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October 18, 2013
Gameday: The evolution of the offensive lineman
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a 2004 study, determined that in a 40-year period starting in the 1960s the average size of men and women in the U.S. increased by approximately 1 inch and 24 pounds. Nobel Prize winner Robert Fogel and his colleagues spent some three decades researching body size and determined that the average height of native-born American men rose four inches between 1890 and 1980. Joe Pendry spent more than three decades coaching offensive linemen. His observations confirm what the scientists suspected.
"I was in it as they increased and saw them getting bigger and bigger," said Pendry, who coached at Alabama from 2007-10 after 19 years in the National Football League with collegiate stops before that at West Virginia, Kansas State, Pittsburgh and Michigan. "If we had anybody that was 240 when I was playing (in the late 1960s), that was big. Back in those days, a 250-pounder was really big. It's changed quite a bit.
"The evolution and the change that has happened, I think all of society has grown larger."
The offensive line projected to start Saturday for the Crimson Tide against Arkansas averages out at better than 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds. That's a full 3 inches and 88 pounds larger, on average, than Alabama's starting offensive line 40 years ago. Human beings have evolved in height and weight, but offensive linemen have grown at a faster pace than others. A study headed by J.B. Yamamoto of the University of Hawaii's John A. Burns School of Medicine examined trends in body size in college athletes, using data from NCAA Division I football, basketball, baseball and tennis programs from 1950 to 2008, with a sample size that included 17,500 football players and thousands of other athletes.
The researchers concluded that "increases in height, weight and body mass index were seen for all sports at most positions, but the greatest increases were observed in football offensive and defensive linemen."
Steve Spurrier won the Heisman Trophy at Florida in 1966. The South Carolina team he now coaches fields much bigger linemen than he played with in his day.
"I don't think I ever played with a 300-pounder," Spurrier said. "The human race is getting bigger, I think. People are getting taller, getting stronger and faster, that's for sure."
A changing game
The size of offensive linemen began to change when the rules changed. In the 1970s, college football rules were altered to allow linemen to use their hands - what Alabama's late, legendary coach, Paul. W. "Bear" Bryant called "legalized holding." Previously, linemen had to keep their hands in toward the middle of their jerseys, with their elbows extended, when blocking.
"A lot of people went from man blocking where you blocked one guy to gap blocking like with the veer offense, the wishbone offense," Pendry said. "They went more to a zone with bigger-bodied guys, where you block this guy if he's here and if he's not there the next guy would get him."
The influence of the NFL, which used larger linemen to protect quarterbacks, was a also a factor. Pendry was with the Cleveland Browns of the NFL in the mid-1980s when the team had a left tackle who was 6-5 and 275 pounds.
"Probably 10 years later they were all getting up to around 300 pounds," Pendry said. "Defensive linemen got bigger, so the offensive linemen were trying to get bigger. The bigger you are the more area you take up, which means guys have to run around you if they can't run over you. When you can get your hands out, you just increase that area for the quarterback (to stay protected) and keep that guy away from him. If he does beat you, he's got further to go."
Jackie Sherrill, who played at Alabama in the mid-1960s, began recruiting larger linemen earlier than many of his contemporaries.
"I remember going to a clinic and listening to (late Southern Cal coach) John McKay talk," Sherrill said. "In his conversation he said if offensive linemen were not 6-4, he did not recruit them. I kind of had that in the back of my mind and kept that philosophy, and when I became a head coach I sort of used that as a cutoff."
At Pittsburgh from 1977-81, Sherrill recruited linemen like Russ Grimm - who went on to become one of the Washington Redskins' famous "Hogs" - and other future NFL players like Bill Fralic and Mark May. Sherrill continued to recruit bigger linemen at Texas A&M and at Mississippi State.
The idea behind using such massive brutes as blockers was basic.
"Just the pounding," Sherrill said. "If they've got good footwork, it's hard to knock them off the ball. Plus in pass protection it's very hard to bull-rush them. The only way you're going to beat them is if you can get around them because you're not going to go through them."
Alabama coach Nick Saban embraces that approach.
"I think that there's always been big guys play football," Saban said. "In recent times, guys get bigger and bigger and bigger it seems, and offensive line is certainly a part of the team where size, physical prowess, being a mauler type guy that's really big and has a lot of strength and power can be effective, especially in certain types of blocking.
"We have some big guys around here, but you've got to have the athleticism to move and play their position."
More nimble monsters
There was a time when larger-framed athletes were often slower and more ponderous. That doesn't seem to be the case anymore. Today's big men are more athletic than ever.
"I'd say guys now are just as quick as we were (in the 1960s), they're just bigger now," Pendry said. "There was a lot of quickness back then but we weren't as big.
"I think it's the product of all the work that goes into it on every level. Now they work so hard at change-of-direction drills, balance drills. Everybody wants the big guy who can bend his knees and move his feet and create quick, explosive movements. That's what guys are working at all the time."
Sherrill notes that coaching begins earlier, so linemen are taught better footwork before they begin to grow into their bodies.
"In the state of Texas, any program that is really an outstanding program all the varsity football coaches coach the freshmen early in the afternoon, then they coach the junior varsity and then they coach the varsity," Sherrill said. "So here's a ninth-grader being coached by the high school staff even though he's playing junior high football."
Nutrition and weight training
Not only is society producing taller people, those who become athletes have more access to weight training and nutrition programs geared to make their bodies bigger and stronger. If big-bellied linemen were the norm among 300-pounders in the past, more and more are beginning to resemble Alabama's left tackle, Cyrus Kouandjio, who stands 6-6 and weighs a lean and muscular 315 pounds.
"It's nutrition, strength and weight conditioning," Pendry said. "There's more emphasis on every level in high school and college on size, mass and bulk.
"Your offensive linemen are usually not as athletic as your defensive linemen, so they wanted size and bulk and to have a guy who is able to use his hands, bend his knees and move his feet a little bit."
In general, the linemen get shorter toward the middle - the center and guard positions - and taller and leaner on the outside in the tackle positions.
"(As a guard or center) you're not out in space as much as you are as an offensive tackle," Pendry said. "The arm length is not as big a factor, the wingspan, as it is at tackle.
"The closer to the ball the guy you're blocking is, the quicker you have to get on him. So you want the power, the mass and the quick explosiveness."
Sherrill realized that he could recruit taller players and increase their bulk. "I always had a philosophy that you can always put weight on somebody," he said, "but you can't stretch them."
Darwin's theory of evolution has been trumped by modern nutrition in what the Nobel winner Fogel termed the "technophysio evolution." Fogel's study determined that the human race is now growing faster than the pace of natural evolution due to advancements in nutrition and public health.
"We argue that over the past 300 years human physiology has been undergoing profound environmentally induced changes made possible by numerous advances in technology," Fogel wrote in summary of his research findings. "These changes, which we call technophysio evolution, increased body size by over 50 percent, and greatly improved the robustness and capacity of vital organ systems."
John Higginbotham, associate dean for research and health policy at UA and director of the Institute for Rural Health Research, is familiar with the research. "From 1990 through 2010, the United States as a whole just saw dramatic increases," he said. "What we've seen since 1990 is that we've had a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States, the getting bigger stuff."
The research, Higginbotham notes, does not differentiate between athletes who get bigger by training and those who grow larger by sloth and overeating.
"We don't separate obesity from the really big, muscular guys to the old men like me who sit on the couch," he said. "It looks at them the same, but it's different for someone who can bench press 300 pounds versus someone who doesn't do anything." The growth explosion, Higginbotham realizes, is beneficial to football.
"Football is one of those sports that we have looked for the biggest kids to play," he said, "particularly the line positions. Those biggest kids have usually been the biggest ones in their schools and those are getting bigger and bigger over the years, but we're also seeing some really big guys who are very athletic and very quick, tremendously in shape.
"The problem comes when they are no longer active and all that working out stops." Higginbotham has been teaching at UA for 14 years. He earned his undergraduate degree from Alabama in 1984, and he has seen the surge in size of football players first-hand. "I grew up here in Alabama and I bleed crimson and white," he said. "I thought they were big then, but it is just dramatic the difference that I see now watching them come across campus."
How big can they get?
Will we some day see linemen who are 7 feet tall and 400 pounds? Or even bigger? No one is sure, but the trend suggests it could happen.
"I think it will be a while," Sherrill said. "That 6-4 or 6-5, 300-pounds is kind of the norm right now, but there's no question that everybody, because of the genetics and the nutrition plus the weight programs, is getting bigger."
Said Pendry, "I don't know if it will go that far, but there are some huge guys playing now."
Higginbotham wonders if there is a ceiling, not so much on growth potential but on athletic effectiveness.
"In all sports it seems like we continue pushing the envelope," he said. "I don't know where it will end, but it seems to be reasonable that there might be a time where there are diminishing returns. We haven't seen that yet, but it may be that there is." Saban only knows one thing for sure: "I think there will be more and more big guys. There seems to be all the time."
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.
Here is a look at how the University of Alabama's offensive line has grown over the past 40 years: