Rockford's files: The offensive line

rockford

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The 2018 season is nearing completion, which means its not too early to start looking ahead to 2019. :D

This is the first of several installments I'm planning that will look at our personnel by position groups. The purpose is to help me get better acquainted with our guys, get some idea of how accurately recruiting rankings predict success … and ease the withdrawal pains now that we don't have Gopher football to watch every Saturday.

I think it's fair to say the OL emerged as an area of strength during the 2018 season. After some early struggles, things seemed to solidify when freshman Daniel Faalele took over for sophomore Sam Schlueter at RT in week #6. That's when I began my “Big Dan vs. ...” series of threads that first started critiquing the play of Faalele, and grew to include RG Blaise Andries and LG Connor Olson, as well.

It must be pointed out that Faalele, while solid, was not overpowering. The OL didn't start running over people just because he entered the starting lineup. Rather, it seemed more a case of shoring up our pass protection at a time the mobility of starting QB Zack Annexstad was severely limited due to an ankle injury. We gave up 12 sacks against Miami, Maryland and Iowa. Faalele started the next week against OSU, and we gave up just 13 sacks in the final seven games of the season.

I did not scrutinize OL play before Faalele took over, so I have no idea where the breakdowns were occurring. As mentioned, ZA's limited mobility was an increasing factor after the second or third game. Tanner Morgan, who took over at QB after Annexstad was knocked out midway through week #7, had no such limitations, and that undoubtedly was also a factor in limiting sacks.

Unlike virtually all other positions in football (or any sport), there is little hard data to measure the performance of offensive linemen, especially individual linemen. Here's an attempt to measure the OL as a unit from Football Outsiders:
https://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/ncaaol

Line yards: Without getting too deep into the weeds, this gives the OL credit for runs that gain three yards, and half the credit for runs that gain 4-8 yards. Gophers rank -- 15th

Line yards on standard downs: Similar to above, but only measured on first down, second-and-7 or less, third-and-4 or less, fourth-and-4 or less: Gophers rank -- 13th

Power success rate: Percentage of runs on third and fourth down, with two yards or less to go. Gophers rank -- 50th

Stuff rate: Percentage of runs that are stopped at or before the LOS. Gophers rank -- 5th

Sack rate: Gophers rank – 109th

I think this data paints a fairly accurate picture of Minnesota's OL as a dominant force in the run game, particularly when you consider the fact that most of the rushing was done by our third-string and fourth-string running backs (talented as they are).

The sack rate reflects our early struggles with pass protection. If our sack rate B.F. (before Faalele) had been the same as A.F., we would have given up four fewer sacks on the year. That would have elevated our sack rate from 109th to about 57th.

Coming soon: A look at every individual offensive lineman, including recruits.

JTG
 
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GoGoGopher12

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The 2018 season is nearing completion, which means its not too early to start looking ahead to 2019. :D

This is the first of several installments I'm planning that will look at our personnel by position groups. The purpose is to help me get better acquainted with our guys, get some idea of how accurately recruiting rankings predict success … and ease the withdrawal pains now that we don't have Gopher football to watch every Saturday.

I think it's fair to say the OL emerged as an area of strength during the 2018 season. After some early struggles, things seemed to solidify when freshman Daniel Faalele took over for sophomore Sam Schlueter at RT in week #6. That's when I began my “Big Dan vs. ...” series of threads that first started critiquing the play of Faalele, and grew to include RG Blaise Andries and LG Connor Olson, as well.

It must be pointed out that Faalele, while solid, was not overpowering. The OL didn't start running over people just because he entered the starting lineup. Rather, it seemed more a case of shoring up our pass protection at a time the mobility of starting QB Zack Annexstad was severely limited due to an ankle injury. We gave up 12 sacks against Miami, Maryland and Iowa. Faalele started the next week against OSU, and we gave up just 13 sacks in the final seven games of the season.

I did not scrutinize OL play before Faalele took over, so I have no idea where the breakdowns were occurring. As mentioned, ZA's limited mobility was an increasing factor after the second or third game. Tanner Morgan, who took over at QB after Annexstad was knocked out midway through week #7, had no such limitations, and that undoubtedly was also a factor in limiting sacks.

Unlike virtually all other positions in football (or any sport), there is little hard data to measure the performance of offensive linemen, especially individual linemen. Here's an attempt to measure the OL as a unit from Football Outsiders:
https://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/ncaaol

Line yards: Without getting too deep into the weeds, this gives the OL credit for runs that gain three yards, and half the credit for runs that gain 4-8 yards. Gophers rank -- 15th

Line yards on standard downs: Similar to above, but only measured on first down, second-and-7 or less, third-and-4 or less, fourth-and-4 or less: Gophers rank -- 13th

Power success rate: Percentage of runs on third and fourth down, with two yards or less to go. Gophers rank -- 50th

Stuff rate: Percentage of runs that are stopped at or before the LOS. Gophers rank -- 5th

Sack rate: Gophers rank – 109th

I think this data paints a fairly accurate picture of Minnesota's OL as a dominant force in the run game, particularly when you consider the fact that most of the rushing was done by our third-string and fourth-string running backs (talented as they are).

The sack rate reflects our early struggles with pass protection. If our sack rate B.F. (before Faalele) had been the same as A.F., we would have given up four fewer sacks on the year. That would have elevated our sack rate from 109th to about 57th.

Coming soon: A look at every individual offensive lineman, including recruits.

JTG
Great insight! Some of ZAs problems weren't just with the OLine though. He had a tendency to move "outside" of the pocket instead of "up" the pocket. Oline, and especially OTs want to keep their backs to the QB and assume that means to the middle (between the tackles). When a QB elects to run outside, there is no way the Oline can protect him (unless it's a designed bootleg). Granted, there were times where the pocket collapsed almost immediately and ZA had no where to go but he caused many of the sacks by leaving the pocket.

The 2019 version of the Oline is going to be very solid in my opinion. I think we're on the cusp of having a truly explosive and dynamic offense.
 

GopherSteak

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Great insight! Some of ZAs problems weren't just with the OLine though. He had a tendency to move "outside" of the pocket instead of "up" the pocket. Oline, and especially OTs want to keep their backs to the QB and assume that means to the middle (between the tackles). When a QB elects to run outside, there is no way the Oline can protect him (unless it's a designed bootleg). Granted, there were times where the pocket collapsed almost immediately and ZA had no where to go but he caused many of the sacks by leaving the pocket.

The 2019 version of the Oline is going to be very solid in my opinion. I think we're on the cusp of having a truly explosive and dynamic offense.
He also backed up when he felt the pressure a lot, but the line did not pass protect well early in the season. They improved a lot.
 

MGGopher

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This is fantastic stuff! I think the team is really on the cusp of taking a huge step forward and that much of that is due to the improvement on the OL. Need somebody to step in for the excellent Greene and Weyler, but I believe the talent is there. It's really an exciting time...
 

Lakeville Goldy

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Great insight! Some of ZAs problems weren't just with the OLine though. He had a tendency to move "outside" of the pocket instead of "up" the pocket. Oline, and especially OTs want to keep their backs to the QB and assume that means to the middle (between the tackles). When a QB elects to run outside, there is no way the Oline can protect him (unless it's a designed bootleg). Granted, there were times where the pocket collapsed almost immediately and ZA had no where to go but he caused many of the sacks by leaving the pocket.

The 2019 version of the Oline is going to be very solid in my opinion. I think we're on the cusp of having a truly explosive and dynamic offense.
He also backed up when he felt the pressure a lot, but the line did not pass protect well early in the season. They improved a lot.
Though to be fair, I'm not sure he had somewhere to go "up". A lot of times the linemen were collapsing inward in front of him, giving him little option other than "back" or "out".

The fact Faalele could solidify it as much as he did with only playing the game one year before this year is still impressive. In a couple years when he learns more/different/better techniques he's going to be really good!
 

everybody knows my name

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Rockford, who the heck are you? What is your background?

This is good stuff, keep it coming!
 

Section2

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I think it's fair to say the OL emerged as an area of strength during the 2018 season. After some early struggles, things seemed to solidify when freshman Daniel Faalele took over for sophomore Sam Schlueter at RT in week #6. That's when I began my “Big Dan vs. ...” series of threads that first started critiquing the play of Faalele, and grew to include RG Blaise Andries and LG Connor Olson, as well.

It must be pointed out that Faalele, while solid, was not overpowering. The OL didn't start running over people just because he entered the starting lineup. Rather, it seemed more a case of shoring up our pass protection at a time the mobility of starting QB Zack Annexstad was severely limited due to an ankle injury. We gave up 12 sacks against Miami, Maryland and Iowa. Faalele started the next week against OSU, and we gave up just 13 sacks in the final seven games of the season.

I did not scrutinize OL play before Faalele took over, so I have no idea where the breakdowns were occurring. As mentioned, ZA's limited mobility was an increasing factor after the second or third game. Tanner Morgan, who took over at QB after Annexstad was knocked out midway through week #7, had no such limitations, and that undoubtedly was also a factor in limiting sacks.
The breakdowns were coming from SS over and over. If you watch the Iowa game in particular, Anthony Nelson absolutely abused SS. Way too strong for him. SS comes out and Faalele completely stabilized the whole line. It was night and day different.

Dan just is such a strong anchor. He didn't really need to move people around much or dominate, he just could not be overpowered or moved. That allowed the pocket to form, and when a QB can stand in the pocket, it's much easier for everyone else to block. Sam getting run over and the QB having to back up and moved caused other protection breakdowns.
 

rockford

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Regarding sacks and quarterbacks:

Much has been said regarding ZA's movement in the pocket, and his propensity for staring down receivers. Too much, IMHO. I have no doubt savvier, more experienced QBs could have avoided some sacks. I also have no doubt that sometimes, there was no place to "step up" to, as has been pointed out. I also have no doubt he was a sitting target for several games. There's at least some truth to all these things. The problem I have with statements like this, though, is that they are impressions, and sometimes impressions can be deceiving. I tend to give more credence to quantifiable data. Here's an example why:

About halfway through the season, some silly TV announcer saw Tyler Johnson drop a pass, and said something like, "That practically never happens," ... when we all know it tended to happen several times per game. Yet because some knucklehead said it once, (and because Johnson put up numbers like someone who never drops the ball), I heard it repeated by at least three other announcers over the remainder of the season. Same thing with ZA staring down receivers: Once somebody said it, everybody started looking for it, and repeating it ... without once attempting to quantify if he actually does it markedly more than the average QB.

There's truth there, but how much is open to debate. And in the end, without data, all you have is debate.

What I'd love to see is somebody go through the tape and watch every sack ZA took (several times), and analyze what happened and why. Hell, if I had the tape, I'd do it myself. Until then, I'll take everyone's opinion (including my own) with a grain of salt. Because that's just like our opinions, man.

Regarding Schlueter:

Like I said, I can't speak to his performance early in the season ... although it obviously wasn't up to par, or he wouldn't have lost his starting job. When Schlueter started in place of Greene at LT against Illinois, I scored him at 86% run blocking and 76% pass blocking for the first half (which is all I had time to do for that game). Anyway, that's the exact same score I arrived at for Faalele in the first half of that game. And it's about what you'd expect -- average (for a starter) in the run game, suspect in the pass game. Which may explain why Schlueter started popping up as a TE in a three-TE set near the end of the season. In that role, as essentially a sixth OL, he had a chance to be effective (although he was far from perfect). It was certainly a package that did deadly damage on the ground against Wisconsin.

I think it's also a sign that the staff hasn't given up on Schlueter. They plugged him into the lineup at T as needed, and found a new spot (TE) where he had the chance to contribute.

As far as who starts in the bowl game: It may be Schlueter. I also wouldn't be surprised if freshman Curtis Dunlap gets his first start of the season, probably at RG, with Andries moving to LT for the game. Dunlap has only appeared in three games, so he could play without burning his redshirt. Andries has the size and mobility where he could make it as a T. After all, Scout had him rated as the #27 T prospect in the country coming out of Marshall. (BTW, the much-maligned Schlueter was ranked the #50 T prospect in the country when he graduated from Mayer Lutheran, which also helps explain why the staff still has hope for him.)

Long-term, I would be surprised if the LT spot isn't nailed down by Jason Dickson, who will have two years of eligibility remaining, starting next year.

But we'll talk more about that in a bit.



Rockford, who the heck are you? What is your background?
"I've never made any secret of the fact I'm just passing through on my way to Australia."

Bonus points for naming the movie.

JTG
 
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rockford

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RETURNING STARTERS
LG – Conner Olson (RS JR): Has started in all 24 games Minnesota has played since his redshirt season. Six of those starts were at center his freshman season, which may portend where he ends up in 2019 and beyond. Honorable Mention all-B1G (media team) in 2018. I critiqued Olson's play in four full games this year (Indiana, Purdue, Northwestern and Wisconsin). He graded out as an 88% run blocker, 90.5% pass blocker. (I'm not certain, but I guess a “good-average” lineman would score 85% run, 90% pass under the system I used.) Good motor, agile. Appeared to always know what he was supposed to be doing. When he came out of Monticello, he was a three-star recruit, rated #33 at his position by Scout, #48 by 247.

RG – Blaise Andries (RS SO): Started all 12 games as a freshman in 2018, earning an Honorable Mention all-B1G (media team). I graded him in five full games (Nebraska, Indiana, Purdue, Northwestern and Wisconsin), with a composite score of 90.4% run blocking, 91.2% pass blocking, the top score in both categories among the guys I graded. I gave him scores of 100% run blocking against Nebraska, and 100% pass blocking against Wisconsin, two of the only three perfect scores I awarded. (Olson got the other one for pass blocking against Wisconsin.) Big and agile, Andries has little trouble getting to the second level and causing damage when he gets there. Coming out of Marshall, he was ranked a four-star recruit by Scout, while the rest of the services had him at three stars. Scout rated him as #27 at his position, while 247 had him at #37, Rivals had him at #44, ESPN at #48.

RT – Daniel Faalele (SO): Started only seven games as a true freshman but still earned Honorable Mention all-B1G (media team). His immense size, quickness and athleticism make him a must-see, though he's far from a polished product, given his relative inexperience playing football. Tremendous upside, but had a tendency to stop moving his feet at times. Not great blocking in space, often struggling at the second level and vulnerable to a speedy outside pass rush, which likely means he's not an immediate candidate to fill the open LT spot. However, he appeared to be an unstoppable force blocking down in the run game; the entire left side of the defensive line tended to collapse when he crashed down. I graded him in six full games (Ohio State, Nebraska, Indiana, Purdue, Northwestern and Wisconsin), giving him a combined 87.3% run and 90% pass. Coming out of IMG, he was a four-star recruit according to ESPN and 247. He was rated #22 at his position by Rivals.

T/TE – Sam Schlueter (RS JR): Started the final six games of his freshman season (one at LT, five at RT), and the first five games of the 2018 season at RT. Also started at LT against Illinois due to an injury to Donnell Greene. That was the only game I graded him, and I only did the first half of that game, giving him 86% run blocking and 76% pass blocking. He also saw some action late in the season as a TE, always (or nearly always) lined up in a flanker position. The three-TE packages he appeared in were very effective against Wisconsin, and I expect we'll see more of the same, since we have some fairly agile and aggressive TEs who do very well blocking out of motion. I would expect Schlueter to battle for the LT spot next year, but more likely will see time as a blocking TE and as a reserve T, a role where he could be quite valuable. He was a three-start recruit out of Mayler Lutheran, with Scout ranking him the #50 T in the nation.

Coming soon: A look at the rest of the stable of linemen, which will likely include two new starters.

JTG
 
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