John Sandberg - The Life of an Offensive Lineman
Sept. 26, 2007
It's 14-7 IU at Memorial Stadium. The Hoosiers lead a gritty Indiana State team by just seven and have just gotten the ball for the first time in the second quarter at their own 21. Kellen Lewis sits back in the pocket, waits and heaves the ball downfield for a 79-yard TD pass to blow the game open and propel the Hoosiers to a lopsided victory.
Fast-forward two weeks. Indiana has the ball at the start of the second half, tied with an Akron team that has upset on its mind. On second-and-3 from the IU 27, Marcus Thigpen finds a hole through the left side and busts into the open. Fifty-nine yards later, he's brought down, helping the Hoosiers regain the lead from the Zips for good.
Don't be surprised if you don't see the common link between these key plays - you're one of the many. Offensive linemen like fifth-year senior John Sandberg are used to the anonymity that playing their position brings, even though without them, none of these crucial plays would happen.
"Unless you have played the offensive line or coached the offensive line, nobody watches the offensive line," Sandberg says. "We don't get any credit, it's a non-glory position, but we still go out there and fight."
Playing on the offensive line seems simple enough to the everyday observer - get in front of the other player and keep him away from your teammate. But it's a lot more complicated than that.
"As far as technique, coaches teach us all of this technique and we practice it and really get it ingrained in our head," Sandberg says. "But it just comes down to playing, and unless you have played offensive line you don't know what that's like, blocking somebody is a little harder than just getting in front of them, you really have to have good technique to get in front of them, get your hands inside and drive square. You have a lot of linebackers that come downhill and try to rip through and if you're not square, they're going to get through."
There's a certain technique to both types of blocking - run blocking and pass blocking. But those two are as different as can be, according to Sandberg.
"Run blocking is bear down, get after them and drive them off the ball," says the Monon, Ind., native. "Pass blocking, I hate to say it, but it kind of is just getting in front of somebody. You just have to have good technique to get over, get in front of somebody and then bear down and stop because you don't want to turn it into a drive block. When you're really getting into the game, run blocking is nice because you can just really get after them. But there's times in the game when it's nice to just kind of take a couple of steps back, get in front of a guy and just bear down and stop with him. It's a lot easier to just hold somebody in place than it is to drive him off the ball."
With a quarterback like Lewis, sometimes pass blocking can turn into run blocking in a hurry as the speedy QB takes off out of the pocket. That's not always the easiest thing for an offensive lineman to deal with.
"It's easier in some ways because you're blocking a guy and all of a sudden Kellen's gone, there's nobody in the pocket," Sandberg says. "If my guy gets back in the pocket, there's nobody there. It's harder in the aspect that sometimes I step down and block a nose guard and I'll have him locked down right on the line, and then all of a sudden he just takes off running away from me. I have no idea what he's doing. But now I've figured it out - if my guy's running away from me, Kellen's running out of the pocket."
Chemistry on the field is often talked about in the "intangibles" section of a football team. Quarterbacks and wide receivers need to be on the same wavelength on passing audibles and routes, while defensive units need to work together to ensure proper coverage. But in no one area is cohesiveness and chemistry more important than on the offensive line.
"We're a unit," Sandberg says, plainly. "There's five guys up front and we really have to trust who we're playing with and really have a feel who we're playing with. Defensive line, for the most part, they're doing their own thing to try to get to the quarterback or get to the ball. For us, we're a unit and we have to block together and everybody has to be on the same page.
"You've got to have a little bit of chemistry," he continues. "If you hate the guys you're playing with then you're going to go out there and short it a little bit on this and that. As far as we go, we hang out together a lot. Other than that, we go in and watch film together every day after practice. We go in and we sit down and we talk through things. There will be times when [senior center Ben] Wyss will say, `Hey, I need more help on a block like this,' and that's good to know because I didn't know he needed that. Or I'll say the same thing to him."
When chemistry breaks down on a pass block, the result can be catastrophic. The possibility of a turnover skyrockets when the offensive line breaks down on a pass block. And sometimes, the result is the four-letter word of an offensive lineman's vocabulary - sack.
"A sack is something that just crushes your will," Sandberg says, all the joy draining from his face. "You hate to go into a meeting and watch that you gave up a sack in a game. There are so few games and few plays that you get a run that a sack is a crush to your will."
If there is one thing that offensive linemen are notable for, it's their size - both vertically and horizontally. When Sandberg is asked about his daily food intake, he starts to chuckle.
"Everybody asks us this question," he says with a smile. "It's tough to say [what typical intake is] because some guys maintain weight a lot better than others - we burn it a little bit faster and we just have to eat all the time. You have to wake up and have to get a good breakfast, get a good lunch, get a good dinner and then you're constantly chewing on cookies or something. Fourth meal's almost natural to me, I have to have fourth meal when I get home at night."
To most of us, being forced to eat sounds like a nice problem to have, but in Sandberg's eyes, it's more of a chore.
"People are like, `Oh that's nice, I wish I had to gain weight.' Well, no you don't. You get tired of eating. Sometimes I'm not hungry for breakfast, but you have to get up, you have to come to breakfast and you have to eat something. I was talking to one of the former players, and he goes, `You know what, it's nice not having to eat. I love it. I don't eat breakfast and then I'm kind of hungry for lunch, so I'll have a little bit to eat,' when you're used to constantly eating."
Offensive linemen are used to getting no credit for their work. The rest of players on the offensive unit are referred to as playing "skill positions" while offensive linemen are never regarded in this light. But for Sandberg, it's just part of the job, and it's a part of the ultimate goal - winning football games.
"They do their thing," Sandberg says of "skill position" players. "It's like I tell some of the guys, `I can't do your job, don't think you can do mine.' I'm not a skill guy, I'm a big ugly, I'm up front. We get no credit, we have to just do our thing up front, and if we didn't do our thing, the skill guys wouldn't be able to do their thing."
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