CORVALLIS — Oregon State’s offense had its moments during the 2018 season. There was a running game that was often productive, and a passing attack that occasionally kept the Beavers in shootouts.
But there was little consistency, and it traces back to a fundamental problem: OSU could not protect the quarterback. The Beavers were awful when it came to quarterback sacks and giving up negative plays that too often caused drives to stall.
The coaches will say the problems were teamwide. The quarterbacks were sometimes at fault for holding the ball too long. The receivers did not recognize certain situations and were not ready to catch a pass. Running backs could have been better at picking up a blitzing linebacker or helping out with a block.
“Each position has had to take some ownership,” OSU offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren said. “We have to get better in this area.”
But fair or not, when it comes to poor pass protection, the offensive line is going to absorb the most blame.
Line coach Jim Michalczik says pass protection is a work in progress, an area he believes showed improvement throughout the 2018 season. Michalczik thought the line got better in picking up blitzes as the season progressed.
It is a start, but the Beavers must make big strides just to become average. Last season, OSU ranked last among 129 FBS teams in giving up 48 sacks, an average of four per game. Moreover, the offense had 99 plays that resulted in lost yardage, fourth worst in the country.
If the Beavers can significantly improve in this one area, not only does it keep drives alive, it keeps OSU’s defense — the country’s second-worst unit statistically in 2018 — on the sideline.
Michalczik says there was no one specific area in regard to a glaring pass protection weakness that stood out when coaches reviewed 2018 game video.
But there is a place to start.
“We have to win the one-on-one battles, that’s the big thing,” Michalczik said.
Sophomore tackle Brandon Kipper says Michalczik has a personal philosophy about technique, and “he’s really strict about it.” It is not just about shoving around defensive tackles, ends and linebackers, either. Communication between the line and others on offense is getting a workout this spring.
“Part of it last year, we were putting in a new offense that was maybe a little iffy, and people weren’t really sure all the time,” Kipper said. “Now you know it like the back of your hand. And being able to communicate without speaking words.”
Left tackle Blake Brandel says Michalczik pounds the idea that linemen need to play low, with balance. That is Offensive Line 101, from peewee football to the NFL. Yet coaches routinely telling linemen to play low — it gives a player more athletic options when it comes to moving and blocking — exists at the highest levels of football.
Why not just do it? Brandel explains it is harder than it sounds.
“If you’re at home, just try to bend like an offensive tackle should,” Brandel said. “It gets kind of tricky. Your legs start burning up. But to be a good football player, you have to be able to get uncomfortable. It sounds like it’s so simple, but it’s not. (It is) something that’s really difficult to do.”
Michalczik says it will be weeks, probably months, until he begins figuring out where he will play his linemen, and locking in starters. One area that could be of interest involves left tackle, where Brandel has started 27 games. Kipper, a transfer from Hawaii, has an athletic build that could warrant a look at left tackle.
Brandel says if he is asked to play right tackle — where he started nine games as a freshman — he is game.
“I would never be opposed to switching sides. Whatever they need,” Brandel said.
Michalczik said a couple of young players who have caught his eye this spring are freshman Joshua Gray and redshirt freshman Jake Levengood.
Of Gray, Michalczik says “he’s not a freshman when he’s out there. He’s able to do a lot of stuff.” Levengood played in only two games at tackle last season, allowing him to redshirt. He has moved to center this spring, a position at which Michalczik says he thinks Levengood “has a hell of a future.”