JENNIFER FIERRO • STAFF WRITER
MARBLE FALLS — Even at 5 feet 8 inches and 165 pounds, First Baptist School athletics director Russell Roberts was an effective football lineman.
Why? Because Roberts mastered several techniques that are crucial for the position.
“I’m old-school,” he said. “We cast the role of players by the objectives of what they are supposed to accomplish.”
While the average fan loves the big plays and the skill players’ ability to throw or run, the grunt work done on the line, or trenches, makes all that possible. Plus, learning a bit about what happens on the line gives fans a better appreciation of the game.
In Roberts’ day, which is still true today, the objective was to protect the ball carrier from tacklers. But the way that’s accomplished has changed as the sport has evolved since the 1890s.
Back then, eight or nine linemen faced each other and simply tried to outmuscle the other to create opportunities to score or make a tackle.
But as football officials shrunk the box (number of linemen on the line), it forced players to learn better blocking techniques to continue to do what they’re supposed to do: open scoring opportunities or make tackles.
“That’s when the position of offensive linemen became an art form,” Roberts said. “It’s not defined by one set of rules.”
A tall offensive lineman has fewer rules than a smaller lineman. An effective smaller lineman will want to get underneath his taller opponent, just under his shoulder pads in order to block him. By doing that, the defender is going backward and doesn’t have the leverage to slow the momentum.
But what if the play calls for the ball carrier to go away from that particular lineman, and the lineman still has to block for the runner? He simply “pulls” or leaves his spot in a hurry to block a defender in a hole on the opposite side to open a seam for the ball carrier.
“That’s why trap blocks are so popular,” Roberts said.
And then there are other ways to block, depending on the length of the tackle box and where the block takes place. Perhaps Roberts’ favorite way to block is by giving “false keys” or bad data to the defender. At times, a defender will feel where and how the lineman is blocking him. That gives him an idea of who has the ball and leads him to go in that direction. But a misdirection play or reverse springs the ball carrier lose in another part of the field.
“That will work two or three times,” Roberts said. “It destroys the defender. By now, he’s not sure. You’ve reduced him to a seventh-grade first-time player. As an offensive coach, I want to create doubt.”
So what if the offensive linemen are bigger and stronger than the defensive linemen? Roberts said the way defensive line coaches neutralize that is by shifting or moving the defensive players to create confusion on who to block once the ball is snapped. That’s why some offensive linemen incorrectly double team a defensive linemen while a defender sacks the quarterback.
“You’re creating indecision by movement,” Roberts said. “The blocking schemes they worked on all week won’t work. The defense is not where (coaches) said they’d be.”
And when they must go head to head with the offensive linemen, Roberts said the defensive linemen simply go under the shoulder pads and drive him off the line.
“So now an advantage becomes a disadvantage,” he said. “If you get your head under their pads, they’re whipped.”
One part of an offensive linemen’s mentality that has remained the same in more than 100 years is how excited they get when they’re asked to run block. Fans can see that by the way the offensive linemen stomp their feet and celebrate a long run by the ball carrier after the play ends.
“Pass blocking is so passive,” Roberts said. “You run over me or around me, and I move my feet and drop my hips to get down and grapple with you. You get all the advantages I have. I have to wrestle you on your terms.
“On run blocking, I drive you off the ball,” he added. “It’s even more fun. You didn’t outplay him, you outfought him.”
During his more than 30-year career as a head football coach, Roberts said he didn’t hire an offensive line coach who didn’t play on the line or above his talent. Simply, he said, offensive line is challenging to teach.
“Offensive line coach is hard to find,” he said.
And that’s something football fans come to appreciate — that and the linemen themselves.