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.
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.