Offensive linemen pave the way

Offensive line skills go beyond height and weight

Cary-Grove's Trevor Ruhland (left) during practice at Cary-Grove High School Thursday, July 17, 2014.
Cary-Grove's Trevor Ruhland (left) during practice at Cary-Grove High School Thursday, July 17, 2014.

This is another installment of our Football 101 series heading into the start of the fall high school football practice. Find all the stories, as they appear, along with our Football 101 video series with coaches from Huntley, Marian Central and Johnsburg here.

During his 13 years as Cary-Grove’s offensive line coach, Mike Manning has seen his team’s fair share of talent at the position, but no one as technically-sound as senior tackle Trevor Ruhland.

Ruhland (6-foot-5, 263 pounds) is a two-time Northwest Herald All-Area first-team selection and is committed to play at Notre Dame. What stood out to Manning from Day 1 with Ruhland was not just his size, but his athleticism to go with it.

“What set Trevor apart from the beginning was his footwork, his ability to move,” Manning said. “We’ve had big guys come through the program before and Trevor’s athleticism at that size has differentiated him from them.”.

Ruhland is just one of several offensive linemen with both standout size and mobility that McHenry County has seen in recent years.

Crystal Lake South's Jake Bernstein (Vanderbilt) and Fahn Cooper (Mississippi), both 2011 graduates, will play in the Southeastern Conference this season. Prairie Ridge's Shane Evans, who graduated in May, is at Northern Illinois.

Marian Central's Bryan Bulaga, a 2007 graduate, started the area's run of talented linemen with an outstanding career at Iowa. Bulaga, who now plays right tackle for the Green Bay Packers, is the only lineman to ever be named as the Northwest Herald's Player of the Year. He was the 23rd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.

Beyond height and weight

Although size is a necessity to play on the offensive line at the collegiate and pro levels, it is not always the case for prep athletes. At the high school level, some linemen make up for their lack of size with their technical abilities and football IQ.

“Most of our linemen have to be pretty intense when it comes to rule application, so you have to be able to think for sure,” Manning said. “We really look for guys who like to finish blocks and get that mentality going, trying to set the tempo at the line of scrimmage.”

Ruhland and Evans agreed that a good lineman must also have the mental and physical toughness to succeed at the position.

“Besides being big, a lineman needs to be tough,” Evans said. “We’re out there for every play giving it our all, so we don’t get any breaks.”

Having a bit of a nasty streak doesn't hurt either.

“You definitely have to be a ferocious, mean guy,” Ruhland added. “You must also be really smart, especially knowing personal and unit assignments.”

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the position is the lack of credit that offensive lineman typically get, considering they are the primary protection and source of success for the quarterback and running backs.

“You think of a unit mostly because we play together,” Evans said. “One bad play not only makes you look bad, but makes everyone on the line look bad.”

Blocking technique

With many different schemes involved in a team’s playbook, blocking techniques will vary for run- and pass-oriented plays and offenses. In order to improve these techniques, Manning said teams use blocking sleds and live drills for muscle memory and conditioning purposes.

“Depending on the offensive system, [blocking techniques] get pretty specific,” Manning said. “We run option football, so we have different releases off the line of scrimmage that are very important to us.”

“As a run blocker, you have to move your feet faster,” Evans added. “As a pass blocker, you put more pressure on your inside foot, and you want to have hands out on the defender.”

For fast-tempo, run-heavy teams like Cary-Grove and Prairie Ridge, the execution of particular blocks become important because the lineman are pushing to get to the second level of defense.

“It varies based on the plays we run,” Manning said. “We have our option-veer release, and that’s a big part of what we do, and so is our backside protection like the cut-off blocks. We also double-team at the point of attack quite a bit.”

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