Will the Florida State Offensive Line Pass Protect in 2009?

There's a secret in coaching circles that most 'Nole fans don't know about and those who do know don't want the rest of the college football world to know:  FSU's offensive line was very good last year- for being the youngest line in the nation.  It's that qualifier that should dig at FSU's starting five.  It's like saying "that's a nice jumpshot- for a girl."  The truth of the matter is that without the qualifier, the statement that "Florida State's offensive line was very good in 2008" is false.  All told, if you evaluated their performance without knowing how young they were, you'd be hard pressed to come up with anything more than average.  There's a big difference between wildly exceeding expectations and being elite on a national or conference scale.  When FSU needed their offensive line to dig in and provide protection in 2008, in passing situations like 2nd & 8+ or 3rd & 5+, the line failed miserably.   They simply could not pass protect.   Sure, they made big strides in other areas, and looked much better than some of the garbage produced by Jimmy Heggins and Mark McHale in the early and middle parts of this decade, but 'Nole fans eager to have a decent offensive line jumped all over the idea that their boys up front were now elite.   They have not yet earned the pre-season accolades being strewn upon them by the media.  Not with last year's performance.  This year the challenge is to become elite- not just elite considering their youth.  

This piece uses advanced measures.  You may be familiar with how some of baseball's advanced and highly-specialized, opponent-normalized measures are taking over the way the sports world operates.  Baseball is being dominated by all kinds of super metrics, and football is swiftly moving in that direction as progressive athletic departments and professional teams move to hire the advanced minds to give their team the edge in self-scouting and talent evaluation.  They seek to improve their performance through a better understanding of the macro and micro elements of the their approach.  Here's a look at FSU's 2007 and 2008 offense through the lense of the best available measures.  

Measure 2007 2008
 Fremeau Efficiency Index: Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (Drive Based) 82nd 15th
Vartisy Numbers Offensive Rating (Play-By-Play Based) 71st 33rd
Varsity Numbers Rushing Rating 89th 15th
Varsity Numbers Passing Rating 47th 57th

Fremeau Link |  Varsity Numbers Link   A big thank you to Brian Fremeau and Bill Connelly.  Without their work, none of this would have been possible. 

Everyone knows that Florida State made an improbable leap with their running attack last year, improving from the 89th rated rushing attack in 2007 to the 15th rated rushing attack in 2008.  (Rating based off Varsity Numbers S&P close measure, which is adjusted for opponent and removes garbage time possessions).  They did this despite having the youngest offensive line in the nation with three true freshmen and two sophomores.  The end result was the top offense in the ACC, earning Jimbo Fisher the ACC Offensive Coordinator of the Year Award.  All was not perfect, however, as the passing attack went from being rated 47th to 57th nationally (Rating based off Varsity Numbers S&P close measure, which is adjusted for opponent and removes garbage time possessions).

We've already spoken about the running game at length herehere, and here.  Today we'll talk about the passing game, and specifically the much-heralded offensive line.

By almost any measure, be it the very basic total yards, or the hyper-advanced Varsity Numbers Close S&P+ measure, FSU's passing offense took a step back in 2008.  But the step back was not nearly as large as some of the unrefined numbers indicate.  In terms of yards per game, FSU fell from 47th in 2007 to 82nd in 2008.  That's quite the drop, but the smarter measures suggest the drop was really only about ten spots, not 35, as the 'Noles saw their passing game fall from 47th to 57th nationally.  Why is this so?  

To better understand just how far the passing game fell (not as far as you might think), it is important to understand the components of the super advanced passing metric.  Close S&P+ is comprised of Success Rate, and Points Per Play (a measure of explosiveness), in situations where the game is not wildly out of hand, and then normalized for opponent quality.  

Measure 2007 2008
Passing S&P (combination of the two) 47th 57th
Success Rate + 62nd 28th
Points Per Play + 48th 73rd

To understand what this means please follow (and read) this link follow link.  It's detailed but you will learn a lot.  If you do not read it, this will not make much sense.  

Success Rate

This one immediately jumps out at me.  Back in early 2008, I argued against Drew Weatherford and stated that he was selfish for taking a 6 yard gain on 3rd and 11 in order to not throw an interception.  It helped his numbers, but not the team, as the punt team was called upon a record number of times.  In 2008, Christian Ponder was almost the exact opposite, as he tried to throw for the first down a bunch.  Throwing for 7 yards on 3rd and 10 is a great example of how regular statistics can be misleading.  Everything about that play looks good for the quarterback, but it doesn't help the team much.  When FSU needed a conversion, they typically got it in 2008 where they did not in 2007.  The jump from 62nd to 28th is excellent and FSU would do well to maintain that 28th Success Rate position in 2009.  

 

Points Per Play (explosiveness)  

While the Success Rate was better in 2008 than in 2007, the 'Noles Points Per Play was not.  Think of Points Per Play as Slugging Percentage (and Success Rate as On-Base-Percentage).  FSU's 2008 offense lacked the big plays of the 2007 year, and the difference was noticeable, as FSU fell from 48th to 73rd in PPP+ (explosiveness).  Why was this?  Did FSU simply trade big play potential for more consistency?  Sort of.  It's not that simple.  

To understand the results we have to examine the process.  Last summer FSU knew that it had a very difficult situation at offensive line, as they suffered transfers, injuries, and had their most promising offensive tackle flunk out of school.  The offensive line was the youngest in the nation.  FSU decided that their makeup could do well in most games as a quick, double-teaming run blocking unit and a passable quick game protection unit.  They didn't come out and say so, but the makeup of the offensive line (very small and young) wasn't going to be conducive to pass protection.  That runs counter-intuitive to what many often think of when they conjure up images of a young line- as young lines typically do okay in pass protection but lack the tenacity and push needed to dominate in the run game.  Typically, young offensive linemen are soft, but they do have bulk and it is that bulk which is needed to sustain the initial jolt delivered by the pass rusher.  If a pass rusher knows he will have success witl the bull rush (straight ahead), he will not attempt other moves.  FSU's line was different because it had the quickness to attain angles to block for the run, but the young guys were simply too small to effectively pass protect.  The Problem was physical maturity.  Kid's seemed for the most part to be assignment smart but lacked the bulk and strength to compete play to play.   They couldn't withstand a bull rush and as a result, had to keep tighter than ideal splits in an attempt to force the pass-rushers outside.  Think of FSU's 2008 pass protection as a high school basketball pack-it-in defense.  It worked sometimes, but ACC edge rushers (more 1st round draft picks on defense than any other conference over the last 5 years) could beat the freshmen tackles to the outside.  Additionally, Ryan McMahon struggled with injury and the sophomore center was routinely driven back.  The pocket rarely existed for Christian Ponder.

Here's an important quote about pass protection

Pass protection usually begins with the understanding that if the defense rushes five or six guys, you can pick them up, but your blockers will have to be able to block at least one defender one-on-one. No pass protection scheme can count on double teaming all possible rushers. If you can't handle Lawrence Taylor man-for-man, then a five man rush becomes like a seven or eight man blitz, but also with sound coverage behind it.

And trusting your protection as a quarterback really begins with an expectation of protection.  Quarterbacks are told not to pay attention to the rush.  You have to feel the rush but not look at it.  That whole concept is built upon the assumption that most plays will be blocked successfully and to adapt to protection breakdowns.  With FSU in 2008, no QB could reasonably have an expectation of protection, because it was not there.  The Offensive Line's pass protection was nonexistent in summer practice, Fall Camp, and by most defenses.  Sure, they did okay on some of the shorter passes and the screens- plays that didn't require them to have the initial bulk to sustain a rusher's jolt, but the dropback pass protection was just not there.

Aside from the offensive line's makeup, there are yet other reasons for the contrast in the run and the pass game.  For a long, long time, FSU was pass first, second, and last.  Heck, Bobby Bowden even wrote essays by the name of "The Pass First Offense".  Forever and ever, teams geared up to stop FSU by stopping the pass.  And going into last year, teams did not fear FSU's run game, nor their quarterback.  No, they were scared of FSU's wideouts, however, in a big way.  Greg Carr and Preston Parker, along with newcomer Corey Surrency (who teams regarded as a Carr clone) scared opposing defenses.  Teams absolutely played to stop the deep ball.  They kept their safeties back.  Wayyy back.  They did not stack the box.  Defenses allowed the 'Noles to throw short passes and run the ball but they declared, via their pre-snap alignment, time and again, that they would not allow the deep ball.  While Surrency and Carr had disappointing years, the very threat of the deep ball to them made playing back an easy choice for defenses.  No team really challenged FSU's wideouts with single coverage- except for Virginia Tech- against whom Carr caught two crucial bombs.

And even after FSU began to run the football really well (Colorado and Miami), teams did not respect FSU's run game.  The 'Noles were putting up top 20 rushing performances, and yet their past reputation of rushing ineptitude still carried the day.  Most of the time, Fisher did a good job of running the ball against these looks.  Occasionally, he tried to force pass plays against teams when the defensive formation dictated that a run be called- most notably Clemson.

But teams did make some adjustments to what FSU was doing.  Teams saw Wake Forest shut FSU down with their excellent front 7 and not involve their safeties.  Opponents continued to try to emulate that game plan.  It didn't work against the run for the most part, as FSU started to gash opponents, but it did work against the pass.  NC State, Georgia Tech, Boston College, and UF all did a great job generating pressure without bringing any blitz.  They kept everyone else back in coverage.  Unfortunately for the 'Noles, the youngest offensive line in the country could not protect against a simple 4-man rush.  Typically when a team faces pressure, there are easier throws available because the defense is sacrificing a coverage player and rushing him, but the 'Noles faced great coverage and enormous pressure because opposing defenses were able to generate that pressure without sacrificing that coverage player to the rush.  The other part of this was the complete lack of respect for the FSU play-action game, which is of course based off the threat of the run.  

Here's a more detailed look:  

Performance- Varsity Numbers 2007/2008 '07 Rank '08 Rank
Passing Close S&P + (combo if Success Rate and Points Per Play) 47th 57th
Success Rate + 62nd 28th
Points Per Play+ (PPP+) 48th 73rd
Non-Passing Downs (1-10, 2-7 or less, 3rd and 4 or less) S&P+ 47th 53rd
Non-Passing Downs (1-10, 2-7 or less, 3rd and 4 or less) Success rate + 37th 56th
Non-Passing Downs (1-10, 2-7 or less, 3rd and 4 or less)  Points Per Play + 86th 47th
Passing Downs (2nd & 8+, 3rd & 5+) S&P+ 53rd 27th
Passing Downs (2nd & 8+, 3rd & 5+) Success Rate + 96th 69th
Passing Downs (2nd & 8+, 3rd & 5+) Points Per Play + 82nd 57th

Okay, so you're probably trying to make sense of this, as you should.  How could FSU's passing attack be rated lower in 2008 than in 2007, yet be slightly better on passing downs?  The key is in the measurement.  The performance on Non-Passing and Passing downs measures all plays run on those downs- not just passes.  And if there  was one thing Florida State did very well in 2008 it was run in passing situations.  

Here's a look at every successful play (see definition of success rate linked above) the 'Noles fan on passing downs during the 2008 season.  See if you can sense a pattern.

  • Against Wake Forest, FSU succeeded on 8 of 32 plays on Passing Downs (2nd & 8+, 3rd & 5+).   FSU ran the ball 11 times in those situations, and had success on 4 of them (36% success rate).  FSU ran 21 pass plays in passing situations, and was successful on only 4 of them (19% success rate).  While neither are good, the Wake game was a microcosm of the stark differences had on the ground and in the air.  Here are the runs:
  • Wake Forest: 2-10, run for 8
  • Wake Forest: 2-10, run for 11
  • Wake Forest: 2-10, run for 9
  • Wake Forest: 3-8, run for 18
  • FSU ran 21 pass plays in passing situations (2nd & 8+, 3rd & 5+), and was successful on only 4 of them (19% success rate).  This should be the worst passing game in Fisher's history.  Here are the passes:
  • Wake Forest: 3-5, pass for 8
  • Wake Forest: 3-8, pass for 16
  • Wake Forest: 3-5, pass for 21
  • Wake Forest: 3-10, pass for 10
  • Against Colorado, the 'Noles had a success rate of 35% on passing downs (6-20)
  • The 'Noles were successul running the ball 3 of 8 times on passing downs. (38%)
  • Colorado:  2-15, run for 60
  • Colorado:  2-7, run for 12
  • Colorado: 2-10, run for 7
  • The 'Noles were successful throwing the ball on 4 of 12 passing downs (33%)
  • Colorado: 2-8, pass for 6
  • Colorado: 2-10, pass for 15
  • Colorado: 3-8, pass for 17
  • Colorado: 3-7, pass for 24
  • Against Miami, the 'Noles faced 28 Passing downs, and were successful on 14 of them, for a great 50% success rate.
  • The 'Noles ran 15 times on passing downs, and had success on 8 of them!  That's 63% successful running in long situations.  
  • Miami:  2-10, run for 30
  • Miami:  2-10, run for 7
  • Miami:  2-15, run for 11
  • Miami:  2-7, run for 6
  • Miami: 2-11, run for 9
  • Miami: 3-20, run for 20
  • Miami: 3-8, run for 12
  • Miami: 3-11, run for 13
  • That's pretty remarkable.  One of the best performances running in long situations I have ever seen.  They were 6/13 on passes in those situations (46%)
  • Miami: 2-12, pass for 11
  • Miami: 2-10, pass for 9
  • Miami: 2-10, pass for 19
  • Miami: 2-10, pass for 17
  • Miami: 3-7, pass for 13
  • Miami: 3-14, pass for 27
  • Against North Carolina State's porous defense, the 'Noles faced 29 Passing Downs, and had success on 41% of them (12/29).  
  • The 'Noles ran 17 times on passing downs against the Pack, finding success an impressive 7 times (41%)
  • NCST: 2-8, run for 27
  • NCST:  2-7, run for 8
  • NCST: 2-10, run for 11
  • NCST: 2-7, run for 12
  • NCST:  2-8, run for 16
  • NCST: 3-14, run for 15
  • NCST: 3-8, run for 8
  • Of the 'Noles 7 successful passing down situation runs, 4 gained a first down by exactly 1 or 0 yards.  Talk about knowing where the marker is!
  • The 'Noles threw 12 times on passing downs, and had success 5 times (42%).  You may find it odd that the 'Noles ran a lot more than they threw on passing downs, but consider that NCST's defensive line was abusing FSU's offensive line early in the game to the tune of 5 holding penalties and three sacks.  
  • NCST:  2-14, pass for 13
  • NCST: 2-16, pass for 17
  • NCST: 2-10, pass for 17
  • NCST: 3-21, pass for 30
  • NCST; 3-17, pass for 23
  • The Wolfpack really hates playing the run apparently, but they were damn good rushing the passer.  
  • Against VTech the 'Nole offense struggled on most every down.  They faced 25 passing downs and had success on only 5 of them, for a horrid success rate of 20%.  
  • VTech was very draw-conscious.  FSU ran 10 times in passing situations, finding success only 1 time.
  • VTECH: 2-10, run for 8.
  • Because VTech was more focused on the run, FSU's success rate in the passing game was higher (27% on 4 of 15, compared to the 10% above)
  • VTECH: 2-8, pass for 13
  • VTECH: 2-15, pass for 13
  • VTECH: 3-20, pass for 39
  • VTECH: 3-10, pass for 21
  • Obviously, VTech's defense was top 10 nationally and Miami's and NCST's weren't in the top half, but this game showed FSU making a good late adjustment (discussed below).
  • Against Georgia Tech, the 'Noles did an excellent job staying out of Passing Downs, because they did well on first downs.  The 'Noles faced only 17 Passing downs, and found success on 10 of them, which is an excellent 59%
  • The 'Noles ran 4 times in passing situations and absolutely dominated tech doing so, finding success on 3 of the four:
  • GTECH: 2-15, rush for 39
  • GTECH: 2-12, rush for 11
  • GTECH: 2-10, rush for 10
  • In a departure from the previous games, FSU threw 3X more passes than runs on passing downs (13), successfully doing so on 7 of them (54%)
  • GTECH: 2-15, pass for 14
  • GTECH: 2-8, pass for 20
  • GTECH: 2-17, pass for 13
  • GTECH: 2-10, pass for 9
  • GTECH: 3-7, pass for 12
  • GTECH: 3-8, pass for 10
  • GTECH: 4-6, pass for 9
  • The Clemson game is where we really start to see Ponder's injury impact the playcalling.  While FSU was a great run team on passing downs earlier in the year, they tailed off considerably at mid-season.  That's probably because Fisher didn't want to further injure Ponder.  The 'Noles were 6/18 on passing downs (33%).  Let's see how that happened:
  • The 'Noles had 8 runs on passing downs, and were successful on 4 of them, an excellent 50% rate.  Interestingly, only one of them was Ponder.  
  • CU: 2-13, run for 21
  • CU: 2-10, run for 11
  • CU: 2-10, run for 8
  • CU: 2-7, run for 27
  • I was really quite irritated with Jimbo's playcalling in this game.  He was trying to force the passing game despite the huge pass protection issues FSU had (linemen pulled in the first quarter for massive blown assignments and poor play).  FSU passed 10 times on passing downs, and were only successful 2 times, for a pitiful 20% success rate.  Clemson was an extremely good team against the pass and while I've often praised Fisher, he was way too stubborn in this game.  If FSU stuck with the run game (and the Clemson's alignment and ability to generate pass pressure with minimal rushers dictates that they should have), the 'Noles could have scored 60.  Here are the two successful passes in passing situations:
  • CU: 3-7, pass for 14
  • CU: 3-13, pass for 14
  • Clemson's defense is extremely good and should content for the top spot in the nation in 2009.  FSU must be patient and willing to run the ball against Clemson until Clemson shows that they are concerned with FSU's run game.
  • The Boston College game really showed just how good the Eagles defense was (2nd nationally).  While most teams paid dearly for ignoring FSU's run game, BC was able to stop it with minimal personnel and still devote full attention to the 'Noles run game.  The results were disasterous, as they would be for any offense in that situation (and most were against BC, as only two teams had more yards per play against BC).  Florida State was just 5/21 in passing situations, which probably says as much about Boston College's defense (stacked with NFL starters) as it does FSU'S offense.  Still, 24% succcess in passing situations will not get the job done.  Let's look at the breakdown:
  • FSU only ran 4 times in passing situations, but were successful twice (50%, duh).
  • BC: 2-10, rush for 11
  • BC: 2-8, rush for 7
  • This really begs the question, why not run more in these situations?  Clearly the 'Noles were quite good at doing so.  The answer was Ponder, of course, as he was injured and the backups were not a reasonable alternative for a variety of personal and football reasons.  Where earlier in the year the 'Noles would mix their runs and passes in passing situations, they did not do so starting with the GTech game- probably because of the QB injury.  
  • In the passing department, the 'Noles were terrible here, successfully throwing in passing situations only 3 of 17 times!  That 's 18%!  I am yelling!  Let's take a look at the three successful throws:
  • BC: 2-9, pass for 30
  • BC: 2-10, pass for 14
  • BC: 3-5, pass for 14
  • Again, BC had three top 40 NFL draft pick types- including two top 10 types, and they absolutely manhandled the 'Noles offensive line- even making Rodney Hudson looking terrible.  It didn't help that Andrew Datko and Ryan McMahon were injured.  Simply put- BC, like Clemson (passing plays only) and Wake, and UF, had an all-decade quality front-7 and rushed few men yet generated a lot of pressure while playing 7 or 8 men in coverage.  FSU simply could not block them.
  • Against Maryland, the 'Noles did a great job on first down and avoided having a lot of passing downs, facing only 16, and converting 5, for a 31% success rate.  That's not good, but given the context of the overall game it wasn't a big deal because there just weren't many of the situations.
  • The 'Noles ran 6 times on passing downs and were successful three times, again posting a decent running success rate of 33%.  Ponder took off only three times and had the two successful runs.  Go figure.
  • MD: 2-10, run for 8
  • MD: 2-10, run for 12
  • In the passing department, FSU, threw the ball 10 times, and was successful three times.  
  • MD: 2-10, pass for 7
  • MD: 3-7, pass for 7
  • Md: 3-11, pass for 18
  • Maryland's pass rush was not very impressive and it's worth noting that FSU completed a lot of short stuff that just missed counting as a "success."  
  • And against UF, nothing went right.  FSU faced 27 Passing Downs, and found success on only 5 (19%).  UF had the best defense in the nation and they are in line to have the best defense of all time this season.  They shut down everyone in scary fashion.   
  • FSU ran 8 times on passing downs, doing to successfully only twice.  That's 25%.  
  • UF: 2-10, run for 8
  • UF 2-7, run for 9
  • In the passing game, our offensive line couldn't handle the Gator rush, and they were able to generate a lot of pressure with minimal rushers.  I've said this a lot now throughout this piece, but FSU's run blocking was at a level many would call "good", but their pass blocking was in the bottom 30 of all teams Nationally.  FSU threw 19 passes on Passing downs, and was successful on only 3.  3 of 19 is 16% and that is bad.
  • UF: 2-10, pass for 8
  • UF: 2-9, pass for 12
  • UF: 3-14, pass for 19
  • In the Bowl game, FSU got back on track somewhat.  The 'Noles faced 23 passing downs, and ran successful plays on 10 of them.  That's not too bad- a 43% clip.
  • The 'Noles ran 6 times on Passing Downs, and were successful on 3, for a success rate of 50%.  That's pretty consistent with the 'Noles performance all season when running in passing downs.  Here were the plays:
  • UW: 2-13, run for 11
  • UW: 2-10, run for 8
  • UW: 3-5, run for 5
  • FSU threw 17 passes in passing situations, and had success on 7 of those tries.  Let's have a look:
  • UW: 2-7, pass for 10
  • UW: 2-10, pass for 9
  • UW: 2-8, pass for 20
  • UW: 2-8, pass for 29
  • UW: 2-15, pass for 12
  • UW: 3-19, pass for 20
  • UW: 3-9, pass for 18 

I know some of you like things in chart form.  Let's do that.  

Game Success Rate on Passing Downs Rushing Success on Passing Downs Passing Success on Passing Downs
Wake 8/ 32 (25%) 4/ 11  (36%) 4/ 21 (19%)
Colorado 6/ 20 (35%) 3/ 8 (35%) 4/ 12 (33%)
Miami 14/ 28 (50%) 8/ 15 (63%) 6/  13 (46%)
NC State 12/ 29 (41%) 7/ 17 (41%) 5/ 12 (42%)
V Tech 5/ 25 (20%) 1/ 10 (10%) 4/ 15 (27%)
G Tech 10/ 17 (59%) 3/ 4 (75%) 7/ 13 (54%)
Clemson 6/ 18 (33%)  4/ 8 (50%) 2/ 10 (20%)
BC 5/ 21 (24%) 2/ 4 (50%) 3/ 17 (18%)
Maryland 5/ 16 (31%) 2/ 6 (33%)  3/ 10 (30%)
Florida 5/ 27 (19%) 2/ 8 (25%) 3/ 19 (16%)
Wisconsin 10/ 23 (43%) 3/ 6 (50%) 7/ 17 (41%)
Totals 86/ 256 (34%) 39/ 97 (40%)  47/ 159 (30%)

And there we have it.  The success on passing downs was undeniably buyoed by the ability ot Ponder, Smith, and Thomas to run in situations where the defense was expecting the pass.

Author Nole44 had an excellent comment I wanted to highlight: 

1. FSU was 25% more likely to succeed running the ball on passing downs than throwing the ball on passing downs (40% success rate v. 30%). This makes me think we didn't run the ball enough on passing downs.

2. Based on my own recollection, a decent amount of the successful pass plays in passing situations came from bubble screens and similar quick hit passes (which were not featured in 2007). These operated almost like a run in my opinion, keeping the linebackers from cheating up too much and giving our lineman space to run out into the second level after hitting their double team. This bubble screen inflation, for lack of a better term, only underscores how incapable the offensive line was of creating and holding a pocket.

I touched on this above, but he's right.  The dropback passing game was even worse when you consider that FSU threw a ton of screens (not dropback passes) and often had success with them.  

Though I probably didn't need to list out all of those passes, I think you can see the point.  FSU rarely had a completed pass go further than the 1st down marker.  That's where the PPP+ (explosiveness) statistic comes in.  FSU's passing game was not explosive because the line could not pass protect long enough for the players to run down the field.  Almost all of the big pass plays came on screens (which don't require good protection) and jump balls (which don't require good protection).  It's okay to have a low completion- high yards per catch passing game, but FSU's yards per catch were not even remotely high enough to make up for all of the blown protections.    

The other obvious takeaway is that the success on passing downs came disproportionately from the run game, which isn't a bad thing, but it could be quite misleading to see the success on passing downs.  One would think that the 'Noles passing game on 3rd downs was quite good, but we now see that it was the run game and particularly Ponder's legs in the passing situations that propped up the performance.  There's a reason the passing numbers got worse and the overall offensive performance on passing downs improved:  line play.  The line was super quick and could adeptly lock onto smaller defenders when running the ball on passing downs.  As discussed above, they still lacked the physical maturity to pass protect.  Luckily, there are other ways to demonstarte this:  

Bill Connelley discusses these here and here.  It's a great measurement which separates offensive line play from the other players in the best available way.  No measure is perfect, but it does do a nice job of comparing year to year performance.  It doesn't disproportionately reward draw plays, as most of a draw play after the first few yatds is a back making people miss- even though FSU's offensive line is probably the best in the nation at downfield blocking, due to their athleticism.  Here you go:  

Performance '07 Ranking '08 Ranking
Close Line Yards + 85th 52nd
Passing Downs Line Yards + 56th 112th
Non-Passing Downs Line Yards + 91st 36th

Contrast much?  Remember our discussion above on FSU switching to an ultra-light and young offensive line which was atypical of a young line which would be big and uncoordinated.  This 112th ranking might surprise some of you who are constantly inundated with the Seminole media's praise of the offensive line.  We're guilty here as well, as we too often said the offensive line was playing great instead of saying they were playing great considering they are the youngest group in college football.  It's like saying she's not a bad ballplayer-- for a girl.  The 2007 offensive line was decent in pass protection and abysmal in the run game.  The 2008 offensive line was very good in the run game and terrible in pass protection.   The tables turned.

I also found this article interesting, http://www.footballoutsiders.com/walkthrough/2009/walkthrough-i-am-gm, I pulled some pointers on dealing with young quarterbacks.  It doesn't discuss dealing with a young offensive line specifically, but some of this should apply to our discussion.  

Run the football. It seems simple enough, but some teams forget that the newbie probably isn't ready to pass 45 times per game.  Run more often on first-and-10 and second-and-long.  Don't be afraid to run or throw a short pass on third-and-long; sometimes it's better to give the defense a chance to go to work than to put too much pressure on the first time QB.

As you can see from the numbers above and the numbers last season, FSU did a great job with this.  They limited risk through the run game in an attempt to keep the pressure off the passing game- a passing game they knew was likely to perform poorly at times due to the choices they made in dealing with a pretty unfortunate situation at offensive line.  

 

Increase your protection: Rookie quarterbacks, even great ones, aren't going to read a defense and expertly find the fifth option on a pass. Given the choice between more reads and more blockers, choose extra blockers.  Use six and seven man protection schemes often (keeping in backs and tight ends).  

Rolling the pocket and using additional blockers limits the offense, but when a rookie is calling the signals, it's better to be limited and well-executed than complicated and confusing.

A friend of ours, Oline0175 (highly respected high school offensive coordinator), had this to say about how FSU did with this idea:  Thats definitely how I'd classify our passing game.  FSU tried to keep it simple.  They limited the scheme for the sake of the QB and WR's, but thats more because they couldn't count on the protection to be there for down the field stuff and the WR's to run the correct routes.   Ponder also struggled at times to know where to go with the ball though, particularly in post-snap reads. 

 

Run some low-risk junk.  QB runs, direct snaps, unbalanced lines, etc.

This is obvious, FSU ran their QB more than they had in 15 years.    

 

 Limit the decisions. Handoffs, option, play-action, screens, pre-snap reads to constraint plays, and rollouts.  Get the ball in the hands of the playmakers without having to make difficult downfield throws or complex reads.   

This of course depends on experience and time.  Balanced teams will usually be more simple.  All pass teams will be more pass difficult (Texas Tech) and run teams will be more run difficult(Georgia Tech).  I prefer a balanced offense with an even mix of running schemes and pass schemes.  Your pass schemes will need to be less intensive so the players can learn and get the necessary reps to be successful.  Theres a reason option teams run option.  The goal of an OC always should be to get the ball into the playmakers hands but  sometimes you have to be creative.  You need to move him aroundjust like UF did with Percy

Mix easy-to-read passes with a good running game, extra protection, and a dash of trickery, and you have an offense that a (good) rookie can succeed in throughout the season.  It's that simple- provided you're not also dealing with a terrible pass blocking offensive line.  Then it's not that simple.

 

And there's also Coach Saban on young QB's.

Q. From a defensive point of view, when you're facing a quarterback that doesn't have much experience, how do you try to take advantage of that? At the same time with an inexperienced quarterback this year, how do you try to guide him through games until he gets that experience?

COACH SABAN: Well, you know, I think that everyone develops at a little different pace and rate, depending on their ability to learn the knowledge and experience, how they learn from their lessons. And I think specifically in our case Greg McElroy learns very quickly and has had some experience. But I also understand that until he makes plays in the game, he's not gonna fully have, you know, the trust and respect of all of his teammates, even though they really, really like him and they really like him as a leader.

I think the biggest mistake you can make in development of any new player, young player, inexperienced player, is give him too many things to do, and increase the multiples of the kind of mental errors that they can make.

I think that it depends, from a defensive perspective, who the guy is that you're trying to defend. If he's a smart guy, if you try to pressure him, you may enhance his chances of making plays because he understands it, he sees it, and his reads actually become a little easier.

If you try to play all coverage against him and don't pressure him and he's a good runner, he may hurt you with his feet.

So I think to really answer that question effectively, you'd have to know the specifics of who you were trying to defend.

We ask our own coach about this.  Oline0175 pays his bills by coaching offensive football and he recently won a state championship.

"I think we ask every player to do the same thing whether they are a freshmen or a senior. It's holding them to a higher standard. But the case here was different; Jimbo is building for the long haul. He wanted the class of 2008 to be the class that changes things for this program, so alot of them were asked to play as freshmen and we took our lumps while they learned on the job. In the future, freshmen won't be asked to play as big of roles so they can learn at their own pace and do what they can successfully if they play. Also every player learns at a different speed. We'll have some kids come through here or pick up on things quickly but struggle getting acclimated to the speed of the game and we'll have some who just can't pick the game up and play fast enough that it doesn't matter,

You'll notice that he discussed bringing pressure or not bringing pressure.  What he didn't discuss is being able to get pressure without bringing extra rushers.  He didn't discuss it because it is a huge luxury for a defense, and one that they normall do not expect to have, but that teams did have against FSU in 2008.

 

The Look Ahead

There is much reason for optimism.  The 'Noles return their entire starting offensive line in LT Andrew Datko, LG Rodney Hudson, C Ryan McMahon (who should havea  healthy foot), RG David Spurlock, and RT Zebrie Sanders.  The line bulked up more than 10lbs per man while actually losing body fat.  Their play in the spring was much improved and they have been the most impressive group in the summer workouts.  There will be much more on this in the preview, but the future for this offensive line looks very bright.    

 

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