I would like to personally thank the AFCA for giving me this great opportunity. I have been fortunate enough to work for some unbelievable staffs, cut my teeth as a graduate assistant, developed my position room as an offensive line coach, and now orchestrate my own offensive system over my first nine years as a college football coach. I have learned countless lessons regarding offensive line pass protection footwork, and am humbled to share them with you.
The one absolute I have learned in coaching is that there is no exact science on how to be successful. A good coach adapts what they believe to the individual student-athletes they coach in any given year. At the AFCA convention, I heard David Shaw say, “Every team, no matter how much you have coming back from the previous season, is different.” I could not agree more, especially when it comes coaching the offensive line. I have learned what works, doesn’t work, and what needs thrown in the trash each year I have coached my own position room. Every season, I try my best to create the best “recipe” that I can for success up front.
The recipe always starts with the combination of personnel coming back and scheme emphasis for the next season. At Manchester University, we spend a lot of time developing student-athletes and rarely get finished products in recruiting. I may have bigger lineman, faster lineman, stronger lineman, more length, a better quarterback, a better tailback, and more depth depending on many factors. My job as the position coach and coordinator is to take all those ingredients, enhance them to the best of my ability, and make the best tasting recipe (offense) that I can.
I spend the majority of the offseason examining what I can do better as a coach. What worked in the previous year? What have I learned? How can I apply what I have learned in the upcoming season? I want everything to align in my teaching progression to avoid communication errors and I want to have consistent coaching points. For example, when I say “Sets On Air,” my student-athletes know exactly where to line up for the drill, what the cadence is for the drill, what we are working on it that drill, and what many of my coaching points will be. The ability to align yourself as a coach in the pre-season to help align your student-athletes in season is crucial to having a succinct and exact teaching style with limited communication errors. In short, spend the extra time to be organized beforehand to save precious practice time when you need it more during the season.
As the season goes along, you are constantly adding and subtracting to the recipe to make it “taste” the best you can. Each Saturday provides an opportunity to adjust the recipe for success and depends on the day, week, or month of the season. A good coach is able to adapt their individual style to fit the recipe to give their student-athletes and team the best opportunity to be successful. There is no perfect recipe to working pass protection footwork, but there is the right recipe for your position room and team.
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Slow Cooker or Rapid Heat (Build the Basement First)
In my opinion, the single most overlooked and under-coached aspect of pass protection is teaching the footwork first. Too many coaches want to spend countless hours doing strike drills, pass pro body positions, or one-on-one pass rush instead of working on footwork first. I equate teaching pass progression to building a house. The basement (the feet of an offensive lineman) lays the groundwork for a sturdy house. Without a solid foundation, the house will surely crumble.
I begin nearly every pass protection drill by simulating every movement on air. You have to build the muscle memory needed in the footwork before putting a defender in front of the offensive lineman. Once I feel my student-athletes have the correct footwork, I will begin to introduce a defender in front of them. The combination of working technique while also having to block another human being takes time and repetition. If technique slips versus a defender, I move back to working things on air. To continue with the recipe analogy, there is always a balance of slow cooking and rapid heat when teaching a student-athlete what needs done.
Meat of the Recipe (Keys That Start the Engine)
For the purposes of this article, I will only specify how I teach an up-stance or two-point stance. A great stance is the keys that start the engine or the meat of the recipe to keep you full. To me, the proper stance is balanced, grounded in body mechanics, and prevents wasted movement.
Coaching points for an up/two-point stance (Photo 1):
- Post foot – (left leg in a right-handed stance)
- Straight upfield
- 80 percent of body weight on post foot
- Weight on instep (6 inch post going down from the ball of your foot)
- All your cleats in the ground; heel down
- Kick foot – (right leg in a right-handed stance)
- Turned out “clown foot”
- Knee driven into ground
- Elbows tight
- Post hand – forearm on knee
- Kick hand – hand on thigh board
- Fingers open
- Locked in – straight down the field
- “Close” the kick foot hip – Don’t let your hip be open in stance
- Upper body
- Slight forward lean to take on bull rush
- Slight lean on post foot to emphasize weight inside
- Arch the back (Reverse C)
- Tuck chin (turtle)
- Big eyes (in long yardage, look right at defender; not hiding anything)
In my opinion, these body positions create the optimal position to get out of your stance and block another human being when they know it is a pass with little wasted motion and proper body mechanics.
Find the Recipe (Win With Your Set)
After I have repped the proper stance and body position for an up/two stance, I work towards the pre-snap plan of blocking the defender. I truly believe that an offensive lineman can “win with their set” in pass protection and not even touch a defender.
A key to understanding how to pass protect is understanding the following ideas:
- Launch Point (No. 1 rule of defense is “tackle the guy with the ball”. Where is the ball going to be?)
- Sprint out
- Play action
- Leverage (Gather information pre-snap on defender and anticipate rush line/moves)
- Wide alignment
- Tight alignment
- Defensive end turned in
- Defensive end turned out
- Twist alignments (On or off the ball)
- What is my pre-snap plan based on the above two points?
- What set am I good at? (Short, jump, vertical)
- What is my advantage physically over defender? (Length, strength, speed)
- What has the defender done earlier in game/what will be counter move?
Now that you have the ingredients for the recipe, it is time to start working on cooking and creating the pass protection movements. I used to teach the traditional kick/slide technique, but noticed my linemen really turned their bodies and got beat on inside moves a lot. I studied numerous techniques and clinic tapes, then used trial and error with my players to correct the problem. I now emphasize more of the push/brace style listed below to keep the body more square, redirect to inside moves much easier, and play with power.
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I mentioned 80 percent of weight on the post foot and having a 6 inch post on the ball of your foot in the stance. You want to push off of your inside post foot. This means that your body is actually being moved by your inside post leg and you are pushing off of it to move your body. By having your outside foot turned out and pushing off your inside post foot, your body weight will stay more in the center of your body and you will be more balanced. By pushing off your post foot, you are able to prevent false steps from your kick/brace foot.
Some key coaching points on teaching to push with the kick foot are:
- Don’t let your post foot turn out. Play on your “edges” like an ice skater; inside balls of feet.
- Big push out of your stance and adjust based on defender. Get on rush line.
- You always want to be slightly “above” the defender. Don’t keep pushing for no reason.
- ALWAYS take away the inside move first. Few players can beat you purely with speed if you take proper leverage in your set. Don’t give up the shortest path to the quarterback.
The brace foot is your outside foot in pass protection or your kick foot in stance. As mentioned above, I emphasize the clown foot, knee driven into ground, and hips locked in downfield. By pushing with your post foot, you will need to “brace” with your outside foot to keep your body square and on balance. I use the analogies “bicycle kick stand” and “camping tent stake” so my group can visualize why clown foot and bracing are so important. If you allow too much weight on your brace foot, you will tip over or be off balance and unable to react to an inside counter.
Some key coaching points on teaching to brace with the kick foot are:
- Keep ALL your cleats in the ground. You cannot change direction on your toes.
- Keep your knee inside your toe. Knee turns out = hips turn.
- Cut the grass with your brace foot. No lawn mower/no huge movements.
- Stay on the ground. One foot off the ground = loss of power and change of direction.
The base of pass protection is being able to push and brace consistently in repetition to keep your body in a position to stop another human being who can see where the ball is, when you can’t as an offensive lineman. Remember, your post/push leg is what is moving your body in pass protection and truly keeps your body more square as opposed to the kick/slide method. Next are the drills I use to teach push and brace to my offensive linemen.
Cooking Techniques (Drills)
Sets on Air
“Sets On Air” (Photo 2) is a great way to work individual footwork for each position on the offensive line. From right to left, facing the offensive line coach, I have the tackles, the guards, and then the centers in groups and lines. I have a variety of footwork I work with each position group that are specific to their position. For example, guards don’t need to work a vertical set, straight back, because that is tackle specific for twists. After the offensive linemen have competed the desired footwork, they will “walk their feet” in place until my break of the drill. When they walk their feet, I want them to barely be chipping their weight back and forth, staying on their edges, remaining in a solid body position, and not allowing their feet to stop. For purposes of length, below is just my thought process for tackles and an explanation of the sets.
- Usually the rush line dictates this is two pushes and braces
- Don’t want my guys to deep set or vertical set unless necessary to prevent pocket from collapsing from a bull rush
- Keep width to pocket/keep quarterback on their spot
- Change up/can’t throw all fastballs (short set) at a good defensive end
- Close the distance, gain ground, cross the line of scrimmage
- HEAVY hands and mirror
- Wide rusher with some speed; need to be back on his rush line
- Twist situations especially with 3-technique on guard
- Push/Brace (counter move inside/flips push/brace foot)
Set On Air is a great way to start a week of practice in pass protection. I will talk to my student-athletes about moves of defenders, physical traits, or tendencies of the defense. This drill is great because a lot of guys are involved, but it can be run at a slow enough pace to teach.
Lateral Movement On Air
Keeping your hips square to the line of scrimmage is crucial in all phases of pass protection. If your hips, knee, or post foot toe get turned, you will be exposed to different moves and not be able to react accordingly.
Lateral movement works on pushing and bracing while moving in a larger area than Sets On Air. You can also work on change of direction in this drill, as well by having the offensive linemen retrace their previous steps. This drill can be done on a line or without a line. I start the progression having the offensive linemen push and brace for 5 yards on a line to make sure they don’t open their hip. Once I feel comfortable that they are good with the technique, I will move them off the line (Photo 3) and work in larger distances than 5 yards. I recommend telling the offensive linemen to do the drill slowly at first, then speed up the more they feel comfortable. This drill can be done with hands up, hands behind, or one hand behind.
During this drill I am looking for the following things:
- Keeping hips square by pushing off the post foot.
- Kick foot is being used as a brace with knee inside toe and clown foot with cleats.
- When asked to change direction, the lineman switches his push and brace feet and uses the appropriate foot to move in the other direction.
- Does technique fail when the drill is sped up?
- Can coach other aspects for athletes who are at a higher skill level
- Where are your eyes?
- Mixed hand alignments
- Work your unnatural stance
Sled Sets On Air
The final phase of working footwork on air is doing the lateral movement drill on the sled. I want to emphasize: NO ONE IS STRIKING ANYTHING during this drill. The goal of the drill is to use your push/brace footwork and align properly in front of a defender. In general, a man set is almost nose-to-nose and a zone set with help is nose-to-nose. The linemen will start the movement on my cadence and work towards the first bag. Once they feel they are in the proper alignment for the style of set I give them, they will pause and walk their feet like Sets On Air. From there, they will move on to the next bag and repeat this process down the line of the sled. For this drill, I will usually stand behind the linemen to watch how they align themselves to each sled bag. Photo 4 shows Sled Sets On Air with hands behind the back.
Things I am looking for during this drill:
- Many of the coaching points are similar to lateral movement.
- If the offensive linemen go too far for the desired technique (man/zone), I will send them back to the line to go again.
- I want to make sure that their body weight doesn’t lean out when they stop. Emphasis on brace foot to stop.
After we have completed this three drill progression, I am normally comfortable to start putting a defender in front of the linemen and working the other phases of pass protection. If technique begins to slip because they are blocking another human being, I will go back to drills on air and do more footwork.
How Does It Taste? (Conclusion)
This is my recipe for teaching base footwork in pass protection. As stated earlier, I have worked on this recipe for a while and feel that it tastes pretty good for my group. As always, I will be looking for more ingredients to enhance this recipe the best I can. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite quote to my players. “Playing offensive line is not a science experiment. Playing offensive line is a fight!” I never want my student-athletes to forget that the game of football is won by tough people who are willing to do what others won’t. Each snap boils down to not allowing another human being to tackle your assignment. I never want my student-athletes to be paralyzed because they are only thinking about technique. Techniques are the ingredients for a great recipe, but they will never be perfect. Do whatever you have to do to not let your assignment tackle the guy with the ball and use the techniques to achieve that goal.
On a personal side note, I would just like to thank the AFCA again for the opportunity to write this article. My father, Robert Cashdollar, passed away in February 2017 after a four-month battle with cancer. Dad was an avid amateur radio operator and had written for many different amateur radio magazines in his retirement. He was so excited that I was going to get an opportunity to write for my passion just like he had. Over the last few months, dad and I sat down and worked on this article together. My dad was very proud of me. It was a great joy over the last few months to work on this article with him. Dad was a huge part of my motivation as a student-athlete and now as a coach. Dad was so proud that I had found my passion in life through coaching. Football is so much more than the X’s and O’s; this article is truly a representation of that to me. Thank you.
Vince Cashdollar begins his sixth year at Manchester University in 2018. Promoted to the role of offensive coordinator in the spring of 2016, he’s also the program’s offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, and he handles equipment duties. During his time at MU, the Spartans’ program has rewritten the offensive record books with 15 new school offensive records, including breaking the single-season rushing mark in 2015. Manchester University offenses averaged over 400 yards a game and over 30 points per game in back-to-back seasons (2014-15) for the first time in school history, while the Class of 2015 walked away as the program’s first to have a winning conference mark.
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