In operating out of an up-tempo system, the toughest aspect that I’ve found to monitor daily is being fundamentally and technically sound. I think the common knock on up-tempo teams is that their offensive line isn’t physical.
By Adam Kirby
Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach
Sulphur High School (LA)
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The up-tempo, RPO offense has taken the football world by storm in the last decade. Around the time Chip Kelly popularized this style of play as the Head Coach at Oregon, everyone in football from high school to the NFL has been looking to go faster and, in this thinking, offensive line fundamentals get lost. My goal for this article is to help bring some clarity to the following questions:
- Explain the advantages of playing fast
- Help you understand the OL’s role in an up-tempo offense and the challenges facing offensive linemen
- Demonstrate and explain drills used to maintain physicality and technique in the up-tempo system
- Give you some ideas and how to implement them into your up-tempo package
My first offensive coordinator job came in 2016 at Southwestern College. When I became an OC, I knew that I wanted to jump on board with the up-tempo, RPO offense that everyone around the country was operating, but I had no idea how to implement the system itself into my offensive line. I was worried that going fast meant too many 3 and outs, that the offensive line would become tired and play lazy and that we’d hurt our team in the long run by forcing the defense to play 2/3 of the game. And although these concerns were legitimate for our offensive staff, gravitating to the up-tempo offense paid dividends for our program both at Sulphur and at Southwestern College. Some advantages that we’ve found from going fast on offense are:
- Keeps it simple for the players/coaches
- You don’t have the time to dwell on mistakes or missed calls
- Makes the defense play left-handed
- Forces defense to stay in their base defense which makes calls easier
- More speed on Offense leads to less movement by the Defense
- Simplifies reads and adjustments for your QB and OL
- It allows your players to have fun and GO!
In operating out of an up-tempo system, the toughest aspect that I’ve found to monitor daily is being fundamentally and technically sound. I think the common knock on up-tempo teams is that their offensive line isn’t physical – it’s more, “get in someone’s way and let the running back get 4 yards.”
The one thing that we demand from our offensive line is physicality and I believe that as a unit, you can overcome a lot and cover up some mistakes if your offensive line is physical and plays nasty at the point of attack. From my experience, physicality is a learned trait that needs to be pushed every day in practice. Kids are kids and regardless of the level (1A-5A, NAIA, D3, D2, etc.), they will take the easy way if allowed. In practice, this is our blueprint for success:
- An individual period should be the most difficult part of practice for your guys!
- As a coach, you want to work your offensive line the hardest the first 20-25 mins of practice.
- Set the expectation in pre-practice so you don’t have to ‘turn it on’ during team periods.
- If they are going out there and “walking through” the drills, then you need to change a) drills or b) your expectation
Along with managing and demanding that your offensive line play physical at the Point of Attack, I believe that establishing a mindset within your unit will help take pride in the up-tempo pace. The thing that I've found helpful throughout my career is creating an environment within your unit where kids take pride in the "nitty-gritty". Your offensive line needs to take pride in being the first to show up, the last to leave and embrace the fact that they have the hardest job on the team. Have them be out there for pre-practice working board drills or pass sets while everyone else is walking to their stretch groups or sitting around talking. From my experience, this gives the guys on your line a sense of pride that they’re doing the extra work no one else wants to in order to help the team be successful.
Going fast is already hard enough for everyone, but it's even harder for your offensive line. From finding the ball to lining up to identifying who the middle linebacker is, it is a very demanding position to play in an up-tempo system. For this reason alone, I believe that as a coordinator, you MUST make it easy for your offensive line and your offensive line coach. In our offense, the only thing the OL worries about is finding the ball after the play and listening to the call from the quarterback on the play and/or the protection. Our center makes the call as well as any directional changes that we need to make on our protections. Once that is done, we make our double team calls or protection calls and go! Being able to operate at this pace requires focus and your guys being in good shape. This is accomplished in your individual periods of practice and drill work. Remember to make sure that these periods are the hardest periods throughout the entire practice for your guys!
Reward your offensive line after a touchdown drive. If you notice, no one is handing out high fives and hugs to the offensive line. They’re all going for the guy who scored. We have a rule on our team that after the guys celebrate the touchdown, they’re celebrating with an offensive lineman or telling them they’re appreciated as soon as the offense gets off the field after the PAT. Regardless of who you are or the position you play, everyone loves positive reinforcement and educating your kids and coaches on this will make your offensive line work harder. The drill work, extra time, strain and struggle throughout the week should pay off on the game day. Make sure your offensive line is appreciated – it will go a long way!
What to look out for?
If you are not demanding great technique and coaching relentless effort and physicality as an offensive line coach, then it really doesn’t matter what system you run, it won’t be successful. However, this is especially true in the up-tempo system. Linemen tend to want to stand up, not strike, play with high pad level and lean into the defender which in turn promotes the dangers of leaving the head in the block.
“He’s not a finisher, he doesn’t strain, he can’t stay balanced, he can’t play with leverage. You see all these negatives and think…I’m going to have to re-train an offensive lineman that’s coming out of college right now.” -Tom Cable (Offensive Line Coach / Oakland Raiders)
“You watch football now and in the run game, no one knows how to snap their hips. Everything is stand up, turn sideways and run. That’s the zone blocking scheme. No more establishing the line of scrimmage, no more moving the line of scrimmage.” -Steve Hutchinson (retired NFL offensive lineman)
These two quotes illustrate that there is a growing problem with offensive line play in today’s game where players don’t know how to fight through blocks (finish), they get tired and lose leverage and when they are tired and allow it to affect their footwork, they end up losing balance. Your offensive linemen cannot be satisfied with just getting in front of someone and feeling like they accomplished the goal at hand. Be aware of this as an offensive line coach! If you are establishing the line of scrimmage and staying on blocks, it will make a defense who is already tired from having to play against tempo ready to quit.
Another thing that has helped hammer the point home about physicality and technique is not settling for your running back having a 4-yard run and skipping over that play on film. Show them every clip of bad technique and lack of physicality while also keeping notes or a chart so you and the player both can see the progress that has been made. The great thing about offensive line play is that it usually repeats itself! If one person is making a mistake (even on a positive play), there is a good chance that everyone can learn from it!
Drill Work / Coaching Points
There are a lot of drills out there for offensive line coaches and plenty of coaches use a drill because they saw it at a clinic or practice and they don't really know what it works or what the points of emphasis are. Here at Sulphur, we utilize the same drills for our EDD's (every day drills). They aren’t fancy, they aren’t revolutionary, but every offensive line I’ve ever coached at both the collegiate and high school levels have said that these are the drills that help them the most in a game. If your drills aren't showing up in-game situations, you have the wrong drills!
With more restrictions placed on practice time, it is imperative that what time you have during individual, you are making sure that your drills/reps are working on situations and techniques that can translate to a game! Don't do a drill just to do a drill!
“You don’t get as many reps anymore, so I think when guys get to the game, a lot of players are surprised by movement and things that happen.” -Geoff Schwartz (retired NFL offensive lineman)
What Geoff Schwartz is talking about here is the biggest fear an offensive line coach should have – that when the bullets are flying, their guys are surprised. Don't let this happen to you! Make sure you are working on technique and making the reps your kids get the count!
As previously mentioned, everything you do needs to come back to being physical and technically sound and your drills should reflect this!
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- Coaching points and film of the Stick Drill used to teach proper leverage against a moving defender.
- Coaching points and film of the Cross Face/Rip and Run Drill used to teach proper leverage on how to recover blocks when the defender has crossed your face.
- Coaching points and film of the Recovery Drill used to regain leverage after leaning into blocks.
- Coaching points and film of the Medicine Ball Drill used to teach the importance of hand positioning in pass protection.
- Coaching points and film of the Dumbbell Drill used to teach inside hand position in run blocks.
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It is my hope that you found something in this report that can help you be successful this season. Regardless of your offensive system, the offensive line’s job boils down to two things: Protecting the QB and giving your team the ability to run the football. You can accomplish both in the up-tempo system and just because you’re going fast doesn’t mean you can’t play with great technique and with physicality. Please reach out if I can answer any questions or if you want to go into greater detail as to why we do something.
Meet Coach Adam Kirby: Coach Kirby is entering his 2nd season at Sulphur High School after previously serving as the Offensive Coordinator and Offensive Line Coach at Southwestern College. He has also coached the Offensive Line at McMurry University, Independence CC, and Texas College. Coach Kirby has been fortunate to coach 12 All-Conference as well as 5 All-American selections on the offensive line.