In nearly 40 seasons of football coaching, Dennis Erickson has seen just about everything. He's been asked questions about strategy, player personnel, and officiating in the NFL and in college.
So when the Arizona State coach was recently asked why offensive line coaches are viewed as the meanest, strictest, grumpiest middle-aged men on the planet, he did not hesitate to respond.
“Because they yell a lot,” Erickson said. “Really they’re the most boisterous guys out there.”
Why is that?
The offensive line,” Erickson said, “is the hardest position in football to coach.”
For all the things in a playbook a quarterback has to know, or what openings a running back looks for during a play, or how far a receiver has to dash before breaking off a route, the success of any offense begins and ends with its offensive line.
That group – two tackles, two guards and a center – is unique in its own right. To function properly, timing and cohesiveness is a must.
“You can play next to somebody you hate and don’t want to see off the field,” said Kenny Alfred, the former Washington State University center from Gig Harbor. “But you’re playing six inches next to him, and you have to trust him.”
That is where the influence of a position coach is vital:
No member of a youth football league, or junior high program grows up wishing to become a blocker.
“(Kids) don’t grow up in the backyard getting in a football stance – in pass-setting and run-blocking. They throw the football around,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said. “(Blocking) is clearly a learned deal once you get into the game of football.”
Just as the players grow into their roles, so do the coaches who give them instruction.
Steve Morton went to WSU to play for coach Jim Sweeney. He became a two-year starter (1973-74) at center and offensive guard.
After his senior season, Morton was considering the NFL.
“Coach Sweeney sat me down, and talked about the opportunity I might have to sign a free-agent contract,” Morton said. “He told me, ‘Hey, if I knew I wasn’t going to play professionally – and that I could live with that – then I would make a heck of a coach.”
Compared to his Pacific-10 Conference counterparts coaching offensive lines, Morton has taken the common route. In his 36th year of coaching, he is at his seventh college stop.
He’s in his second stop at WSU after stints at Stanford, Washington and Southern California in the Pac-10, as well as Iowa State, Nevada and San Jose State.
“You have to grind your way through things,” Morton said.
So much about coaching offensive differs from the rest of football. No other position group worries so little about the ball.
“Rules aren’t written how to play without a ball,” Morton said.
First and foremost, offensive line coaches are in search of the ideal “grinder” – the blocker who strives to execute his responsibility perfectly - over and over and over.
“If that (offensive line) coach isn’t getting after you every single play, the chance of messing something up is a lot higher,” Alfred said. “It takes a special person to be a good offensive line coach – one with intelligence, (caring and fire) hard to find.”
UW left tackle Senio Kelemete (right ankle), who had to be carted off the field after the final play of the Huskies’ 16-13 victory over California on Saturday, has been diagnosed with a high ankle sprain. He did some speed-walking at practice Monday. He is questionable to play in the Apple Cup. If Kelemete can’t play, Erik Kohler will shift to left tackle, and Ryan Tolar willl start at left guard. Punter Kiel Rasp (back) left the game in the second half Saturday, but should be fine.