Ranking the ACC’s O-lines

Wrote earlier this week on defensive backs in the ACC. Today’s topic: The O-lines. Want a reason the ACC was down last year? It all starts here.

Now, let’s begin with a caveat: As bad as the O-line play was in the ACC last season, the D-line play was terrific. So, is it a chicken-or-egg discussion? Did the bad O-lines make the D-lines look better or vice versa? Hard to say, though the fact that the ACC had nine D-linemen drafted last year suggests that a.) the D-lines were good, and b.) life will get marginally easier for the O-lines in 2019. So there’s that.

Anyway, let’s look at some data points…

Screen Shot 2019-06-24 at 4.35.49 PM

*Note: All stats are vs. Power 5 competition, click on the graph to open in Google Docs. All stats from ESPN Stats & Info.

First off, I should say that Football Outsiders has their own metrics that are probably better than anything I’m using here, and you can find them by clicking HERE. The metrics shown above, however, should be pretty self-explanatory and hopefully illustrate a bit more clearly where teams struggled.

And struggle they did.

Only Clemson ranked in the top half of the league in all six of the above categories (and it helps they didn’t have to face the Clemson D-line). Across the board, teams tended to either be good run blockers or good pass blockers, but not both. (And then there’s Florida State and Louisville, which were awful at everything.)

When it comes to pass blocking, Clemson was elite, but North Carolina, Miami and Boston College weren’t far off. Problem is, UNC, Miami and BC were average or bad at run blocking last year.

Again, Clemson was elite at run blocking, but trailed Georgia Tech (more on this in a moment), while Wake, Pitt and UVA were all pretty good, too. Problem here is, Georgia Tech was awful at pass blocking, and Wake, Pitt and UVA weren’t a lot better.

See how this goes?

Now, to be fair, scheme plays a big part here. We knew before ever looking at the numbers that Georgia Tech could run block. Of course they could. They were an option team. And when GT passed, it was usually third down, when the defense could pin its ears back and attack. Of course they were going to struggle as an O-line in those situations.

Or take Boston College, for example. The Eagles ran into at least 8 defenders in the box on 29 percent of their first- and second-down runs. Meanwhile, Clemson did so just 5 percent of the time. Of course the run blocking would suffer. But there’s real talent on that BC O-line, and a healthy A.J. Dillon and Anthony Brown should force defenses into more tough decisions in 2019.

So the point here is, nothing is cut-and-dried. O-line play is subtle. We get that.

But then you look at those same numbers for Florida State. The Seminoles ran on first-and-second down 241 times. Only 8 were into an 8-man front. Why? Because the FSU run blocking was pitiful and there was no need to stack the box against them. In fact, look at that yards-before-contact number for Florida State. Zero point two-nine.

Fat, drunk and bad at run blocking is no way to go through life.

Or how about Louisville? The Cards ranked last or second-to-last in five of the six categories here. That’s atrocious.

And the really bad thing: This wasn’t the first year it was a problem for either one of those schools. The work that Louisville and FSU have to do up front — some of which we touched on here for Florida State — is immense. So immense, it can’t be fixed in one year. Yes, new systems are in place that should help the line. Should. But neither Rome nor O-lines are built in a day.

On the flip side, there are some teams that offer some hope for real improvement.

Wake Forest lost three starters, but should get Justin Herron back from injury and has some talent ready to step in. Add in that they won’t be playing with a freshman QB anymore, and those pass blocking numbers could go from mediocre to solid, giving the Deacons a pretty nice unit.

Virginia was surprisingly good at run blocking, too, and given that they have arguably the toughest QB in the ACC to bring down, even a small step forward in pass blocking could really help the Hoos offense.

Syracuse, too, looks like it could be in a good spot to improve. Its struggles were more situational, which you’d assume can be improved through scheme (and fewer third-and-longs). Add in what’s developing as a potentially dynamic backfield with Moe Neal (a breakout candidate, IMO), Jarveon Howard and Abdul Adams (and a more traditional pocket QB).

North Carolina’s success last year probably comes as something of a surprise. Unfortunately, with a ton of O-line turnover and a likely fresh-faced QB, it’s probably not overly likely the Heels will repeat that performance. Still, they’ve got a good enough backfield that even passable run blocking should provide the backbone of the offense.

Virginia Tech’s O-line ups-and-downs have been at the heart of many of the team’s issues dating back to the Frank Beamer era, but this year’s group looks about as deep across the board as we’ve seen in some time in Blacksburg. Will it be a great unit? That might depend on how good the supporting cast is. But it should definitely be improved.

And then we have Georgia Tech. What to make of the Jackets? It’ll be a completely different scheme, and frankly, there’s no template for how this will work. There’s no way they’ll repeat the numbers the line has put up in the past. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a better all-around group. When I talked with Geoff Collins last month, he was optimistic that the group was getting a good handle on things quickly. Still, there’s going to be a steep learning curve.

Perhaps the most intriguing unit, however, belongs to Miami. For all the talk of the QB problems there, Malik Rosier, N’Keal Perry et al didn’t get much help last season, and the run blocking was pretty bad. What’s even more confounding is that performance on third-and-short. It was awful — which probably isn’t a shock for a line that struggled to block for its backs. But this isn’t new. Since 2010, the Canes have been better than P5 average just once (2013) and below 60 percent six times! This spans three different coaches’ recruits, so it’s hard to even blame scheme or style of recruit. It’s hard to explain. But seeing promising drives end with a stuff on third-and-2 is a frustration Miami fans have had for way too long. Fortunately, some of the solid recruiting done at the position under Mark Richt should be coming to the forefront now, and there’s some optimism for real improvement.

But let’s end with Clemson. Here’s the bad news for the rest of the ACC: The Tigers are going to be better up front this year. Yes, they lost four-year starter Mitch Hyatt. But there’s a good chance that Jackson Carman is better. And while Trevor Lawrence was exceptional last season, he also tended to sit in the pocket a bit too long — trusting his arm strength to bail him out. That’s been a focal point this year, as Dabo Swinney noted.

“It’s about him creating and extending plays with his legs,” Swinney said. “He’s so confident in the pocket, and he has this arm and ability to make every throw known to man, he will sit in the pocket too long. There’s times, where I felt like he could have — if you really study Trevor, he’s as deadly as anybody when he’s outside the pocket. A lot of guys don’t have a scramble arm. They scramble and have to run. He can scramble and make a throw that is just a dagger.”

So… good luck with that.

Anyway, remembering that all this is subtle, that lines can be very good at one thing and very bad at another, and that I’m an idiot 63% of the time, here’s where I’d rank the ACC O-lines as of today…

1. Clemson
2. Boston College
3. Syracuse
4. Pittsburgh
5. Wake Forest
6. Virginia
7. NC State
8. Miami
9. Virginia Tech
10. UNC
11. Duke
12. Florida State
13. Georgia Tech
14. Louisville

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