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They Can Dance if They Want to…But can ECU’s Offensive Linemen learn to be Grizzlies?

Dancing Bears or Grizzlies: From l to r, Levingston, Boyd, Struyk, McKinney, Harris.

Former East Carolina Offensive Line Coach Steve Shankweiler often referred to the Pirates’ O-linemen as being “Dancing Bears,” a term that maybe Coach Shank didn’t coin, but one that seems quite apropos for the job the big ones have always had to do in the pass-first offensive scheme at ECU. The Pirates O is a brand recognized for top 10 offensive outputs, fueled by a fast-paced, spread-it-out philosophy.

To operate the offense, it takes long bodied, agile, and quick (by OL terms) linemen who can get out of their stance and keep up with the speed that current defenses are employing on the edge and up the middle. At ECU, that means, when it comes to being a bear, you have to be a big-time dancer. And they are experts in the wide open waltz of today’s pass happy football era, but if you were asked to be a bear, I’d bet most would opt to be… a Grizzly.

But can superior pass protectors make a shift to maulers in a spring and a fall camp?

Let’s settle on the premise that our OLs are above average – a fair assessment given experience level and performance to-date plus an additional spring and fall camp to improve. The skill sets are different for run-blocking vs pass blocking and there are a lot of factors to look at to predict if our guys will be able to let a plan where the run game will take pressure off the pass game take root and be effective.

Consider some of the differences:

  • Leg work: In pass protection, the action below the waist (I know…) is much different. Defenders typically engage the OL first and OLs are asked to move backwards and to slide left and right with their feet beneath them. The kick slide skill is critical because if not done accurately once a defender gets in on the body, it is very difficult for an OL to maintain balance and positioning. Quick feet, agility, and technical acumen are critical skills. Alternatively – and equally difficult – run blocking requires that the OL engages the defender first. From a legs perspective, the OL must be able to drive with the legs and keep the feet moving. In zone blocking scheme, the ability to engage, drive, disengage, redirect, and drive again is critical. You are ultimately successful by moving forward.
  • Arms and hands: While quick hands out of the punch are equally important to both pass blockers and run blockers, again there are differences. While establishing leverage, the ability to get low, leverage and get hands in are critical. However, for the pass blocker, the “win” is to get your arms extended as the defender tries to engage and keep him off the body. Conversely, the run blocker wants to be first to get hands inside as leveraged is established in order to be able to drive, turn, or otherwise influence the defender’s path to the gap or ball carrier.
  • Mentality: On the average, when teams recruit OLs, they recruit superior athletes when looking for pass protection. Size and strength are paramount to run blocking – along with pad level and leverage skills – and perhaps some teams – like Arkansas – are recruiting less skilled but more behemoth types. There was a time when the overwhelming number of high school football programs were more run heavy and hence, most OLs – even converted tight ends – came into the college program with fundamental run-blocking skills. This is not the case now. For run-blocking, there has to be a nastiness in the OL…a mauler’s attitude that oft times is not part of the mental make-up of pass protection specialists.

So where do we score on these comparisons? How has our running game worked to this point and what, if anything, would we do differently going forward to bring the spotlight at least partially on the running game?

Let’s take a look at our stable of running backs to see if we can understand the challenge ahead. We have had three years of success at the running back position on the backs, primarily, of Vintavious Cooper and Breon Allen, both the types of backs oft referred to as scat backs, described as shifty and explosive, but not overly fast, they both had low centers of gravity with grinder type lower builds, used to break an initial tackle and to finish their runs. Our run game worked because the run was a set up by the passing game and we could exploit narrow seams, misdirection, and being ahead of the sticks. Coop and Allen were very adept at selling pass protection and then finding the cut back or the slip spaces in the defense, using the opponents own aggressiveness – and sometimes their superior skills – against them.

Our roster of backs, now, however is different. They are bigger…faster…and more punishing in their styles. Chris Hairston (6-0, 205), Marquez Grayson (6-1, 189), and Anthony Scott (5-9, 187) are appear to be more of a cut and go style, where they level their pads and go north-south. Scott, may look a bit like his predecessors, but he is much more of a north-south back, only he has superior speed.

The backs appear to be better suited for a run game…if the Dancing Bears can find some Grizzly in themselves.

If they struggle to effectively run block, it won’t be for lack of experience. The presumed starting five (Ike Harris, Quincy McKinney, C.J. Struyk, J.T. Boyd, Dontae Levingston) has 71 combined starts. Three of them have earned All-Conference designations, three have been selected as preseason All-AAC performers, two Outland Trophy watch list candidates, and our presumed top reserve (Tre Robertson) is sitting on 11 career starts and can play tackle or guard.

New OL Coach Brad Davis knows a think or two about developing a run game.
New OL Coach Brad Davis knows a think or two about developing a run game.

Add to the experience, a new OL coach in Brad Davis, who cut his teeth blocking at Oklahoma, where traditionally, they have been known to run the ball now and again. While Davis played in a pass heavy Sooners scheme, as a coach, his bread and butter, it would seem has been to turn out strong running teams. At James Madison, his run game was a top 20 unit for that division and prior to that his OLs at Portland State paved the way to 277 yards per game on the ground (and 36 rushing TDs). The coaching pedigree is there to produce an upgraded run game.

If reputation matters, it might be likely that the interior line is much more prepared to grind it out than the tackles on the outside. By all accounts, right guard Boyd, top reserve Roberston, center Struyk, and left guard McKinney have a healthy dose of that required nastiness to excel in the run game. Do we have that in our tackles…not sure, though both are strong and talented. Are they strong and skilled and experienced…? Yes. But Coach Ruffin McNeil’s idea of being a nickel, not five pennies, underscores the key to an effective run game. There is no room for freelancing in the run game. All five OLs must be on the same page and able to make the correct reads or the play gets blown up in the gap or worse, in the backfield. And, if it happens on first or second down, the O falls behind the sticks and the QB is pressured to make a play. At least early on, we can’t have that and expect to win.

One tale-tell sign, IMO, will be revealed in the Towson game. If we see two backs – or to the point an H-back utilized when in running situations, it is a good tell that our OL needs some help in the run game.

We shall see this week. I predict that the OL will show signs in the Towson game, but the following week in the Swamp will be the one that tells us all which Bears have come to the Big Dance.

As always, love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

4 comments on “They Can Dance if They Want to…But can ECU’s Offensive Linemen learn to be Grizzlies?

  1. Nice read Ron;

    I think every Pirate fan over the past 5 seasons have really enjoyed watching guys like Dominique, Shane, Dwayne, and Justin set all sorts of records through the air. These guys would pass and catch for thousands of yards, rewrite all of the record books at ECU, in our conference, and in some cases on a national level. Great job guys and coach Riley.

    Despite all of the great success and excitement what do we really have to show for it in terms of conference championships or huge bowl wins?

    The answer is not much. Of course you have the defense as well as special teams that must bear their share of the burden but IMHO our inability to run the ball on a consistent basis has been a major issue for us to take the next step. You have to be able to pound the ball when you have the ball in the red zone especially inside the five. In addition when you have built a lead you must be able to grind out a first down on the ground to run out the clock.

    You can look at every loss and make the case that if we could have run the clock against UCF or Cincy we win or if we could have cashed in inside the 5 vs USC or Florida we win there as well. Throwing 4 straight fade patterns from inside the 2 is not what championship teams do.

    I think with a new OC, new untested QBs, good depth across the line and RB position we are going to see a new approach. I really like our new Oline coach he seems like a no nonsense guy who will really challenge these kids to get better.

    The Air Raid gives our squad a chance to compete with those big programs that have superior talent but it also has a way of keeping teams with inferior talent in the game as well.

    If we are to grow as a program we need to be able to pick up those tough yards and that begins with a strong OLine.



    • Hi dcpirate28…been too long since we have talked. Thanks for checking in on this and the last post.

      I totally agree with your comment (which you already know). We have to be able to grind it out at times particularly when that ability – as you pointed out well – is the difference between winning and losing.

      Last year, we had the talent to be a truly special team…but, our inability to grind it out cost us at lest 4 football games (inclusive of the bowl game).

      That is difference between being recognized as decent and being in an access bowl carrying the AAC banner. I think everyone from Ruff to the players to the fans want that.

      I hope that Coach Davis can light that fire and get it nice and hot before the season gets going because we will need every break for a great season and a solid run game goes a long way to that end.

      Thanks for checking in!

      Go Pirates, Go.

  2. Blackbeard's Ghost

    Hey RC! Gonna be watching this Towson game carefully to see how our Oline responds to whatever they are asked to do. Ideally, most of the offensive pressures are put on the skill guys, QB, RB and wide outs to be the play makers. But this year I believe the team will go as the Oline goes. If they pass block well, our Inexperienced QB can have some time to make the right decision. If they run block well, our Experienced RBs can take the pressure off of the QB.
    I really believe that we will have to rely on our Oline more this year to run the ball and not just pass block. If nothing else, to allow our QB, whoever it may be, to get his feet wet in D1 game time situations. We do not have an easy schedule. And we have a lot of very tough games in hostile environments on the road against very solid teams.
    Carden answered the bell well when called upon but not without a few hiccups. I don’t see any reason to believe that our new QB will not have the same kind of hiccups Carden did.
    Anyways, DF Stadium will be rocking and rolling as usual come Saturday…GO PIRATES!

    • Great post BBG…

      I think that we will learn a lot about the team – OL specifically – against Towson. Big step up the following week, but should at least learn where we need additional work.

      Always love hearing your thoughts!

      Go Pirates!

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