John E. Hoover: Offensive line is the engine to Texas A&M's attack
BY JOHN E. HOOVER World Sports Columnist
Friday, January 04, 2013
1/04/13 at 4:15 AM
Related story: The last ride for Landry.
Go to John E. Hoover's blog.Original Print Headline: Line play is engine to Texas A&M's offense
ARLINGTON, Texas - All due respect to Johnny Manziel, Kevin Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury for the amazing success Texas A&M's offense had this season in the mighty, mighty Southeastern Conference.
But as shiny as a car may be, as many dashboard gadgets as it might have, it's little more than a lawn ornament if the engine doesn't run.
The Aggies' engine is its offensive line - maybe the best offensive line in all of college football.
"A lot of people don't realize the importance of that offensive line," said Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, who's scheming night and day to solve the A&M offense in Friday's Cotton Bowl. "It makes the whole thing go. As great as Manziel is, he has to have protection and space on the field to run and create the way he wants to."
SEC teams win with big, mean defensive linemen, the kind who could pick up a car - or knock down a house, or invade a small country.
"The biggest thing is just week-in and week-out, you finish one big game and then it's 'Oh man, there's another great front we're going against,' " said A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews. "It was really just that every team is that good."
Here's the bottom line: In comparing the most recent two-deeps of all 14 SEC teams with those of all 10 Big 12 Conference teams, SEC defensive ends average 263 pounds per man, while Big 12 defensive ends average 251. Inside, SEC defensive tackles average 305 pounds per man, while Big 12 defensive tackles average 290.
In the SEC, 31 (out of 50) two-deep defensive tackles are more than 300 pounds, while the Big 12 has eight (out of 40).
"Every week you show up and there's another 6-5, 270-pound D-end you're going up against. That was one of the big (adjustments)," Matthews said. "The Big 12 has more of a spread feel, so the defenses are a little different. The SEC defenses, they're big guys, and they have depth."
Wonder why the Aggies left the air attack Big 12 for the ground assault SEC and had immediate success? Wonder why A&M went 10-2, beat No. 1 Alabama and established numerous SEC offensive standards?
Because they had an offensive line that was equipped for either a ground assault or an air attack.
One year after leaving the Big 12, Texas A&M led the SEC in scoring offense, passing offense, rushing offense and total offense. The Aggies also topped the conference in total first downs and third-down conversions.
Almost nobody thought this would happen against those immovable SEC defenses.
"The way they have spread it out, they've handled those SEC defenses fairly well," OU head coach Bob Stoops said. "In the end, that is what you notice: Johnny Manziel, the spread attack, no-huddle, throwing the football around, and Johnny pulling it down and running when he doesn't like what he sees. It is a challenge."
Bigger splits across the O-line spread a defense out, and with a quarterback like the Heisman-winning Manziel - an accurate but not overly powerful arm, quick and elusive feet, but hardly world-class speed - defenses are always on their heels.
Kingsbury, the Aggies' offensive coordinator this season, learned the value of wide offensive line splits when he quarterbacked at Texas Tech. (Kingsbury last month took the head coaching reins at his alma mater). Defenses must cover more of the field, which creates less room for error.
"The offensive line stretches the field and creates space for Manziel to run around and do the things he can do," Mike Stoops said. "If he doesn't have an offensive line, he can't do half those things."
A&M calls its offensive line the Maroon Goons. The starting five consists of a senior (center Patrick Lewis), two sophomores (guards Jarvis Harrison and Cedric Ogbuehi) and two juniors (tackles Luke Joeckel and Matthews) who have combined for 149 career starts.
Their average size is 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds. The 6-6, 310-pound Joeckel won the Outland Trophy as America's best down lineman and could be an early first-round pick. The 6-5, 305-pound Matthews also has a decision to make, as he's projected as a potential first-round pick, too.
When it was announced that A&M would be leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, some players just sat wide-eyed, mouth agape. But some players smiled, winked and rolled up their sleeves.
"Hey. Gotta love it," Matthews said. "That's what we want. We want to play with the best."
Now one wonders if Manziel, Sumlin and Kingsbury have planted the same seed in the SEC that Kingsbury and Mike Leach planted in the Big 12 so many years ago.
Could the SEC someday be headed toward what the Big 12 has evolved into today? Could it soon be a league powered by strong-armed quarterbacks and fleet-footed wideouts, rather than all those mammoth, brutish, nasty defensive linemen?
"They changed the landscape in one year with offensive football in that league," Mike Stoops said. "It's put them into a frenzy."
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) looks to pass as defensive back Clay Honeycutt (25) reaches in during practice for the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game. LM OTERO/AP Photo