Within the culture of Blueboy Football, we work very hard to be clear and consistent in an effort to ensure total program alignment. Whether we are talking about schematics, technique, or academics, we constantly challenge ourselves to clearly identify the necessary steps that our student-athletes and staff must take to succeed. We believe that to achieve clarity we must be prepared to provide two qualities within our teaching styles – definitional foundation and the ability to be concise. In terms of definitions, assigning codified meaning to the key components of our organization allows for a streamlined belief system that can be persistently referred to with confidence. Furthermore, the ability to convey mass amounts of information in an efficient manner is critical to our player’s ability to play with supreme confidence. With these values in mind, the training of Blueboy offensive linemen in the art of pass protection is filled with a grounding in core beliefs and buzzwords to help our players become proficient at what is truly an unnatural skill set.
One of these core beliefs is a commitment to keep the quarterback untouched. This belief is then supported by behavior steeped in ferocity. When boiled down to its most basic interplay, pass protection pits an offensive lineman in their most submissive position against a defensive lineman in their ideal and most aggressive mentality. In order to give an offensive lineman confidence in their mission, you must equip them with a set of answers that can be executed with speed. The result of our belief and our behavior will then breed an atmosphere of trust in the offensive line from the remainder of the offense and the team.
Philosophically speaking, we are a flat/jump set team that uses the vertical set as a change-up. My decision to move to this style of protection several years ago was predicated on finding the appropriate means to carry over the physical mentality that I instill in the run game. Setting as quickly as possible to get our hands on rushers was a perfect transition to get our guys to thrive in protection instead of being paralyzed by the technique of pass rushers when in a vertical set. What I have discovered over time is that this style does an excellent job of negating many pass rush moves that take extended time to execute and also puts rushers in consistently predictable situations. This leverage advantage helps to provide our offensive linemen with counter moves that are much more natural to master.
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Within both phases of offensive line play at Illinois College, I begin my technique installations with the underlying theme of demeanor. In other words, what should you look like throughout the execution of your block? When speaking about pass protection in particular, we are trying to emulate a boxer in the style of our movements. We want to maintain the ability to move anywhere, at any time, and strike the opponent at will. The expectations associated with this are three pronged:
1. Play Condensed: Lower your center of gravity to move with power and to protect yourself against the power of the rusher.
- All cleats should be in the ground.
- Do not think of this as a squat. Load your butt with more weight than your thighs in order to move with more speed.
- Vocal coaching cue: “Drag your tail.”
2. Play Long: Hands in front to protect your head and chest.
- By keeping your hands foremost, you are prepared to strike and counter at any time.
- Strike should not be a coiled punch, but instead should resemble a “stiff arm,” locking out the defender away from your body.
- Vocal Cue: “Look out over your knuckles.”
3. Play Stable: Ability to cover up and control your target.
- Accomplished by taking fast and small steps.
- Hands are extensions of the hips and feet. Once contact is made, the hips must continue to chase hands as we fight pressure.
By incorporating vocal cues and steady coaching points, it is much easier to relay critical information to our offensive linemen in a concise manner. This not only helps the efficiency of our vocabulary, but also provides them with a relatable set of standards that they can refer to quickly on the field.
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Keeping the ideals of demeanor in the forefront of our minds, the practical application of our technique deals with setting a covered gap or an uncovered gap. While the schematics of our protections alter the location and angle of our help, the basic principles of our protection footwork remain intact. The focus of this discussion will be setting a covered gap, being that it is the primary situation that we encounter as offensive linemen. Coaching the covered set involves the rhythm of the following three pieces: set, strike, and fight pressure.
Students of geometry understand that every angle has a bisector; our offensive linemen are trained to be that bisector. This all begins with the appropriate aiming point on a rusher to understand where to set our angle. It is my preference to assign aiming points to correspond with where our eyes should not only look pre-snap, but also where they should end up post-snap. At the end of the day, the eyes are a muscle and it must send the right messages to the other parts of the body. Our aiming point when setting a down defender is the near V of his neck. We utilize this aiming point for two primary reasons. First, to ensure that we are covering a rusher. It is not enough to set TO a defender, we must set to COVER the rusher. Second, it is my preference to have a visual cue that cannot lie. Cueing a defender’s head, hands, feet, etc., will mislead an offensive lineman based on all of the dances/moving that great pass rushers utilize to set themselves up.
Key Coaching Points of the Set:
1. Push, Not Pull: An offensive lineman should work with mirrored footwork in pass protection rather than overreach or pull their feet together in an effort to move faster. By pushing our base, we will remain in a stable demeanor to attack the rusher.
2. The Wider the Rusher, the Deeper the Angle: The idea of a flat/jump set is a little misleading because the angle of our set will be determined by the alignment of the rusher. Once again, football is a game of angles, so in order to intersect a rusher who is wide and running up the field, we must work at a deeper angle.
3. Stay Square: Two common goals of pass rushers are to disrupt the outside foot of a pass protector to shorten their angle to the passer or to force a pass protector to open their hips towards them for a cross face move. Two coaching points allow us to take control of the situation.
- Your inside foot should always be pointing up the field (over and back in your set).
- Once you feel like you are about to turn towards the rusher, take one more kick.
It is our goal in pass protection to get our hands on a pass rusher as soon as possible. In some changeup situations, this involves our offensive lineman getting a punch in before they even move their feet. Fundamentally, we want to attack a defensive lineman in their most vulnerable position, their stance. The advantage gained by the attacking angle of our set and the urgency of our strike interferes with the rush plan of a defender.
Key Coaching Points of the Strike:
1. Mixed Hands: Simply put, we do not seek to hit a defender with a two-hand strike. The one exception to that statement is if we are getting an immediate bull rush. In that case, we will strike with two hands and begin using our tools to fight that direct pressure. As mentioned previously, one of our demeanor points is to “Play Long”. By punching with two hands, we dramatically cut down the space that we could create for ourselves. More specifically, we strike with our covered hand in order to initiate contact as fast as possible and play as long as possible. Age old offensive line tradition prefers the inside hand as the primary means of control and contact. This logic is flawed in our world. By punching across our body we are not allowing ourselves to play as long as possible and are encouraging our hips to turn with the rusher.
2. Punch No. 1: The first blow that we deliver we call the “Stop Sign”. This is designed to establish the leverage of our set and to impede the path of the rusher. The aiming point for the stop sign is the opposite pec of the rusher. Once again, we do not want to set TO a defender, we want to COVER up the defender. In order to maintain this inside-out relationship, we must punch on the opposite side of his midline. The combination of the set angle and the speed of the punch negates an offensive lineman from reaching to punch. While this is certainly a simple principle in theory, it is difficult to master. Offensive linemen must develop confidence in their ability to be as fast and as violent with their hands as a pass rusher is, rather than be submissive and wait for a rusher’s move.
3. Punch No. 2: The second blow that we deliver we call the “Lift Arm”. This is designed to control the rusher as we add force to his pressure. The rhythm of our punch timing is a simple one-two, with two being the strike of the lift arm! It is critical that we gain control of the rusher by grabbing him with our second strike in order for us to feel, and in turn flatten, his move.
The final phase of our set is the ability to fight pressure once we are engaged. The nature of our set puts a rusher in a predictable situation. Once engaged, we feel that the rusher has three escape points: inside, outside, or through. Either lateral rush move is a simple challenge of flattening the rusher to his chosen side and if the rusher elects to run through (Bull Rush), we will respond by hopping to stop his momentum.
Key Coaching Points of Fighting Pressure:
1. Target Moves, You Move: The worst thing that we can do as a pass blocker is to stop our feet. By keying the movement of our aiming point (the near V) and feeling the body transition of the rusher, we simply add force and move with our target. Our demeanor, set, and strike must keep us in line with our aiming point. We must work to keep pace with his speed.
2. Chase Hands with Hips: Reaching to punch is a cardinal sin of offensive line play. It is indicative of two problems, we have not covered the rusher with our set and we will not deliver a strong enough strike to impede the rusher’s path. To maintain our demeanor point of playing stable, we think of our hands as extensions of our hips and feet. As we feel pressure through our hands, our hips and feet work to flatten the path of the rusher immediately so that we are able to maintain our leverage on the rusher and stay square ourselves.
3. Hop Versus a Bull Rush: When we feel the rusher transition his speed to power down the middle of our body, our immediate response is to root ourselves to the ground. We accomplish that by utilizing the Hop technique. By forcing our insteps into the ground and getting our feet behind our hips, we have put ourselves in the most powerful position to stop that charge. As we work our lower body into the most powerful position possible, we must fight for inside leverage with our hands.
In the design of my practice plan, I will always privilege additional time for pass protection because of the need to groove ourselves into dominant fashion. A few of those drills have been included within this article. However, our firm belief in the offensive line room is that there is no greater teacher for pass protection fundamentals than one-on-one pass rush. The spotlight is on and all of your habits come to the forefront; simply put, there is nowhere to hide. But instead of being intimidated by the nature of the drill, we hold it in high regard by including player-led reminders in the drill and, of course, by reviewing every snap that is taken in meetings. The competitive fire that is developed among the line of scrimmage players in this setting is definitely a tone setter for camaraderie among the position groups and in turn a motivating force for the entire program.
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While the coaching points of Blueboy pass protection are easy to convey in a teaching setting, mastery of these techniques takes excessive repetition and detailed film review. The turning point of our players’ maturation is when they realize that the aggressive nature of their set is made possible by their strike. Despite the fact that excessive reliance on the hands is a plague to their feet, an offensive lineman must understand that he has to force the issue with the defense when it comes time to deliver his blow. As previously mentioned, violence is the only answer to combat the speed and intelligence of pass rushers. The definitions and buzzwords that accompany each phase of the set have been intentionally structured to prompt rapid and combative habits instilled within each Blueboy offensive lineman. Since moving to this style of protection, we have drastically reduced not only our number of sacks, but also our number of quarterback hits. Our unit’s view of protecting the passer does not revolve around keeping the defense at bay, but instead to punish rushers in their pursuit of the quarterback.
Travis James begins his fourth season on the Illinois College Football staff in 2018 and his first as associate head coach. James returned to his alma mater in 2015 as the offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator before being elevated to offensive coordinator prior to the 2016 season. Prior to returning to IC, James served as a member of the inaugural coaching staff at Missouri Baptist University as the Spartans played their first year of football in the fall of 2014. James was the offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator for MBU. James earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication and Rhetorical Studies from Illinois College in 2013. He continued his education at the University of Missouri by earning a Master of Education in Educational Psychology.