that, this group was as good as any in the conference. There was a beauty to how the players worked together on combination blocks, with a harmony that would make synchronized divers proud.
Center Jon Toth — now going through the NFL draft process — was as good, if not better, than any other interior lineman in the conference. He excelled in pass protection, showing footwork against speed, anchoring against power and displaying a good understanding of how to keep pass rushers off his pads.
As a run blocker, Toth doesn’t bully people at the point of attack. But he moves well, plays with good technique and is excellent when climbing to the second level — good angles — helping carve open big holes.
He, like a lot of others, struggled against Alabama. Kentucky, in turn, lost its anchor and the line was overwhelmed. The lack of an initial punch was a problem for Toth, who was consistently stood up and bench pressed.
Regardless of the Alabama game, Toth’s impact throughout 2016 was as significant to his unit’s success as any player in the SEC.
Simply put: The Tigers created the most consistent surge, blowing people off the ball.
It took Gus Malzahn and his staff some time to find the right configuration, but when they did, the line wrecked defensive fronts. They finished the year sixth in the country in adjusted line yards, and were damn near impossible to stop when Kamryn Pettway was running behind them.
The line’s performance vs. Mississippi State was the single-most dominant performance by a group this season.