While the offensive tackles are protecting the outside space and often face the opposition’s best pass rushers, strength up the middle is no less important, as it forms the “bubble” of the quarterback’s pocket. A triumvirate of center and two guards is essential to both the running game and passing attack of a pro offense.
There are differences in the blocking techniques of interior linemen versus tackles – the first is an ability to maintain a low center of gravity, from the inertia generated upon initial contact through the maintenance of the block. This is true whether blocking for the run or the pass – guards and centers must get below the pad level of the opposing DT’s (and/or DE’s and LB’s, if pulling). Where length and long arms are a benefit for the OT position, that is not necessarily true for OG and OC. In addition, short, choppy steps are the preference for interior linemen (once again, whether pass protection, straight-line or cross-blocking, or pulling for a sweep), as opposed to the longer kick-slide step of tackles.
Let’s look at the guards and centers together, since there will be some overlap – we’ll start with the guards, since some of the tackles we previously analyzed may end up as guards.
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Jason Pinkston of Pittsburgh may have one of the most devastating punches old Long Ball has ever seen – I watched him protect the Panther flank with the fury of an “old school” blocking approach, exploding into his opponent with his entire body, recoiling with short choppy steps and launching into him again, maintaining an excellent anchor. This technique had OG written all over it, as tackles glide nowadays and utilize reach advantage. When 38 of your 41 starts are at LOT for a Division 1 school, you know you’ve got a “Dancing Bear” – and if a prospect has played DT, the aggression and tenacity formulates a winner.
An attribute that all coaches love is a strong work ethic – during the Senior Bowl practices, Pinkston asked the coaches to put in extra time helping him improve his footwork. On pulling plays, he was quick and efficient with his steps allowing him to get down the line quickly. He is not smooth at getting to the next level, but at OG that will be downplayed – he will either have a DT head up against a 4-3 or an ILB head up against a 3-4. Pinkston exhibits an excellent awareness in pass protection, a trait that will serve him well as guards are expected to help out, both inside and outside.
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We have already discussed Marcus Cannon’s attributes, so I’ll lead into the next prospect with a riddle: when is a twin not a twin? When one is named Maurkice and the other is named Mike! Florida’s Mike Pouncey has the size and athleticism to be a quality OG in the NFL but the short experiment at OC failed miserably. Has a quick initial punch in pass blocking before easing out of his stance – he gets away with this due to his balance and lateral agility, allowing him to mirror the defender and control with his long arms. Pad level is entirely too high – he was able to get away with these flaws in college, but not at the next level.
In run blocking, Pouncey is quick off the snap and demonstrates his strength by latching on and driving the defender – I do like his nastiness. His quickness is also a benefit when pulling and he does keep a nice, tight line around linemates, allowing him to get around the edge pronto. He is also effective on traps, but doesn’t always show the effort in getting to the next level and is inconsistent downfield. If Mike decides to “pick up his lunch bucket and go to work”, he will be a fine pro.
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Benjamin Ijalana’s opportunity to prove he could handle speed rushers disappeared when he wasn’t able to participate in the Senior Bowl due to a sports hernia; as a result, I am grading him as a guard where his toughness, athleticism and strong hands (former high school wrestler) should be a benefit. He was an excellent pass blocker at the FCS level, dominating the opposition with length, strength and foot quickness. His kick-slide was inconsistent at times – he crosses his legs instead of sliding, allowing the defender to beat him outside. He will also need to be coached up on blitz pick-up, as the NFL packages will be far more disguised than what he faced at Villanova.
Ijalana is an effective run-blocker, gets out of his stance well and agile when moving behind the line and into the hole to negate linebackers. He still gets a little too high for my taste but building up his lower body in an NFL weight room should eliminate that short-coming. Needs to keep moving, as he gets distracted or will stand and watch – started all 52 career games, so durability is not a question.
Stefen Wisniewski is my #1 ranked center, even though he played guard for Penn State his senior season. When you read my analysis of him at OC, you’ll know he can play OG.
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Football is said to be a sport in which the low man wins – Rodney Hudson of Florida State blocks with the force of a guy 20 pounds heavier because he gets so low in his stance, he explodes under the pads of any defender. On both game tape and Senior Bowl practices, he gained the initial advantage off the snap and also redirects after initial contact. However, his agility does not translate into second level consistency – he gets to LB depth quick enough, but he ends up lunging and doesn’t block anybody. I thought about grading Hudson as a ZBS guard, but his movement in space concerns me. He may end up playing center at the next level, based on his ability in short areas.
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Don’t get me wrong, I love Danny Watkins’ story (out of Baylor), not to mention the attitude and tenacity he brings to the game – it’s just that there are a couple of major flaws in his fundamental techniques. One, while he sets a solid base, his feet are entirely too wide apart – this takes away an ability to re-set with short, choppy steps and he gets off-balance. Second, he arches his back in a “reverse C” during pass protection and that will not only make him lose the leverage battle but could lead to significant back problems. At the Senior Bowl, Watkins was able to handle bull-rushes standing straight up off the snap, which is a compliment to his strength but not his technique. He is limited in getting to the second level and while I understand he has only been playing football for 4 years, coming into the league at 27 allows less time to be “coached up”.
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Long Ball’s “pet cat” this year is Wisconsin’s John Moffitt, who like Wisniewski shifted from center to guard to benefit the entire line. Paired with Carimi, the left side of the Badger line dominated opponents this year (just ask Adrian Clayborn of Iowa). During the Senior Bowl practices, the coaches moved players around quite a bit on the OL. While Fusco, Kowalski and Castonzo struggled inside, Moffitt played well. There were some concerns about his core strength. Defensive tackles were able to get into his pads to twist him, pushing him into the pocket during some individual drills. During team drills, Moffitt's strength and balance made him the toughest draw for any defensive tackle. Moffitt blasted holes at the first level and showed better agility in the open field than expected. At times, the AP First Team All-American was blocking 15 yards downfield, including on a screen to Marshall tight end Lee Smith when Moffitt locked onto Virginia Tech cornerback Rashad Carmichael and rode him out of the play entirely.
Moffitt can play any interior line position and shows good pop off the snap. He displays excellent mobility and is at his best getting out in front on pulling and trap plays. He sets up quickly, has a strong initial punch and solid hand placement, establishes a strong anchor and is tough to drive back in pass protection. I just love a mean technician!
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OK, dark-horse time – there’s a tackle from Temple that I think will be a fine pro inside at the next level. Darius Morris has a nice skill set and was very consistent all season - I never remember one bad play that stood out. He has a mean streak, solid athleticism, good footwork and nice knee bend, and he showed a lot of awareness and instincts. He looks like a shorter version of former Hoosier Rodger Saffold (a Long Ball favorite from last year) and while I also have him ranked at ROT, I think Morris will find his home at OG.
Snap the ball (whether the QB is under center or back in shotgun formation) and block a 300+ pounder – simple eh? OK, volunteers line up over here . . . yep, that’s what I thought, no takers. Centers also normally call the line blocking assignments and, as a result, are second in importance only to the LT position.
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The best center in this year’s draft, and previously introduced in the OG segment as a top-ranked prospect in that position, is Stefen Wisniewski of Penn State. Good bloodlines for this youngster as his father Leo and uncle Steve also played for the Nittany Lions before playing in the NFL. His intangibles and work ethic are off the chart, so let’s look at his physical abilities as translated to the pro game.
Wisniewski is a solid pass protector with very good athleticism, and sets up quickly after shotgun or traditional snap. He moves well enough laterally to slide to help either guard, maintains knee-bend and leverage against strong defenders, staying balanced in pass protection. Head is on a swivel, as he is aware and picks up the inside blitz after giving help to either side. Good initial punch and hand placement, recoils quickly to deliver another.
In run blocking, more of a positional blocker with technique rather than brute strength – does whatever is necessary to get the job done. Wisniewski utilizes short, choppy steps to get to either shoulder of his assignment to shield defenders from the running lane. Sets a fair anchor at the point of attack and not bowled over easily. Good leg drive and gets low quickly in short-yardage situations. Exhibits quickness in getting to the second level with the lateral and forward movement to attack and drive back linebackers once engaged. Good movement behind the line on pulls and adjusts to inside defenders and usually negates linebackers or safeties in his path. Wisniewski is effective downfield on screens and run blocks, though he does not have elite quickness to the second or third level; he maintains proper blocking angle to free ballcarriers for extra yardage.
The drop-off at the center position is anywhere from ½ round to a full round and a half, as Wisniewski will probably go late in the 1st. Jake Kirkpatrick of TCU was the Rimington Award winner as the nation’s best center in Division I; however, Brandon Fusco of Slippery Rock had an outstanding Combine performance with 34 reps and a sub 5 second forty and was the Gene Upshaw Award winner in Division II. Let’s take a more detailed look at these 2 prospects.
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Kirkpatrick explodes quickly off the ball and gets a good push in the run game. He’s a “thinking man’s center” with good awareness and makes quick decisions when making line calls and blocking assignments. He is an effective zone blocker and gets outside quickly to block on sweeps and stretch plays. Jake establishes an anchor, holds his ground and is tough to shed. He is also adept at chipping a down lineman and getting to the second level, which allows him to neutralize targets downfield, staying square and taking on defenders head-up. Maintains leverage with proper knee-bend, keeps his head on a swivel and adjusts to find the most dangerous pass rusher. Great punch, fights and places hands well to keep linemen in front of him and can recover after facing a bull rush.
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Fusco possesses an average-sized frame, has good height and average overall length, but is solidly built through the legs and lower half. He gets good initial bend in the lower half, can sit into his stance off the snap, but doesn't gain consistent leverage for himself in the run game when asked to drive defenders off the football. Brandon’s bench-press doesn't necessarily translate to football as he does not create great leverage on pop into contact. He is at his best when asked to get out to the second level or reach defenders off his frame, with a good first step. He does use good hand placement and can slide his feet to seal off defenders. The young man does have a bit of a mean streak to him and works hard to finish his blocks.
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Tim Barnes of Missouri is a stocky center who uses his large midsection and leg strength to anchor and prevent nose tackles from pushing him back into the QB. He comes off the ball hard and strong and has strong leadership qualities; however, he is not blessed with athleticism and needs to work on his balance and footwork in order to be able to recoil more quickly. He needs to keep those legs and feet churning, as at times it looks like he’s wading in cement. Barnes had labrum repair surgery on both shoulders.
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OK Long Ball, how are you going to come up with a dark horse center when you ranked a guy from Slippery Rock? Well, let’s “rocket” over to Toledo and take a gander at Kevin Kowalksi – I’m not promising an All-Pro career here, but I sure was tickled to see him running downfield full blast during Senior Bowl practices to take down a defender and pounce on top of him LOL!
Whew, that’s a whole bunch of beef we just went through – do you see some cuts of meat that appeal to yore taste buds??? On our next segment, we’ll jump over to the other side of the line and see what kind of Big Uglies we have on defense.