There is nothing outrageously interesting about the LSU offensive line, besides its ability to move people out of the way of a tailback that runs like a bank vault with feet. The men charged with clearing space for Leonard Fournette say they have no tricks or idiosyncrasies of note. No rituals, they say. They hang out together, as every offensive line does, but claim no particular favorite locations. They hold each other accountable, as every offensive line does, but offer no unique examples of how they do it. They will admit they like to watch film. Lots and lots of film.
Consider the team’s bye week, which came last week: Everyone at the school had three days of classes. An extended weekend for fall break followed. The Tigers’ offensive linemen celebrated by vacationing in the football complex, watching more tape, continuing a ceaseless and entirely unspectacular mission to block plays more crisply for a Heisman Trophy favorite.
“Stuff like that is what sets us apart, in my opinion,” senior tackle Vadal Alexander says. “If we study things together, we kind of see things as a unit.”
It turns out paving the way for a once-in-a-generation running back is a fairly straightforward endeavor, and not just because most snaps result in the 230-pound Fournette moving straight forward.
The LSU offensive line is large, with all starters standing between 6’5” and 6’7” and averaging about 313 pounds. It is physical, with those five starters recording a total of 275.5 knockdowns so far in 2015, per the team’s internal count. It is durable, with the top quintet accounting for 94.1% of the total offensive line snaps (2,212 of 2,350) played this season. It is consistent, allowing four sacks all season and never allowing the Tigers’ ground assault to dip below the 200-yard threshold in any game. It is pretty much what you would prefer an offensive line to be when you have a historically potent running back on hand.
“They bend their knees, they come off the ball with flat backs, they target well and their footwork is really good,” says Western Kentucky defensive coordinator Nick Holt, whose unit only gave up 150 yards to Fournette in a 48–20 loss on Oct. 31. “You have to appreciate their offensive line because they get into three-point stances and come off the rod, as opposed to all these offensive lines nowadays that get in two-point stances and go backwards. These guys are like an NFL offensive line. They’re huge, they’re athletic, and they’ll put their facemask on you.”
On Saturday, of course, an Alabama defense ranked No. 3 against the run nationally will test the unit’s capacity to continue working at peak levels. But the elements of LSU’s success to date are eminently repeatable. There are few gimmicks. There is little artifice. The Tigers’ approach is basic, and the results are not. “They’ve got a plan, and they execute the plan,” says Florida coach Jim McElwain, who saw Fournette amass 180 yards in a 35–28 loss on Oct. 17. “You don’t see them reaching for different things every week. They know exactly what they want to do, and they are big and physical. Let’s not hide it.”
It certainly helps to have individual talent blocking for individual talent: Alexander and junior center Ethan Pocic rank second and third, respectively, in the Outland Trophy’s most recent Schneider Scale rankings of the nation’s top linemen, a calculation that takes into account both individual and team statistics and results.
The LSU linemen offer scant details on the nuances in blocking for a back such as Fournette, perhaps due to an absence of nuances. “Actually, we just follow our responsibilities,” junior tackle Jerald Hawkins says. “Whatever’s open, if he sees a cut, he makes it. If it’s open frontside, he goes frontside. If it’s open backside, he cuts backside. As long as we stay in front, he makes his cut.”
It’s a simple directive, but it’s at the core of what has allowed the Tigers to pile up 2,164 total rushing yards thus far. If a massive offensive line eclipses the defenders in the box, it creates a cataclysmically bad matchup for a defense, which must now expect defensive backs to contend with Fournette. Surely, the sophomore star is built to handle collisions with defensive linemen and linebackers. It’s just even more devastating when he doesn’t have to.
LSU’s offensive line is efficient at manufacturing that devastation. Per Football Outsiders, the Tigers’ runs gain at least five yards—when they’re not already inside an opponent’s five-yard line—48.7% of the time. That puts LSU third nationally in a department Football Outsiders consider the best approximation of a line doing its job. Moreover, a stat making the rounds this week via ESPN announcer Chris Fowler and others noted that Fournette averages 113 yards per game before contact. Ergo, his offensive line is getting work done so he doesn’t have to.
“Our mindset is really [to] get him to the second level, untouched,” Alexander says. “Block the front seven clean and get him to that second level untouched, and he’s going to make a safety or nickel back or corner miss or run him over or something like that. We block that front seven clean, Leonard is going to take care of the rest.”
Despite the physical advantage LSU carried into that Western Kentucky game—three of the Hilltoppers’ four starting defensive lineman weighed less than 300 pounds—Holt says the Tigers deployed “a bunch” of new formations that they had not shown in previous weeks, overloading one side of the defense or the other, running more option-type plays than normal.
Still, though the alignments were perhaps somewhat unorthodox, what the LSU line did within those looks was the same as ever. “As far as exotic concepts, and exotic schemes? Not really,” Holt says. “The most exotic thing they do is maybe they go unbalanced, when they move a tackle over and things like that, to create new gaps and to overload your defense. What they do really well is they play really, really hard, and really, really low and physical.”
And the only unusual thing about blocking for Fournette is the time the LSU line must put in on the job each play. Fournette is so good at compensating for mistakes and turning sure tackles into broken tackles that the Tigers cannot relent on blocks, not that they’d be inclined to anyway.
“You do need to know and realize is that the play is never over,” Alexander says. “If you think he’s getting tackled, he could break it and bust it for 90 yards. He’s done that a few times. If you let your guy go, he could be the guy who falls off and hits Leonard one more time. The play is never dead, basically, with Leonard back there.”
At the moment, and presumably at least until January 2017, Leonard Fournette is a college running back. Therefore he is somewhat limited in the rewards he can present to his offensive line. For now, it comprises mostly saying Thank you and Good job and then deflecting credit to the group paving his way; Fournette can’t buy his line gold watches, but at least he can toss them bouquets.
And when the cascade of adulation just about drowns LSU’s star tailback, it’s enough for the offensive line to bask in the runoff. “Whenever he gets credit and all the nominations and all the awards, that’s a big honor for us,” Pocic says. “Even though we’re behind the scenes, it’s a big deal.”
They will be front and center in their own way Saturday, barreling into Alabama. When the LSU offensive linemen dissect the game tape next week, maybe they’ll find only minimal mistakes as they move on from a defining victory. Maybe they’ll find errors that undermined everything. Either way, they’ll have something remarkable to watch, and watch often.
Each week, The Walkthrough talks to two assistant coaches about a key upcoming matchup. For Week 10, it’s a critical AAC battle in which Cincinnati must conjure a defensive plan to limit Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who has thrown for 1,955 yards and rushed for 710 yards with 27 combined touchdowns.
Steve Clinkscale, Cincinnati co-defensive coordinator/DBs coach: “(Ward is) going to be effective in the run game, so he has to be accounted for at all times, in all run plays. You almost have to prepare for them like you practice against the option, where you have guys responsible for the ball and the pitch players, and somebody also has to be responsible for the quarterback. In the passing game he’s doing a better job this year as far as staying in the pocket as long as he can and delivering the ball. If he can’t, he’ll reset—basically he’ll short scramble, reset, and then try to find an open guy. Last year it was a little more of, nobody’s there, then take off and go up the field. He’ll present problems in the air and on the ground. Our entire game plan has to be centered on, initially, affecting his game. You really have to do a phenomenal job of not giving away what you’re trying to do pre-snap. A lot of their success is based on seeing what we’re doing up front and in the secondary pre-snap and then making the perfect call to it. The running game is a lot more elaborate than it was last year, to be honest with you. (Kenneth Farrow) is going to take two or three guys to get him down every time. They do a great job balancing up their run-pass and balancing up inside-outside runs. When I first was put in this position, I wanted to emphasize third downs. We couldn’t get off the field. The guys understand the game plan on third down, they understand the calls they’re going to get, and we repeat those calls over and over. The biggest thing with defense, and our whole deal with this week, is just to be consistent.”
Major Applewhite, Houston offensive coordinator/QB coach: “The thing I appreciate about (Ward) is he’s just been an open book, and a sponge, taking in everything that myself and coach (Tom) Herman can bring him up on. We decided to be aggressive in our install. The last thing you want to do after 15 days of spring practice is to go back and say, ‘Man, I wish we would have introduced this.’ We threw everything we could at him, and then when install was over in fall camp, then we started paring the playbook down. In the quarterback read game, (opposing defenses have) tried to make him give the ball, as opposed to him keeping the ball. They’ve done things in the passing game—their man coverage stuff has gone away some because once you’re covering somebody man to man, you’re not looking at the quarterback. He’s done a great job taking care of the ball, eliminating disastrous plays. He’s getting a little bit more comfortable. The thing you constantly have to tell yourself as a quarterback, it doesn’t matter if you’re a first-year quarterback or a 15-year quarterback in the NFL, just continue to take what they give you. Continue to go through your reads, stick to your rules, don’t freelance. Last year, because he moved straight from wide receiver to quarterback within the game, he relied on his feet quite a bit. Sometimes it was tremendously explosive. Sometimes it was reverse field twice and a 15-yard sack. We’ve tried to eliminate the disastrous plays to keep us on schedule, and he’s responded fairly well thus far. (Cincinnati) knows how to get people off the field. We’ve got to do a great job on first and second down so we’re not in some of those third-and-long situations that defenses try to create.”
• Baylor at Kansas State: Four straight losses and nine points scored in their last two games combined…it doesn’t seem like the Wildcats can keep up. But it is a road start on a weird schedule for Bears ture freshman quarterback Jared Stidham, who is making his first start after Seth Russell’s neck injury. So this could be interesting, maybe, possibly, sort of.
• Mississippi State at Missouri: Dak Prescott has thrown one interception in 260 pass attempts. Could he crawl back into Heisman consideration with a massive finish for his team?
• Duke at North Carolina: The Tar Heels can more or less wrap up the ACC Coastal with a win, which would keep them undefeated in conference play and give them head-to-head advantages over the Blue Devils and Pittsburgh. It’s a statement North Carolina needs to make if it’s for real.
• Notre Dame at Pittsburgh: Things often get weird in Fighting Irish-Panthers games. An early kick, an emotional road win the week before…it’s the last dangerous game for Notre Dame before the season finale at Stanford.
• Stanford at Colorado: The Cardinal’s lone defeat was in a game that kicked off at 9 a.m. Pacific Time at Northwestern. This one is a 10 a.m. start according to Stanford’s body clocks. After the Cardinal barely survived at Washington State, it’s another test.
• Florida State at Clemson: This is nothing short of a must-win for the Tigers, No. 1 in the first College Football Playoff rankings but with little else on their remaining slate of note before a possible ACC championship game appearance.
• Iowa at Indiana: The Hawkeyes have the seventh-ranked defense in the country, and their offense (32.6 points per game) can keep pace with Indiana (33.1). But this feels like the one ambush Iowa must watch for.
• TCU at Oklahoma State: Points. So many points. There will be no points left for anyone else because all the points will be scored here.
• Cincinnati at Houston: Gunner Kiel completed all 15 of his passes against UCF for 315 yards and five touchdowns. Should the Bearcats QB continue that efficiency, the Cougars’ undefeated run will be threatened.
• Navy at Memphis: The Tigers are allowing just 118.8 yards per game on the ground, 22nd best nationally. They’re bound to bend against a relentless Navy option attack, though. The Midshipmen may be as big a threat to a New Year’s Six bowl bid as any Power Five team Memphis has faced thus far.
• Michigan State at Nebraska: Mike Riley received a vote of confidence from AD Shawn Eichorst this week in the midst of the worst Nebraska season in recent memory. Mark Dantonio just needs to receive good news on an injury-wracked offensive line and hope his team survives to challenge Ohio State and Michigan down the line.
• LSU at Alabama: The Tigers allow 93.7 rushing yards per game. The Crimson Tide allow 78.5. Let the battle of attrition begin between Leonard Fournette and Derrick Henry.
• Minnesota at Ohio State: Cardale Jones is back as the starter due to J.T. Barrett’s suspension, just in time to face a reeling Golden Gophers team that could allow Jones to put up big numbers and re-complicate the Buckeyes’ quarterback scenario.
The hair-raising end
It’s Week 10. It’s November. The first playoff rankings are out, and you may feel that there’s no hope for your team. But if last year taught us anything, it’s that you should never mind the darkness. You still can find a way.