Jim Lachey reached for his phone, slid open the lock screen and there it was – a picture of six Ohio State blockers forming a perfect pocket of protection around Braxton Miller during Saturday’s game at Illinois.
“You see Braxton in the middle there,” Lachey said, clearly enjoying what he was looking at. “It’s just a circle. And the thing about it, our center is over here (on the right, nearly behind Miller) helping out. They’re picking up stunts, they’re all moving, they’re all interacting, and at the end of three seconds it’s all perfect. (The pass rushers are) all outside the circle.”
In essence, he was like a kid in a candy store.
To paraphrase Douglas MacArthur, old offensive linemen never die. They just become analysts.
So we turned to three of the best, most opinionated linemen in Ohio State history – Lachey, LeCharles Bentley and Kirk Barton – to answer a pivotal question: Just how good is this year’s line of senior left tackle Jack Mewhort, senior left guard Andrew Norwell, senior center Corey Linsley, senior right guard Marcus Hall and sophomore right tackle Taylor Decker?
As it turns out, as we find in BSB’s offensive line roundtable, pretty good. We asked Lachey, Bentley and Barton a series of questions about offensive line play, this group of five and how it compares to some of the best lines in recent Ohio State history – and got some interesting answers.
First, here’s bios of our participants:
Jim Lachey: The St. Henry, Ohio, native earned first-team All-American honors at guard in 1984 before being taken in the first round of the draft by San Diego. He played 10 NFL seasons, earning three Pro Bowl bids and three All-Pro nods as well as winning Super Bowl XXVI before becoming Ohio State's radio analyst.
LeCharles Bentley: A Cleveland native, Bentley started three years for the Buckeyes, first at right tackle in 1999 and then at center in 2000. He earned first-team All-America honors and the Rimington Trophy (nation’s best center) in 2001, then made two Pro Bowls in four years as an NFL player. Currently operates L.Bentley O-Line Performance in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Kirk Barton: Barton took over as a starter at right tackle at Ohio State in 2004 as a redshirt freshman and started the rest of his career there, starting four wins against Michigan. The Massillon native was a seventh-round draft pick and had stints with four NFL teams before returning to OSU and serving on staff for three seasons through 2012.
So without further ado, here’s what those three had to say about the Ohio State offensive line.
In your mind, what stands out about the way the Ohio State’s offensive line is currently playing?
Bentley: “Footwork and execution are the two things that stand out. From an execution standpoint, it’s impossible to execute Urban Meyer’s blocking schemes without proper footwork. If you don’t have proper footwork, that puts you in a position where Urban Meyer as a coach, as an offensive coordinator, is going to have a hard time establishing what he enjoys doing against defenses. I think the footwork and execution of the scheme is what makes this group so special. It’s very difficult for a lot of big guys to get out there and really, it’s an orchestrated dance. These guys are step for step, hip to hip, shoulder pad to shoulder pad, everything is supposed to be where it is when it is supposed to be there, and I think that is the critical aspect of the success. Talk about the timing of the quarterback in this system and being able to put the ball where it is supposed to be, being able to execute the zone read, the most important thing with this offense is it goes back to the execution and steps of the offensive linemen. If those two things aren’t clicking, there’s nothing else to talk about.”
Lachey: “They have good athletes. Andrew Norwell is a good athlete. Corey Linsley is one of the top centers. He’s just a smart guy, gets everyone lined up right. Marcus Hall I think is a good athlete, he just had to toughen up and change his body, and he did. Now he’s a guy that’s probably going to get to play in the NFL for a while. And then Jack, I watched him every game last year and I’ve seen him play center throughout his career, I’ve seen him play guard, I’ve seen him play right tackle and then left tackle when Mike Adams left, and he’s done an outstanding job. I’m probably a little biased because my endowment provides his scholarship, but I’ve liked what he’s done. He’s just a good guy, good people. Last year, I was surprised he wasn’t All-Big Ten, and this year, I think he’s even playing better. People have to notice him. I know the NFL scouts are noticing him. They know what he’s done.”
Barton: “You know, the one thing that is really not talked about is how tough the unit is. They don’t miss starts at all. I am not sure if they missed one. I know Taylor got dinged and he was out during the bye week, but during the last two years, none of those guys have missed a start to my recollection. And it’s not because they haven’t been hurt or injured, it’s because they’re too damn tough to miss a game. They play through a lot of pain.”
Bentley: “As a group, it’s the way they finish. I think they’re all great finishers. I would love to be able to give a rundown of every single player, but I think that’s the one thing that they all possess – they’re all great finishers. That’s something you can’t teach. One thing Coach Cooper used to always say is ‘You can’t teach a puppy how to bite.” That was always his big thing, and all these guys do bite. They don’t mind biting. I think that is once again going to be the hallmark of Ohio State offensive line play. It just makes me very proud to see those guys upholding that tradition.”
How much credit goes to the staff as well, including offensive line coach Ed Warinner, director of strength and conditioning Mickey Marotti and others?
Lachey: “I think it all starts with the coaching. Ed Warinner came in two years ago and transformed their technique a little bit and got them to change from being a zone blocking, zone running team to a power, aggressive, down blocking team. I think it starts up there, the change in technique, and then all the guys bought in. They didn’t buy in at first, which I think is kind of typical when you go through that because I’ve seen guys going in and trying to learn this type of blocking technique, and it’s not easy. It’s hard to learn. There was some resistance, but once they saw the results last year, they said, ‘Hey, this is fun knocking people around.’ ”
Barton: “A lot of the credit goes to Mickey Marotti and Coach Meyer and Ed. I was there last year and watched them install the offense and install the culture. That’s not easy to do. That takes a lot of hours and a lot of hours that people never see or know about. Those guys put in a ton of work, six days a week, grinding to get to where they are.”
Bentley: “In my honest opinion, I think the biggest impact on why those guys have changed their level of play is two people – I would say Ed Warinner and Coach Mickey. Between those two people being instilled into that program, I think they have done the most to reestablish the O-line culture at Ohio State. I think over the years we’ve gotten away from it. I think when you think of offensive line play, you have to believe that Ohio State is the birthplace, in my opinion, of what offensive line play should represent. I think we got away from it. I think those two people helped reestablish the standard.”
It seems like the spread, power offense would be a fun scheme to play in. How much has that contributed to the team’s success as well?
Bentley: “It’s a very well designed offense. Some people make the argument that offensive linemen that play in this style of offense don’t transition to the National Football League very well, and I think that is the furthest thing from the truth given Urban Meyer’s track record. If you can play in his offense, you are a player who has what I like to say are transferable skills. You have a skill set that can then be developed at the next level in the National Football League because now know that as an offensive line coach and offensive coordinator in the NFL, I know that I have a guy that has a phenomenal skill set, has tools, now it’s just about developing those. It’s one thing for you to be an artist and the only thing you can do is oil painting, and then I give you a water paint and say, ‘Paint with this,’ and you’re like, ‘I can’t do that.’ An offensive lineman at Ohio State, you can paint with oil, you can paint water-based, hell, you can do acrylics if you need to. That’s the beauty about being an offensive lineman at Ohio State now – if you leave there and you’re a good football player, you’re going to have a good chance of being a football player at the next level.”
Barton: “That’s the great myth about our spread offense. We deal with that in recruiting where people say that offense doesn’t translate to the NFL, and I’m like, it translates perfectly to the NFL. NFL teams run power, tight zone, wide zone. That’s what they do and that’s what we do. We’re more of a tight zone offense than a wide zone offense, but Coach Meyer wants a guy to come off the ball really hard and to be real sure of what they’re doing.”
Lachey: “I’m an offensive guy. I love scoring. I played under Earle Bruce and it was a little bit of that three yards and a cloud of dust, then I had the opportunity in the NFL to see it from a different perspective with Don Coryell – ‘Air Coryell’ – and throwing the ball around. It’s not like this is a new style, it’s just that all this is blended in together. Before you had the read zone and the double downs and the kickouts and the counter-type schemes, but you’re also doing it out of four or five wides. That and the speed of it, we used to say that was ‘red ball’ when we were working out of the hurry-up offense. We might do that twice a game – at the end of the half and at the end of the game depending on if we were ahead or behind. Right now, red ball is red ball. That’s the normal pace. We liked to have that – Coach (Joe) Gibbs even talked about it in the late ’80s and early ’90s as a great game changer, a pace setter. We would do it for a couple of series and stop. There were teams like Buffalo who did it. It’s not like this stuff is all new, but it’s all kind of packaged up.”
Barton: “The funny thing is Coach Meyer’s favorite play is still power. It’s still Dave, which was universally mocked by people, but that’s still a good play. We run a lot of variations of it, and a lot of tight zone, but Coach Meyer is all about inside zone and power, and he likes the physicality of our offense. Now, it doesn’t look like it used to. We don’t have two tight ends in the game and lining up under center. We’re in the gun, no huddle, but the blocking schemes are the same. It’s just what football is all about, the power play. Between our power and tight zone, those are our two bread-and-butter plays. This year we’ve probably done more tight zone than anything. That’s what our guys are good at. We pride ourselves on being the best combo block team in the country. We really drill that as much as probably anybody in the country and we work it in practice, and that’s kind of our calling card.”
The line is just dominating teams right now and the Buckeyes coming off of a 441-yard rushing performance at Illinois, the most in more than two decades. How much fun was it when you got into a groove like these guys are in right now?
Lachey: “It’s fun, it really is. Ironically against Illinois, we were getting a bunch of yards again (Lachey helped block for Keith Byars when he ran for 274 yards vs. the Illini in 1984). It’s fun to see or have that feeling. When you go into football games, that is the most demoralizing thing ever to a defense. They can give up a long play and say, ‘Oh, the guy got burned,’ or something like that. You can make an excuse. But when you’re running it down their throats for 8 yards, 10 yards, 16 yards, 50 yards, they don’t need to pass, right? Who came up with the idea for a forward pass when you can just run over everybody and physically demoralize people? That’s what the run game does, and Ohio State’s line has done a nice job – as well as any group that I’ve seen here.”
Bentley: “It’s the matrix is what I call it. It’s everything just going right. As an offensive line, you operate as one, as a unit. I equate it to basketball players when they talk about when they get in the zone. The basket looks four-to-five times the normal size and you can put up anything and it’s going in. It’s the same thing with offensive linemen. You just get in the zone where you know (things like) where your guard’s foot is going to be. There’s a level of communication that isn’t verbal. Everything is just clicking for you. Beyond that, the running backs feel it and the quarterbacks feel it and everyone else becomes energized. It’s the matrix. Once your guys get in the matrix, they are unstoppable, and that’s where this offensive line is at at this point.”
All right, we’ve danced around it long enough. Where do these guys rank in recent Ohio State history?
Barton: “I think it’s definitely one of the top groups of the last 20 years or so. I can’t really go much further back than that, but it helps that you have four seniors on a line together because it’s like four guys that are hitting their peak. They realize they’re hitting the end of the road. Those guys are all dedicated to having career years. That’s something that Coach Tressel used to always stress, that your senior year has to be your career year, your best year. It helps that four guys are older guys and one who isn’t is a really talented and good young player who acts like a senior. So for me to have five guys working like that, it’s really impressive.”
Lachey: “I think they’ll get judged very highly once their careers are done because that’s the thing about winning. They have an opportunity this week to break that (consecutive wins) record. You’d almost have to say that’s been the most successful group because of what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
Bentley: “As a unit, this is one of the best units for sure over the past decade; beyond that, I can probably say 10 to 15 years. This is probably the best unit from top to bottom that we’ve had (in that span). … You have to be more than one-dimensional. That’s what is so special about what Coach Meyer’s doing with this offense and reestablishing what the O-line tradition at Ohio State is. They’ve taken it now to another level. You can’t just be a big, fat, sloppy guy and play at Ohio State. Oh, no, no. Not anymore. These guys have done a phenomenal job of maintaining and even exceeding that level of physicality but also bringing it back down to a true art form.”