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September 24, 2008

Protecting the blindside of the QB

Sure, it's not the most glamorous job in football, but to any quarterback, protecting the blind side is the most important.

Just ask former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann.

On Monday Night Football, Nov. 18, 1985, Theismann was back to handle a flea flicker from running back John Riggins. As New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson grabbed Theismann's jersey, linebacker Lawrence Taylor came from Theismann's blindside and slammed him to the ground. Carson's hip landed on Theismann's lower right leg.

The end result was one of the most gruesome injuries ever. Theismann broke both his tibia and fibula, ending his career.

The hit from the side unseen is never far from a quarterback's mind.

"There is absolutely nothing worse, than getting hit from the blind side," WKU senior quarterback David Wolke said. "You just get whiplash, you don't expect it and quite frankly, you think about it in the back of your head when you drop back all the time. It's tough sitting back there and not having jitter feet, thinking you're gonna get hit from the blindside."

For all three of the Toppers' quarterbacks, Wolke, sophomore KJ Black and junior Brandon Smith, the blind side is the left side. All three are right-handed.

The first key is establishing who best to put on the left side. The left side holds the HMO while the entire offensive line holds the health care plan.

"When you think about the fact that your quarterback is kinda what makes your offense go, when it comes to, you needing to have the trigger man and him playing well and having trust in the fact that he can sit in the pocket, it's critical to him being able to do his job," coach David Elson said.

The job of manning that left side for the Toppers belongs to senior left tackle Greg Ryan and junior left guard Cody Hughes. Together, their weight room results prove the strongest linemen fortify the blind side. Hughes and Ryan collectively bench press 875 pounds.

But the difference in the right and left sides of the line is also measured outside of just strength.

"It's a pride thing," Hughes said. "You've gotta wanna beat the guy more than he wants to beat you, protecting the quarterback. If that quarterback ever got hurt due to something that I did or something the left side did, it'd probably be my job, first of all."

The toughest assignment may belong to Ryan. Whereas the interior linemen face stronger, less athletic defenders, Ryan will most often face faster, quicker defensive ends and linebackers with far more athleticism.

"It's definitely a challenge out there on the tackle," Ryan said. "You're more on an island than you are on the guard. At guard position, you expect to have help on either side on certain plays, but when you're out there at left tackle, or tackle period, you're on an island and you're pretty much by yourself, one on one."

Ryan and many of the other linemen have also had to adjust to the Toppers new spread option offense that was unveiled last season. Before that, WKU had been a predominantly run between the tackles team.

"We used to be more of a power I offense, more of a just man blocking scheme, take care of the guy in front of you, win your battle and the play will be successful," Hughes said. "Now, we're a zone scheme, so it's a lot more reading your gap, picking up who becomes your defender. There's a lot of slants and twists that go into defenses trying to stop this that it kinda makes blocking a little harder than a man scheme."

The adjustment has also had to come between two different quarterbacks, as Wolke and Black split time last season. This season already, Black started the first two games but was injured at Eastern Kentucky, forcing Wolke to play in his place.

"It's kind of little things that you know that one quarterback's gonna do and the other quarterback's not," Ryan said. "I can definitely tell that KJ feels a little more comfortable outside the pocket than Wolke would. You can definitely read the defensive linemen and you can tell whenever he's scrambling and when he's not scrambling. We know that both quarterbacks are very similar. I know that KJ will try to get the extra yards."

With the option to scramble or pass and with the advent and rage of the spread offense in college football, defenses have also had to adjust. Many teams now play a 3-4 defense, as Western does, to combat the spread, while also featuring more blitzes.

"What it's done, is it's created some, I don't wanna say it's unsound, but you used to, when you were in the I formation, you knew that this guy was gonna play this gap," offensive line coach Walter Wells said. "Then, it came down to were you better than him. The only thing that they could do was bring this guy into this gap. With the spread and the spread option, which is what we run, you get so many people trying to defend the run that sometimes they'll call a run blitz during a pass. That can really throw you off a little bit. We've had to change how you set. We do more six and five-man protections, as opposed to seven-man protections."

This season has been a little more challenging also with the shuffling among positions among the offensive line. Hughes began at center, but has since moved back to left guard, while junior Lloyd Pressley moved from center to right tackle and back to center.

The movement has given each lineman experience at different areas, for potential emergency situations.

"The positive thing is, now we've got depth," Wells said. "I go into each season saying, if we've got seven guys that I feel like I can put on there at any time and be successful with, then I'm happy. I feel like right now, healthy, going into this game, we've got seven to eight guys. If we can get it to where it's ten or 11 guys, then that's where we need to be."

For the Toppers' offensive line, it's all about cohesion. The linemen know each other's tendencies and how to bond together to form its own steel front, in spite of the shuffling along the line.

"We're together so much, that we're just a big family, a bunch of brothers," Pressley said. "It does shuffle things up a little bit when you're switching positions and guys and stuff, but right there towards the end of camp, we really started to come together and got positions set or at least the starters set. Once you get that, even if you switch a starter and positions, that's not that big of a deal."

If only Theismann had been so lucky to have this line.


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