TEMPE, AZ - DECEMBER 30: Quarterback Blake Bell #10 of the Oklahoma Sooners celebrates with Lane Johnson #69 after Bell scored on a 4 yard rushing touchdown against the Iowa Hawkeyes during the second quarter of the Insight Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium on December 30, 2011 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
In the continuation of our offseason series 'Flip Side of the Coin', Matt and I discuss what many are calling potentially Oklahoma's best offensive line since 2008.
Jordan:Ok, so it seems like the widely believed presumption is that this Oklahoma offensive line could collectively be its best since the 2007-08 season. To be clear, I happen to be one of those people but when contemplating where we would go with this a question presented itself which I had some difficulty answering.
This is an offensive line that is returning four of its five starters from last year and while that is rarely a bad thing for a program the caliber of Oklahoma, while it is still a line that has excelled at protecting the quarterback they have also struggled (at times considerably) to consistently open up running lanes. And think most OU fans agree that the running game, for a multitude of reasons, is what this offense desperately needs in 2012.
So I'm curious why you think it is that the "pundits" seem so optimistic that this o-line can possibly live up to that 2008 line which was chock full of future NFL talent?
Matt:That's a really good question, and extremely difficult one to answer. The fact is Oklahoma's offensive line does have loads of talent and experience. However, I'm not anywhere near ready to compare this line to the 2008 offensive line that helped the Sooners shatter NCAA offensive records.
You made a great point about run blocking vs. pass blocking and while this particular group excels in the latter, their ability to spark a satisfactory rushing attack is what they will ultimately be graded on. Let's not forget that in 2008 Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray both rushed for over 1,000 each. Sure, play-calling has changed a bit since then but this group still has a ways to go to be in the same category as the 2008 squad.
As for why the pundits are ranking this group so high the simple answer is...experience. They truly are a talented group and I have them ranked as the top offensive line in the Big XII in the 2012 Sooner Kickoff. However, that doesn't mean that they still don't have to prove it.
Jordan:One of my issues with how James Patton (and now Bruce Kittle) have handled the offensive line is in recent years they never really seem to settle on five guys and play them consistently. They are always rotating different guys in and for my uneducated football coaching mind, I just feel like that makes it difficult for the o-line to gel. Which is kind of a big deal in my opinion, but admittedly I'm Monday Morning Quarterbacking here. And, full disclosure, I've never been a fan of James Patton as an offensive line coach. I REALLY wanted Kevin Wilson to take him to Indiana and honestly it's another knock against him in my book that there was never even talk about Wilson taking him.
Now maybe that's a product of the players in these recent years, but if you look at offensive line guys OU has put into the NFL I think you'd have a hard time making that argument. So, again, in my arm chair QB'ing mind it has to be the coaching. In my opinion, Patton runs a finesse offensive line. Which is why this team has excelled at pass blocking and struggled at run blocking, which I happen to believe is about as much as the mental approach and/or desire to physically dominate the guy across from you as much as anything. I remember guys from that 2008 line being quoted after they graduated about being finesse and how that road grater run blocking mentality (which most o-lineman love) had almost been coached out of them based on what they were looking to get out of the offense.
While this team, program, and coaching staff have achieved (and more importantly maintained) a level of success most others would kill for, we've seen countless examples that a pass happy/finesse offense does not (or at least has not) produced the desired result. That result is obviously a national championship and while Stoops and OU have certainly had more than their fair share of chances (and much credit to them for that), think about how many times in said chances where their high powered offense seemed to struggle. Where if they could just line up, snap the ball, turn around and stick the ball in the RBs gut, and clip off 4-5 yards at a time imagine the 'what if' of that possibility. Sure, it might not be exciting but when has Bob Stoops ever given you the impression, with anything that he's ever said, that he cares more about that than winning?
Answer = Never
Matt:You don't have to look any further than the 2008 BCS championship game against Florida to see the value of an offense in line that can plow the road for a running back. Had Oklahoma been able to punch the ball into the end zone, on the ground, in that game there's no doubt in my mind that the result would have ended differently.
I'm not sure though that you can blame the "finesse" mentality of the offensive line solely on the line coach. It's an overall offense to philosophy where players are going excel at what they do the most. I would be willing to bet that Oklahoma does a lot more passing in practice than they do running, because that is been the trend on the playing field as well. That's the result of an offense the philosophy and not specifically with one position coach. If you want a guy to be good at pass blocking then that's what he'll do in practice. If you want him to be good at run blocking then you'll spent your practice time there.
Here's the problem though, you really can't have it both ways. The best you can do is balance it but in doing so they'll lose reps in pass blocking. It's next to impossible to find a way to be completely dominant at both. You can be an excellent rushing team that occasionally throws the ball well or you can be an excellent passing team that occasionally runs the ball well. Oklahoma has chosen to be the latter.
So here's my question, do you believe that Bob Stoops would have had an equal amount of success had he chosen offensive coaches that would have produced or developed a run first mentality?
Jordan: Before I answer your question, I just have to take issue with something you said.
"Here's the problem though, you really can't have it both ways. The best you can do is balance it but in doing so they'll lose reps in pass blocking. It's next to impossible to find a way to be completely dominant at both."
BUT YOU CAN THOUGH!!!!!
That 2008 o-line that we both keep referencing was exactly that. Sam Bradford rarely got touched, put up ridiculous stats, and as you've already pointed out both Demarco Murray and Chris Brown rushed for 1,000 yards. Now, granted, is this common? Obviously not, that OU offense was all-time kind of good but I don't believe that invalidates my point. Let's say you have that same offense, but Landry Jones throws for 750 yards less and/or instead of two 1,000 yard backs you have one guy w/ 1,000 and a second with 800, or even just two guys with 800. Isn't that something you could see yourself being happy with?
I know I could.
Any sane person, which I'd like to think I am (and you are a well), isn't expecting that 2008 offense on a year in-year out basis. But if it was even something remotely similar, specifically where the running game wasn't painfully predictable and/or a seeming afterthought, I think Sooner Nation would be much happier and I find it hard to believe this program couldn't be just as successful, if not more so.
Matt:Its hard to argue against that 2008 team other than to say that when they needed to punch the ball into the end zone against Florida they just couldn't do it. It'll be a long time before OU fans forget this.
You're right that the 2008 offense was special though and honestly it's unfair to set them as the benchmark for future offensive lines. I'm not implying that were doing here but nonetheless that line may have been the best at OU during Bob Stoops tenure as head coach which means we may never see another one like it.
Jordan: Certainly a fair point, but to be fair to those guys Kevin Wilson did them no favors with his play calling as far as I'm concerned. If memory serves, he basically ran it straight up the middle four times. No misdirection, no play action, heck even a naked bootleg might have worked since Florida was crashing the middle so hard.
And actually, I think that leads me back to your previous question. Given the success of this program under Stoops and his offensive coordinators, I feel like it would be really foolish to second guess them with 20/20 hindsight. I think OU has run the offense it has these last however many years because they believed, based on the conference they play in, that was what they needed to do in order to maximize their chance of success. Frankly, I'm not sure they've had the kind of defense you need to have a run dominant offense.
That same 2008 team we both keep referencing was Kevin Wilson's 'get out of jail free' card for all of his defenders, we all fondly remember Mike Leach's lone year as OC of course, and now Josh Heupel is in the catbird seat. It's certainly not an enviable position to be in as far as I'm concerned.
As for 2012, the success of this offensive line, if you'll allow me to simplify things, comes down to two things. They are left tackle and Adam Shead.
Left tackle for the obvious reason that they will be protecting Landry's blindside and that as of now, as far as we know, it's the only position undecided along the line. I believe it's a battle between Lane Johnson and Tyrus Thompson with Johnson believed to be the favorite.
As for Shead, he is without question one of my favorite players on the team. Which, as an offensive lineman, doesn't happen for most fans in my opinion, but the guy was just so dang fun to watch last year he instantly won me over. Much to my amazement, despite his being easily the most dominant lineman on the team by year's end, Patton continued to rotate him in and out of games rather than simply playing his best guard. I still don't understand what he was trying to accomplish and one of my biggest fears for this season is that he repeats this again in 2012. Assuming Ben Habern can come back, that shifts Gabe Ikard back to left guard (which is where Shead is best in my opinion), and I know the coaches love Tyler Evans at right guard, so that could pretty easily make Shead a reserve again. Tough call because it's not like any of those other guys are scrubs, but Shead is potentially elite player in my mind and he needs to be on the field.
So would you agree with my two points? And what are some key aspects/players for this o-line's success in your mind?
Matt:I certainly agree with everything you just said in terms of the keys to success. In regards to Shead, I agree that the ceiling is extremely high. I guess having more quality players than you can actually put on the field at once is a good problem and it gives us a lot to discuss. While I'm in the same boat with you in that I can't make an argument that Shead for Shead being on the bench I also can't make an argument for him starting over a guy like Ikard who will most likely be first team all-conference.
Jordan: So who are your starting five that you feel gives Oklahoma the greatest chance of success at what could arguably be described as the most important position group on the offense this year (if not the entire team)?
Matt:If I was asked to set the starting offensive line for the season opener against UTEP then I would place them like this (assuming everyone is healthy). Daryl Williams and Lane Johnson at the tackles, Gabe Ikard and Tyler Evans at guard and Ben Habern at center.
Jordan:I thought that would be your five and to your credit I believe that will be the five we see out there in El Paso as you said. I've got a bit of a different take in that my five would be what I believe would be the most talented offensive line and thus, again in my opinion, makes the most sense and gives us the best chance to be successful.
So for me it's (from left to right): Daryl Williams, Adam Shead, Ben Habern, Gabe Ikard, and Will Latu.
I know the coaches really like Williams at right tackle, but with his ceiling he should really be at left for my money (and for his future earning potential). Shead and Ikard are interchangeable for me at guard, but I just remember Shead dominating at left guard last year so I'm placing him there. And because I think you could put Ikard anywhere on the line and he'd be successful, absolutely invaluable player. Latu, to me, is the prototypical right tackle and an absolute mauler in the run game. Would be a HUGE addition for this line if he can make it in this summer and pick things up right away.