By David Beaudin
Frogs Today staff writer
FORT WORTH — This time of year, at the conclusion of the first week of camp, you hear all kinds of camp cliches from coaches, players and fans alike.
“We are playing hard – energy is good.”
“That new recruit is really turning some heads in this camp.”
“Taking it one day at a time and getting better – still have a ways to go.”
“Young guys have really stepped up.”
“Building depth at various positions.”
“These guys are hungry – super coachable.”
The list goes on and on.
Allow me to submit yet another for the Horned Frogs offensive line.
“They are way ahead of schedule.”
Cliches are rooted in truth, right? For me, this is exactly how I see the offensive line as Practice 7 wrapped up Tuesday.
There are lots of differences in the way things are run, as our own Jeff Wilson discusses here. However, regardless of the operation, tone and tenor or leadership style, there is no denying the progress of the offensive line, led by offensive line coach A.J. Ricker.
Ricker demands maximum effort from his players, bellowing coaching points and cues in his type-cast raspy voice and gruff demeanor. You can hear it from the opposite field.
You can hear Ricker barking, “It is hard. Life is Hard!” on a regular basis.
The life of a Big 12 offensive lineman is indeed hard. Yet, it is a lot harder when you can’t protect your quarterback, regardless who is named the Frogs’ starter. Up until this point, the offensive line has made it easier on the signal callers by doing a really nice job protecting them, particularly in drop-back pass.
Over the years, college football camps are notorious for offensive line units trying to figure out how to pick up various stunts, blitzes and movement, particularly as defenses evolve into more complex units each and every year. Coupling this trend with defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie’s chaos-creating 3-3-5 defense, a first-year Frogs staff and several new offensive lineman, one would think this is a recipe for disaster up front on offense.
At first glance, I thought coach Sonny Dykes was leaning toward restricting the defense in their play-calling, allowing this offensive linemen to gain confidence as they gain their bearings. However, Dykes was quick to shoot that down after Saturday’s practice, when asked how much he holds back the defense during team-periods in practice.
“Not at all,” Dykes said. “We want to see everything. I think that is the great thing about the way we teach and install. When you see something early, it’s a great teaching opportunity. When you see something — whether it’s a stunt or a blitz, that they get you on — it is a great opportunity to learn from it. It is a lot better than waiting until Week 3 or 4 and say, ‘Oh, we haven’t seen this before.’ ”
While it may be more difficult to assess technique while observing practice and not viewing the end-zone copy of the practice film, figuring out how they are handling their assignments and responsibilities within the scheme is a little easier to detect. From that standpoint, it has been quite impressive to watch the entire offensive line sort through an array of stunts and blitzes cleanly, for the most part. Communication has been great and something that Ricker continues to harp on.
Steve Avila, the senior center (who may also move to guard) has taken this message to heart, as you can consistently see him taking younger players off to the side to further explain techniques and responsibilities.
Luckily for the Frogs, the leadership for this group does not end with Avila. While the first few days featured a multitude of linemen working with the first group, the last two practices of Week 1 featured junior Andrew Coker at left tackle, redshirt freshman Jasper Lott at left guard, Avila at center, and seniors John Lanz and Michael Nichols at right guard and right tackle.
To be fair, Alan Ali – the senior transfer who followed Ricker from SMU, was not full-go the last two practices last week as he was nicked up. Ali had been taking lots of repetitions with the first group at both center and guard in the first couple of practices.
Ricker had mentioned that in the first week of camp, he wants to see who wants to play.
“Depth is huge,” Ricker said. “You want competition, and it brings out the best in all of them. You want your tackle to look behind him and think, ‘Oh, man this guy is chomping on my heels.’ I don’t want to pigeon-hole guys either. We take a musical chairs approach. There is no depth chart right now. I tell guys that if you want reps right now, go get reps.”
This has held true through most of camp, as we have seen up to a dozen or more players working with the first group in Week 1. Dykes certainly thinks this is a positive.
“I have never been around a good football team that does not have good leadership at offensive, line and I love the way that group is leading, led by Steve [Avila],” Dykes said. “There are 10 guys, maybe 11 right now, fighting for playing time, and that is what you want to see. It just makes them better. We are going to play a bunch of linemen and we should come out of camp with 10 that we feel really good about. If you come out with eight that’s good, but it is looking like more at this point.”
The fact that there are so many players in the mix for the offensive line makes the level of play this point even more remarkable. For a unit that took its fair share of criticism last season, this has been a fun bright spot to point out.
In a time of year where cliches abound, there are some that can still hold true. For now, the ones circulating around TCU offensive line sure are.
They are certainly firing on all cylinders.
They are way ahead of schedule.