With so few returning offensive starters on the 2016 Ohio State Buckeyes, the recurring optimistic take of the offseason has been to compare this year’s squad to the immortal 2014 National Champions. While the preseason need to replace over half of the offense is of course a striking similarity, this is about as far as I’m willing to go in comparing the 2014 and 2016 Buckeyes.
Sticking to offense, the main reason why it’s not fair to compare the two teams is mostly due to where the returning production is coming from. While the 2014 team brought back a loaded group of receivers and tight ends, four new offensive line starters, combined with a brand new backfield, proved to be too steep of an early season hurdle. However, an early season loss to Virginia Tech wasn’t enough to stop the Buckeyes’ championship aspirations, but as fans found out in 2015: one loss is often one too many.
This year’s Ohio State Buckeyes offense returns quarterback J.T Barrett, guard Billy Price, and guard (now center) Pat Elflein. There’s been a lot of talk about Barrett’s return and his contention for the 2016 Heisman, but let’s stop for a second and check on the fifth year senior and one of three 2016 team captains: Pat Elflein.
“I look at that thing (picture of Elflein) when I've gotta get the warrior in me...I always take a peek at that thing.” - Tom Phillips, Head Football Coach at Pickerington North High School who coached Elflein for four years.
This might be the best quote ever from a high school football coach given to a former player. Phillips literally looks at a picture of Elflein when he needs to ‘get the warrior’ in him.
If you are a little confused about what it means to ‘get the warrior in you’, watch the pulling right guard in the below clip and see if you’re ready to run through a brick wall or not afterwards.
Pat Elflein might as well buy this wallet because I’m certain even Jules Winnfield wouldn’t dare cross Elflein on the gridiron. At 6’3 300 lbs, Elflein possesses great size for an interior lineman, and as a former 3-star recruit, he also possesses the right ‘no one believed in me so now I’m going to destroy everyone’ kind of attitude that coaches love to see in their linemen.
So is Elflein the physical but technically unsound offensive lineman hoping to increase their draft stock by staying in college for an extra year? Not exactly. In reality, anything else the 2015 Second Team AP All-American achieves at Ohio State is icing on the cake. Looking back a year from now, the real surprise of the 2016 offseason may be why not enough people saw the return of Pat Elflein as the return of one of the best linemen in America.
“There are not a lot of dominant offensive linemen around the country and Elflein has a strong case as the nation’s best. His two-year overall grade of +44.0 leads all Power-5 linemen, showing strength as a run blocker where he ranked 15th in the nation in 2014 and 18th last season.” - Pro Football Focus
As the above analysis and previous video indicates, Elflein is a freight train as a run blocker. In an Ohio State offense that seamlessly switches between zone and power based run schemes, Elflein’s ability to pull through holes and open lanes for runners has been second to none.
While Elflein’s pass blocking ability isn’t quite as great as his run blocking, Elflein has displayed the type of on the fly thinking and producing that will become an every play necessity at the center position. While sliding just one spot over on the offensive line may not seem like a ton of change, the center of the offensive line is regularly asked to set the protection and identify any blitzes the defense could be scheming. This is easier said than done when the end result of any designed play involves moving very large, very talented men down the football field.
Ohio State’s offensive line deservedly received a ton of credit against Alabama for the way they opened up running lanes for Ezekiel Elliott, but perhaps more impressive was the amount of time the line regularly gave Cardale Jones to throw. Sure, Jones had to take off on his fair share of scrambles, but he typically had a pocket to step into, and when the offensive game plan was essentially asking Jones to make 1-2 reads and then run, you can’t ask for much more from your offensive line.
At the snap Elflein gets in his pass set and identifies the Alabama three technique as his immediate threat. Luckily for Elflein, center Jacoby Boren made a nice adjustment before the snap to slide the Ohio State line to the right to handle the blitzing linebacker.
Because of the slide, left guard Billy Price knows he’s responsible for the Alabama defensive tackle on his side of the line, and Boren comes to his right to help Elflein on a double team until the blitzing linebacker becomes a threat.
Elflein and Boren’s double-team is picture perfect, as not only is the Alabama defender completely neutralized, but Jones has a deep pocket to step up into as he continues to look downfield. Additionally, Elflein keeps his body free enough to easily disengage and pick up the blitzing linebacker.
While Jones may have scrambled a bit earlier here than he needed to, Elflein and Boren execute their assignments to perfection. Elflein slides off the Bama defensive lineman right onto the blitzing linebacker to completely snuff out the blitz attempt.
Jones’ nimble feet resulted in a Buckeyes’ first down, but that wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for Elflein and company identifying the blitz pre-snap, and then executing.
"I love Ohio State, I love the coaches, I want to graduate...There are still some things I want to accomplish here, as a team make another run for it, we definitely have the potential to do that again. I want to play for Ohio State again, play center." - Pat Elflein on why he chose to return to Ohio State for another year.
Now for the elephant in the room: why did Elflein decide to return to school if he is so damn good? The answer can be explained in part by Elflein’s quote above, and also through looking at past NFL Drafts.
The general consensus around Elflein’s return seemed to be that Elflein is hoping to improve his draft position by switching to center. At first I was skeptical, Travis Frederick was the last center drafted in the first round and that was back in 2013. Should a college center really expect to be drafted higher than a college guard? The answer, is yes!
While more total guards have been drafted than centers, that’s more of a case of there being two guards per offensive line compared to only one center. It’d be shocking to see Elflein evaluated as anything less than a top center/guard prospect, and this bodes very well for his draft stock. With a 10 and 11 percent selection rate in the first and second rounds respectively, the best centers have consistently been picked higher in the draft compared to the best guards.
Another factor that is harder to measure is the fact that many of the draft’s highly selected guards are seen as future tackles. Zach Martin out of Notre Dame is one example who ended up being so good at guard that the Cowboys have left him there, but NFL teams recognize the need for quality tackles over quality guards. Look no further than the Chicago Bears attempting to transition two-time Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long to tackle last season.
There are a ton of questions for the 2016 Ohio State offense. Who will emerge as the primary running back? Who will J.T Barrett be throwing the ball to? What we do know is that the Buckeyes’ two best offensive players will be touching the football on nearly every snap of the 2016 season, and when one of those players is the human tank Pat Elflein, well, that should be enough to ‘get the warrior’ in 100,000 strong in Columbus every Saturday of this fall.