Offensive line is probably the hardest position to review or preview. Few people outside the game can identify a lineman’s strengths & weaknesses, offensive failures are disproportionately placed on offensive linemen, and few people watch blocks at the expense of watching the man with the ball. Factor in that these big bodies are often late developing and that recruit ratings don’t really discriminate between ability floor and ceiling, and you’ve got a difficult task to preview any offensive line. Throw in a new coach, and a dearth of offensive tackles after starters left school for great/terrible reasons, and now you’re looking down the barrel of trying to predict FSU’s offensive line.
For the first time since 2007, Florida State has a new offensive line coach in FSU alum Greg Frey. Interestingly enough, Frey replaced Rick Trickett at WVU when Trickett joined offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher at Florida State. If you’ll remember, Trickett took over a unit with little size and marginal talent - even for the ACC - and quickly turned the unit into a serviceable zone-blocking group. Outside zone blocking was the bread and butter of that 2008 unit. As defenses started shooting gaps more against FSU over the years, Trickett & Fisher moved away from wide zone in favor of more inside-zone and split-zone blocking & counters to catch defenses fast-flowing to the ball.
This is all to say FSU will still be a “zone blocking” team under Frey. I don’t think the terminology means as much as it used to, as too many overemphasize the differences in man & zone blocking. For instance, an inside zone run is effectively man-blocking in that if you are covered up by a defender, you block him; if you are uncovered, you’re heading upfield to find someone to hit. Now, will FSU be a wide zone team? Maybe a little, but not as much. And that’s because of two factors: personnel and offensive scheme.
Regarding personnel, FSU has some excellent talent & experience at the center & guard positions. RS Sr. Alec Eberle anchors the line, and is in the beast health of his FSU career. A senior center in a zone scheme is worth his weight in gold; just think back to the difference in level of play from RS Jr. Bryan Stork in 2012 to 2013 (that, and the coaches stopped asking him to scoop the play-side DT on reach plays). Eberle’s backup, Baveon Johnson, was highly recruited and is the heir apparent at the position - though camp observations show he’s had problems with rifling snaps. At guard, FSU returns RS Jr. & jumbo starter Cole Minshew at RG along with 5th year senior Derrick Kelly II at LG. That is 11 years of combined experience heading into the season. Backing up the guard positions will be a mix of RS So. Mike Arnold and converted DT and RS Sr. Arthur Williams.
FSU however is James Blackman thin at offensive tackle. FSU sent RT Rick Leonard from Florida State (a Trickett DL convert) to the New Orleans Saints as a surprising 4th round selection. FSU also sent LT Josh Ball from Florida State, but not to the NFL or probably anywhere he wanted to go. Ball was expected to remain the starter at the position heading into the 2018 season. FSU will look to RS So. Jauan Williams to fill his void, and he’s received constant reps at first team throughout August.
At the vacated right tackle spot, Landon Dickerson will swing outside from his natural guard position to man it. Dickerson is FSU’s most talented lineman, and him being able to go from guard to tackle says a lot about the depth issues at FSU - but also speaks to his ability level. The last time I can remember seeing an FSU guard swing out to tackle was Rodney Hudson in the 2007 Music City SuspendaBowl vs Kentucky - who more than held his own at LT. As far as depth, backup Brock Ruble transferred to Toledo - so at least he gets to play one more home game against Miami (FL). While RS So. Mike Arnold has received reps at tackle this Fall, the only other tackle bodies are Fr. Jalen Goss & Chaz Neal who are considerably raw & undersized at this point. Camp reports also tell us starting guard Derrick Kelly has taken reps at tackle. Recruiting note: FSU simply must land a blue-chip OT in the next class or the top OT in the 2020 class.
Depth issues aside, the quality of FSU’s starting tackles seems not to bode well for FSU’s passing offense in 2018. In 2017, FSU’s adjusted sack rate allowed was ranked 108th. On standard downs - downs that the offense has favorable down & distance to go for a first - that rate was 109th. That is simply horrible. A lot of this can be explained by defenses keying on a true freshman QB in a pass-centric offense, but the point stands. Consider that FSU backs were stuffed on 23.5% of running plays (121st nationally), and you might begin to wonder if it wasn’t just Jimbo Fisher who was checked out on the 2017 season.
But there’s good news: I don’t count on FSU’s ability to make plays out of passing downs to be what makes this offense successful. This year’s goal is to stay ahead of the chains. That’s in every OC’s nomenclature, but it holds here. This will be a chunk-play offense that looks to out-leverage opponents who overcommit to the run or pass pre-snap, let athletes play in space often, and use tempo to wear down & setup shots on a tired defense.
Furthermore, this will be a run-heavy offense, and that is great news for this set of starting offensive linemen. Run blocking is any lineman’s bread-and-butter. Additionally, the passing out of this offense will have run-action from the QB and RB (or jet receiver) to help keep DL from shooting by the tackles. And the run-action will be much, much more believable out of this offense given the high percentage of runs and the increased threat of a QB keep or draw. And this is great news for FSU’s four-guard offense.