Welcome back to film study y’all! We’ll meet here every Wednesday of the football season to hone in on one aspect of the previous week’s game and break it down on film.
For week one’s edition of film study, we’ll look at offensive line play — a huge question mark heading into South Carolina’s season. The question was made bigger by North Carolina State’s defensive line — hyped up to levels so high it had some members of the media picking NC State as one of the four teams in the College Football Playoff.
That’s not to say the NC State defensive front didn’t warrant any hype. Armed with four seniors coming back from a unit which ranked 11th and 44th in the county last season in rushing defense and sack rate respectively, the Wolfpack front four were projected to be good enough to keep NC State in nearly every game they played.
On the other side of this coin was South Carolina’s offensive line, a unit which ranked 111th in run blocking and 116 in pass protection last season. Four starters came back from the 2016 group, but the question remained as to if they would be improved enough to handle Bradley Chubb and company in the first game of the year.
Turns out the answer was scheme.
First, let’s back up a step. When I wrote my five observations piece, one of the things I found odd was how little Hayden Hurst was targeted in the pass game. He was targeted only four times and his lone reception went for negative two yards. I figured this was probably all apart of the gameplan, but one user made an interesting comment on the story I hadn’t thought about yet.
“And not a need for worry, or to "watch next week". All we heard coming into this game was how menacing their d-line was, and how we wouldn’t be able to run or establish a pocket for Jake. We wisely used Hayden as a weapon to block the entire game, rather than run routes. I thought our O Line looked much better than I feared they would look, and he played a part in that for sure.” - SetYourBodyAbalze
So I went through the replay to look for this trend and sure enough it was true.
Let’s take a look at this formation. South Carolina is set up in “trips left” with the tight end set up on the weak side of the field. Even though you can’t see it in the screenshot above, South Carolina has three receivers on the field.
I love this set because it does two things:
- Having two inside receivers lined up outside forces NC State to play out of the box, decongesting the middle of the field.
- South Carolina still has seven men to use in pass protection against the vaunted NC State front four.
Now let’s see how the play unfolds.
Pay very close attention to the top of the screen where Hurst is lined up. He blocks the left defensive end straight up. And that’s not just any defensive end, that’s Chubb -- the preseason All-American and potential first round draft pick. To task anyone with blocking him is a huge assignment, but a tight end? That’s borderline insane.
Yet Hurst squares Chubb up perfectly and holds him at bay, which allows the rest of the line to focus on the other three rushers and the delayed blitz by the middle linebacker. Jake Bentley has all the time in the world to throw the ball in a clean pocket.
While it’s disappointing Bentley overthrows a wide-open Bryan Edwards, it shouldn’t be overlooked this play was set up perfectly. It all starts with Hurst being able to block an elite rusher one-on-one, a very rare trait among modern tight ends.
Now let’s see what happens when Hurst is sent out on a route while NC State sends a double A-gap blitz.
Initially it looks like NC State is going to bring five rushers up front with a linebacker and safety up the middle as well. However, upon the snap of the ball the two defensive ends drop in coverage and immidiately messes up the protection scheme by South Carolina.
Corey Helms (51) takes a big kick step right expecting to block the defensive tackle shaded over his right shoulder. But when BJ Hill races out to bull rush Zack Bailey head up, Helms pulls a huge hole open in the middle for Jerod Fernandez (4) and Shawn Boone (24) to run straight through. Tyson Williams (27) can only block one, leaving Boone to gobble Bentley alive for a drive-killing sack.
If Hurst stays in to block, the protection scheme wouldn’t have to focus so much on the perimeter and the interior of the line could focus on what’s ahead of them. All Helms has to do is pick up Fernandez and if he does that, Bentley has a clean pocket to throw from.
Hurst ran routes on both of the sacks South Carolina gave up in this game, which I don’t believe to be a coincidence. Later in the fourth quarter we see a similar situation where NC State brings a stunt to force open a hole in the middle of the Gamecock offensive line and resulting in another drive-killing sack.
With Hurst in protection here, South Carolina could have slid left and had seven bodies to block six rushers. Better yet, Shi Smith was wide open in the middle of the field for this play and had he caught the pass would have converted the first down.
I learned something new after studying this film. Hurst is not just a great receiving tight end, but he’s a great pass blocker too. South Carolina can play max pass protection schemes with Hurst in the game because he doubles as a blocker and receiver.
Great pass catching tight ends who can block effectively are becoming more scarce in football nowadays and South Carolina appears to have one. As much as I’d like to see Hurst out creating mismatches in the secondary, it was great to see him sacrificing stats for the betterment of the team.
It’ll be interesting to see how the coaching staff uses Hurst moving forward. Against teams with elite defensive fronts like Georgia, Florida and Clemson it’s easy to see Hurst being used to block, but perhaps even next week against Missouri we can see Hurst space it out a little more and get more involved in the passing game.