Rookies Anonymous: Big Uglies
A judgement-free place to understand some basics
CHEYENNE -- Hunched awkwardly in my stance, my tall scrawny frame looking deceptively large under my pads, I hold the football on the ground in front of me and suddenly panic. I've forgotten the snap count. Taking a wild guess it was "on two," the quarterback shouts "hut!" and I stay stark still as the rest of the offensive line jumps forward. Flags fly for the false start -- a five-yard penalty.
You should never, ever, make the nerdy kid with ADHD the center. Even on the C-string squad.
In my brief junior high football career, no one bothered teaching me the in-and-outs of the game. That's why I started this column dedicated to shining light on some of the parts of football I had to figure out later on life when I finally, truly fell in love with the sport.
This week's subject is a group of players who are a mystery to most merely because of their obscurity:
The Offensive Line
Arguably the least glorious position on a football field, the casual fan will often overlook the importance of the offensive line and underestimate its potential impact.
The best passing quarterback around is useless without a solid line to protect them, and a mediocre running back can look like a superstar with an O-line that can open clean holes for them.
When played and coached right, the line is a cohesive unit, moving the defensive front around at will and providing the right circumstances crucial to the success of any offensive play.
These guys come big, strong and with incredible endurance and stamina to fight off the biggest members of the defense down after down.
The offensive line has different jobs depending on the play. Making holes for the runner, or creating and maintaining the protective bubble — or "pocket" — for the quarterback to pass. Sometimes they're responsible for moving the entire defensive line in one direction or another. Further still, every play has specific requirements for each member of the line, and that can change depending on the way the defense sets up.
Confused yet? That's because being an offensive lineman is actually as difficult as it is important.
There can be anywhere from five to seven players on the offensive line in any given play, but don't worry we'll break it down easy:
- Center (C) — You'll never guess where this guy is on the line. He's the big guy right in the middle. He's the one holding the ball. When he moves to snap the ball, the play officially starts. After the snap, he picks up whatever blocking assignment he has. Wyoming's Keegan Cryder is one of the best in the country. During his freshman season in 2018, he was named an All-American. He also leads the line in "knockdowns" or "pancake blocks." Snapping is key, but Cryder also calls out the play, letting his linemates know who to block. You could say he's the "brain" of the line.
- Guard (OG) — Directly to either side of the center are the guards. They have their own blocking assignments and are important parts of opening up inside holes for the run game. When Pokes guard Eric Abojei went down with an injury in San Diego, the entire game changed, just to illustrate the importance of this spot. Abojei is also one of the best blockers in the nation. He, along with Logan Harris, are two of the toughest guys on the line, too. They need to be quick. When a play calls for them to "pull," they need to be able to run around a fellow lineman and hit the hole before the running back does.
- Tackle (OT) — The biggest misnomer in the sport -- these guys don't actually tackle anybody. Lining up outside the guards, tackles are integral for making holes for inside and outside runs. These bad boys are often also the only thing standing between a pass-rushing line backer or defensive end and the quarterback preparing for a pass. With a right-handed quarterback like Sean Chambers, the left tackle becomes responsible for protecting the "blind side," the direction from which Chambers can't see a defender coming. Rudy Stofer is that guy for Wyoming. Alonzo Velazquez was the starting right tackle before a leg injury derailed his season. Freshman Frank Crum is now on the right side.
- Tight End (TE) — Possibly one of the most versatile positions on the field, the tight end can be a lineman and a receiver at the same time. He lines up outside the tackles, and there can be either one TE on either side, one on both sides, or none at all. They can help protect the edge, or split off and be eligible to receive a pass. Wyoming has a monster of a tight end in Jackson Marcotte, a 6-foot, 7-inch, 250-pound redshirt freshman who caught a touchdown against UNLV (something we'd like to see much more of). Fifth-year senior, Josh Harshman, has also been a masterful blocker during his career in Laramie.
Rarely will most articles mention these guys except in a general group, and the only time you'll hear their name over the loudspeaker in the stadium is when there's a penalty.
That is until this week.
Wyoming's front five Tuesday was named to the 2019 Joe Moore Award Midseason Honor Roll. That honor goes to 25 of the best offensive lines in the nation.
Here are some reasons why the Cowboys "big uglies" are considered one of the best:
∙The Cowboys rank No. 15 in the nation in rushing offense in 2019, averaging 236.7 yards per game.
∙Wyoming’s offense is ranked No. 10 in the nation in fewest sacks allowed, giving up an average only 1.00 sack per game (only seven total sacks allowed) for the 2019 season.
∙Wyoming is one of only seven FBS teams to have four different individuals record a 100-yard rushing game in 2019.
∙Through the first seven games of the season, the Cowboy offensive line has paved the way for a total of seven 100-yard rushing games.
Here's what the committee had to say about this unit:
“Was really impressed when I first turned their Missouri tape on. Contact power, balance, sustain, and finishing. They were up to task and took it to them. Really set the tone. OL played a huge role in the upset. Fundamentally sound. Lost their LG Eric Abojei vs SDSU and he was their alpha dog. Deserving group.”
Do your job
If a lineman even twitches before the snap, that's a "false start," which (as I illustrated in 8th grade) is a five-yard penalty. They have to stop a 260-pound monster linebacker from getting past them without holding on to them, which of course is the "holding" penalty. That 10-yard mistake can kill drives.
Basically, if the crowd is roaring their heads off for the receiver hauling in a 24-yard pass, or cheering on a running back who bursts untouched down the middle for a first down and more, the offensive line is doing their job.
"If we're doing our job right, people won't know who we are," I remember hearing former Douglas High School tackle C.J. Allen saying back in my newspaper days. That makes sense. Broncos' left tackle, Garett Bolles, drives most insane. I'm so friggin' sick of hearing, "Holding, No. 72 on the offense. 10 yard penalty, repeat the down."
That's one reason I like working with Cody Tucker. Being in the press box with him or reading our stories, like the one on how important the injury to Eric Abojei was, I actually get to hear a lot about what's going on with Wyoming's normally overlooked players.
So next time you see that run for a first down or long pass for a touchdown, cheer on the guys with the ball, but make sure to say a thank you to those big guys on the line, too.