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Minnesota Football: Offensive Line Q&A With Derek Burns

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Offensive line play has been a big story this season, so we thought it might be a good time to chat with former Minnesota offensive lineman Derek Burns.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota offensive line has had a rough season so far. Maligned by fans and hampered by injuries, the unit has not been the force and anchor of the offense that Gopher fans had hoped for. I think most if not all of us have thoughts about what might be going on, but the thing about offensive line play is that it's can be a difficult unit for fans to understand in depth. To help with that, we reached out to former Minnesota Gophers offensive lineman Derek Burns.

The TDG staff came up with some questions that we hoped would help any Gopher fan better understand the play of the Minnesota offensive line and that might help us all get a better perspective on what the big guys up front are dealing with on a week to week basis. Our intent was to ask a mix of general offensive line related questions as well as questions focused on the Minnesota system and the struggles the Gopher unit has had this fall.

We're hoping that this sparks additional conversation, so if you have more questions for Derek please be sure to ask them in the comments or on Twitter (@Derek_S_Burns). This is also your reminder to follow Derek on Twitter to make sure you don't miss any of his excellent game breakdowns on Sunday night (especially since a certain blogger can't be counted on to deliver a recap right now).

No discussion of offensive line play would be complete without iconic NFL Films music and we can't proceed without embedding some:

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TDG: What is the most important quality for an offensive lineman? What do coaches look for when recruiting?

DB: Footwork. Having a minimum amount of size and strength is a per-requisite of course but footwork is the differentiating factor. Big, strong offensive lineman are not particularly rare in high school but big, strong offensive lineman with good footwork are. The reason good footwork is the most important quality is because it allows a player to maintain good quickness, balance and leverage while blocking. You may not think the offensive line moves around the field much compared to the other players but it can be deceiving. Next time you're watching game pay attention to how many a offensive lineman takes on any given play. Watch how much they move around in a relatively small area of the field. Good footwork is to offensive lineman what speed is to defensive backs.

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TDG: How does an offensive line identify pressure? Who has responsibility? Who do they look at?

DB: That's a very general question and the answer really depends on what type of pressure and what the original play call is. Both the quarterback and the offensive lineman look for pressure on various plays but more often than not the center or guards adjust the blocking calls if they identify pressure. The quarterback may have the ability to change the play call entirely if he identifies pressure but it's not as common. Through film study the offensive lineman are taught to identify pre-snap defensive alignments that lead to blitzes. If a pass play using man protection is called in the huddle and the center or guards identify possible pressure they will change the blocking calls accordingly.

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The Daily Gopher: What is the Gophers base Offensive Line Scheme? How does it work? What is it supposed to accomplish?

Derek Burns: The Gophers have two base running plays. Power, which uses a gap scheme, and zone read which as the name implies uses a zone scheme.

In power the play-side offensive lineman down block meaning they block the defender in their backside gap. If there is no down lineman in their backside gap they work to the second (linebacker) level. The edge defender (playside defensive end or outside linebacker) is left for the fullback or H-back to kick out and the backside guard pulls and acts as a lead blocker on the point defender (usually the play-side inside linebacker). The principle of power is to out number the defense on the play-side and physically defeat the defenders at the point of attack using size and strength.

In zone read all offensive lineman are asked to reach block the defender in their play-side gap. If there is no down line in their play-side gap they work to the second (linebacker) level. The backside end defender on the line of scrimmage is left unblocked and quarterback determines whether to hand off or keep the ball and run according to how this defender reacts to the play. The principle of zone read is to force the defense to defend every gap and to quickly identify and isolate any undefended gap for the running back using quickness and agility.

Why do the Gophers use both schemes?

If you think of it from a defensive coordinators perspective the technique to defeat each scheme is totally different. Versus power the defense wins if they can get as many defenders to the playside gap as possible and overwhelm the blockers. Versus zone read each defender must stay and defend his own gap so there aren't any holes to run through. So the Gophers use both schemes to try and catch the defensive cheating to defend one scheme. If the defense is overloading the play-side on power there should be an opportunity to run zone and catch them out of their gaps. If the defensive is sitting in their gaps and "reading" the play there should be an opportunity to run power and overwhelm the defense on the play-side.

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TDG: Minnesota's offensive line has had injury issues, including multiple players with nagging knee or shoulder problems. How hard is it to play offensive line with a bad shoulder or bad knee?

DB: Both are difficult not because of the pain but because they deplete your strength. Both are more debilitating to an offensive lineman than a muscular injury like a hamstring pull because offensive lineman are rarely running at full speed so a hamstring pull does not have as much impact as it would for a running back or defensive back.

A knee injury affects your ability to drive/move/push defenders once you've become engaged. Once an offensive lineman has locked up with a defender all his power is derived from his legs so a knee injury will take away some or all of that power. A shoulder injury depletes your strength at the point of contact. In both run and pass blocking the strike is made with the offensive lineman's hands, arms and sometimes helmet. Having a shoulder injury will reduce or eliminate the power generated in the offensive lineman's, "punch."

Overall a knee injury is more debilitating because it can decrease your mobility in addition to your strength.

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TDG: How important is consistency (in terms of lineup/personnel) for an offensive line? What are the benefits?

DB: Consistency from year to year is not as important as it's made out to be in my opinion. You get plenty of practices with the "new" teammate before you play your first game a general comfort level is usually established. However, I feel consistency from week to week is important. In my opinion an offensive lineman needs about 1-2 weeks of practice next to the same people to get a feel for how they combo block, trade off defenders, etc. Also, each week you prepare for the upcoming opponent's defensive schemes so it's important to get reps with the same people next to you against the defensive looks your going to see on Saturday so it isn't all brand new.

Lastly, it's only important to develop consistency with the lineman lined up directly next to you. For example, having the same left tackle and right guard play together is meaningless but having the same left tackle and left guard is beneficial and so on.

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TDG: What do you think Minnesota's offensive line has done most successfully this season?

DB: The mental part of playing offensive line in general. In my opinion the struggles the Minnesota offensive offensive line has had this year have not been the result of missed assignments. The first stage of blocking is knowing who to block, the second is knowing how to block (technique), and final stage is effort. Those stages are sequential, if you don't know who to block your technique and effort don't matter. This year the gophers haven't had much trouble knowing who to block but they have struggled at times getting the blocks completed and being physical.

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TDG: Is there anything about Minnesota's current approach (scheme, playcalls, etc) that you would change if you could?

DG: I'd like to see them develop more plays to counter defenses selling out to stop the power run. Any team would like to run their favorite play successfully no matter what the defense is doing but in reality the overwhelming majority offenses are not dominant enough to do so. If a defense is cheating outside zone you run inside zone, if they're cheating isolation you run counter, if they're cheating option you run dive and so on. To some degree the Gophers use zone read and jet sweep to counter teams loading against power but I'd like to see some other options.

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TDG: If you had to explain the difficulties faced by the Minnesota offensive line this year, what causes would you point to?

DB: I'm not trying to avoid the question but there is no simple answer. In my opinion it's a combination of injuries, execution, they've played some pretty good defenses, and they haven't had much help from the passing game.

The two things I believe that would help them improve this year are: get guys healthy and find a way to take some pressure off the running game. Whether that's more play action on 1st/2nd down, developing a vertical passing game or something else. Anything that can help take the pressure off inside running.

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DB: I'd like to throw in one final point if I may. I think it's important to consider what this staff is trying to build on the offensive line from a program perspective and why. It's my opinion this staff is trying to recruit and develop a physically big and strong offensive line to run power. They may be wiling to sacrifice a bit of mobility and quickness in favor of strength and size. I believe the reason for this is in response to what's happening in college football on defense.

Currently many (most?) college programs are trying to build defenses to stop wide open, fast, spread offenses. This means putting more speed and quickness at each position on defense and playing lighter personnel groups. This is similar to what's happened in the NFL. Zone running has become less effective and less common in the NFL over the past few years because the linebackers and secondary are too fast. NFL defenders are fast enough to cover the whole field laterally without many issues. So most NFL offenses have concentrated on running power schemes to physically outnumber and/or out-muscle defenses on the play-side and also give running backs more freedom after breaking the line of scrimmage. This is what I'm guessing the Gophers are attempting to emulate from a rushing perspective.

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QUICK BUT IMPORTANT FINAL NOTES

- A big thank you to Derek for taking the time to chat with us about Minnesota's offensive line and offensive line play in general.

- Remember, if you're on Twitter you need to be following him (@Derek_S_Burns).

- Derek also mentioned that he'd be up for doing an Offensive Line themed #AMA (Ask Me Anything) type session on Twitter to continue talking about all things OL. If that idea interests you, be sure to let Derek know on Twitter or mention your interest in the comments!