2015 Terps Football: Offensive Line Preview
The Maryland Terrapins’ offensive line struggled mightily in the team’s first season in the Big Ten Conference. They looked overmatched in many games, and were unable to create holes for the team’s running backs or protect the team’s quarterbacks. Head coach Randy Edsall made some personnel changes on the line for Maryland’s last few games which seemed to help, but there is no doubt that the unit as a whole has to get better in order to compete in this more physical conference.
2014 Rushing Rank: 111th (121.7 yards per game)
2014 Passing Rank: 73rd (220.2 yards per game)
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Ever since offensive coordinator Mike Locksley arrived in College Park before the 2012 season, he has run an offensive system that features a very diverse running game. The Terrapins run inside zone, outside zone, counter, and power running plays along with a bevy of different option runs. While his playbook features a lot of different running styles, the running game is built on inside and outside zone, much like most of the teams in the National Football League. It is a spread-to-run system, which means that he likes to spread the defense out with 3-4 wide receivers and run the ball. This is a system that was made popular by teams like Florida under Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen with Tim Tebow taking the snaps. Unlike that famous offense, most of the running in Locksley’s system is done on zone-read plays, not designed quarterback runs.
The goal of this offense is not necessarily to overpower opposing defensive lines, but to gain a numbers advantage and use that to move the ball. Most college offenses are built on this simple, yet effective goal. Some of college football’s most prolific offenses (Oregon, Ohio State, Auburn, etc.) feature this spread-to-run goal. However, these teams cannot succeed if they become one-dimensional. Oregon, Ohio State, Auburn, and any team who runs a similar system, must be able to run the ball and throw the ball in order to have success. This is the problem that Maryland had last season.
Zone blocking is the foundation on which most modern offenses both in college and in the NFL are built upon. It is a very basic blocking scheme, but is one that takes a large number of repetitions in practice to master. It relies on cohesion along the offensive line instead of pure size and strength. When a team utilizes a zone blocking scheme, the offensive linemen will look in front of them to see if there is a defensive lineman to block. If there is, that’s who they’ll block. If there isn’t a defensive lineman in front of them, they’ll double-team the player next to them and look to move up to the second level of the defense to take on a linebacker. Because of this second task, teams who run primarily zone blocking schemes end up using smaller, more athletic offensive linemen.
In the Terrapins’ annual Red-White Spring Game, Locksley showed a very different offense from the one that the team had run over the past few seasons. The base formation was an I-formation out of 21 personnel (2 running backs, 1 tight end). The team ran both power and zone runs out of this formation. With a less-mobile quarterback set to take the reins from dual-threat C.J. Brown, this may signal a shift to a more physical pro-style attack for the Terrapins. In the offseason, the offensive line got bigger and stronger. A lot bigger and stronger. Every single member of the offensive line added large amounts of muscle, a response to their domination by many of the defensive lines in the Big Ten. If Maryland is looking to run a more physical pro-style offense, they’ll need these much bigger offensive linemen.
Power blocking is very different from zone blocking, and is one of the oldest plays in the football playbook. Often referred to as “God’s play”, teams throughout history have made a living running it right down the throats of opposing defenses. While there aren’t many teams who still run power as their base running play, you can still see it in the college ranks courtesy of teams like LSU, Stanford, and Wisconsin. Unlike a zone blocking scheme, which relies on an offensive line’s athleticism, power relies on pure size and strength. It is run by pulling the backside offensive guard (the one that the play isn’t being run towards) into the playside hole between the offensive guard and the offensive tackle, leading the way for the running back. This system obviously needs its guards to be fairly athletic, but size and strength are the primary factors for success.
I don’t expect Maryland to go all-in on a power-based pro-style offense, but I do expect them to run more power than they have run over the past few seasons. I expect Caleb Rowe to be under center a good bit more than C.J. Brown was, and I expect there to be an emphasis on a downhill running game between the tackles, with play-action passes setting up deep throws to Maryland’s speedy wide receivers. That being said, you will also see Rowe in pistol and shotgun formations most of the time, with many of the team’s running plays coming out of those formations. While the offensive scheme has been a spread-to-run over the past few years, it can probably be more accurately called a pure “multiple” scheme this season.
Offensive line coach Greg Studrawa has to be excited with all of the young talent that he has on his offensive line. While true freshman like Quarvez Boulware, E.J. Donahue, and Ellis McKennie cannot be expected to contribute for another year or two, players like Damian Prince and Derwin Gray have a few years in the system and are ready to start. Paired with veteran linemen such as Michael Dunn and Andrew Zeller, this year’s offensive line will feature everyone from redshirt freshmen to seniors.
At left tackle, I expect Michael Dunn to re-claim the starting job that he lost at the end of last season. The former walk-on had a tough run last season, but so did the rest of the offensive line. He is a veteran player with more than enough size to go up against the pass-rushers of the Big Ten. He will need to improve his pass-blocking from last season, but better play inside should help him with that.
At left guard, I expect Evan Mulrooney to move over from his regular center position. Maryland has had seniors start at this position for the last few years, with Silvano Altamirano taking the spot last season. Mulrooney is a very talented inside player, who was stuck behind Sal Conaboy at center for the past few years. He was hit with a serious viral infection before the 2014 season began, and didn’t make it onto the two-deep depth chart until the halfway mark.
At center, I expect youngster Brendan Moore to take the job that Sal Conaboy has held for the last few years. The coaches love Moore, and he has been very impressive in practice ever since he arrived in College Park. He has good size, and has experience working with the other members of the offensive line.
At right guard, I expect Andrew Zeller to keep the job that he earned and kept last season. He is a veteran player who just recently started showing the talent that he was promised to have out of high school. He played part of the 2013 season at right guard, and started there for the entire 2014 season. Along with Conaboy, he was one of the lone bright spots for the offensive line last season.
At right tackle, I expect the former 5-star recruit Damian Prince to see his first action of his collegiate career. While most people project him to be a left tackle, starting him on the right side will allow him to ease into a conference built on offensive line play. In the Red-White Spring Game, Locksley featured a large number of unbalanced formations, with Prince moving over to the opposite side of the line to create an even more physical running attack. His size and athleticism will serve him well in Maryland’s offensive scheme, and he’ll eventually find himself starting on the left side in a year or two.
Q&A with Zack & Chris
This week, I was able to speak with Chris Garman, my fellow Terps analyst here at BSL, about Maryland’s offensive line in 2015.
Q: After a rough 2014 season for the Maryland offensive line, what do you believe are the biggest reasons to feel optimistic about Greg Studrawa’s 2015 group?
Garman: I feel like another year of experience will go a long way for this group. The line was relatively young last year and now with another year of experience, they should be better than a season ago. It will be interesting to see what they will get out of prized 2014 recruit Damian Prince. After sitting for a season and getting knowledge along with a better feel for the college game, we’ll see if he can live up to his potential. Finally, the addition of a new OL coach like Studrawa leaves optimism in its own way, especially when you get a guy coming from a good program in the SEC.
Kiesel: I think Studrawa’s group is a lot more like the ones that he had with LSU a few years ago. They don’t have the same talent, but the size and attitude are getting very similar to a physical pro-style offensive line. This, coupled with the added talent of players like Damian Prince, should make for a much better 2015 for the offensive line. They only lost 2 starters on the line from last season (not including Jake Wheeler), so there is some continuity as well.
Q: Over the past few years, Mike Locksley has run an offense predicated on spread-to-run principles and a primarily zone blocking scheme. This year’s Red-White Spring Game showed a lot more downhill, power running. Do you believe that this is a good move for this team playing in a physical Big Ten Conference?
Garman: Overall it will be a good thing not just for this season, but moving forward as well. The Big Ten has been a hard-nose and gritty style of football, where the ACC centered on more of spread system with big time athletes all around. This adjustment will benefit the team this season and now will start the foundation of a new culture in the Big Ten. It will be interesting to see how this new style impacts recruiting moving forward and if Edsall will focus more guys who fit that mold or focuses on pure talent then have them adapt.
Kiesel: Personally, my favorite offensive attack is the spread-to-run, similar to what Maryland has run for the past few years. However, it was obvious that something wasn’t working last season against the team’s conference opponents. The move to a power-based running game won’t be easy, but the transition will be made easier by having big, physical offensive linemen.
Q: Many of the positions for the 2015 offensive line are still up for grabs. What is your projected starting offensive line, and what are the most intriguing battles to watch for during fall practice?
Garman: There isn’t really one particular battle that stands out to me, but I love that the competition is there at many of the positions. This should help push the whole line to keep improving and won’t give anyone the comfort of feeling like they have a position locked down. Also, this is one area where you can never have too much depth and with battles for starting positions all over, it shows there a several players who have the ability to contribute.
Kiesel: It’s tough to put your finger on offensive line battles when Randy Edsall is at the helm. He is famous for choosing the best 5 linemen and putting them wherever they fit, so we could end up with a completely different offensive line than we project. However, I think the biggest battles will end up being on the inside. The center position looks like it’ll be chosen between Moore and Grommer, but Mulrooney could be in the mix as well if there’s someone better to take the left guard spot. I’m still not convinced that Derwin Gray will end up on the bench, but it’s tough to find a spot for him unless Dunn or Prince move back inside. I think we’ll get a much clearer picture of the offensive line once fall practice starts up.