- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Oregon's offensive linemen are sick of it. They won't be objectified anymore. They want the world to know they are more than just a bunch of big, nameless, sexy guys.
But they want to be taken seriously as football players. So there was no beefcake calendar this year.
"Believe it or not, we have a pretty big following," center Jordan Holmes said. "They were very disappointed."
Oh, Jordan, we believe it.
But there is a larger issue here: When folks talk about the high-powered Oregon offense, they start with coach Chip Kelly and tempo and the spread-option, then move on to LaMichael James and Darron Thomas. Someone chirps in about underrated receivers, such as Jeff Maehl. "Underrated!" someone invariably counters. "That's tight end David Paulson's middle name!" Then someone says that's an unusual middle name. And another pipes in that they thought his middle name was "Joshua."
You get the point. They rarely talk about the offensive line. Heck, only dedicated Ducks fans know any of their names: Holmes, tackles Bo Thran and Mark Asper and guards Carson York and C.E. Kaiser. Ask Kelly to name his line's standouts and he doesn't -- and not because Kelly gets a kick out of not telling reporters what they want to hear.
"I don't know if there is [a standout]. I think they're all really good," said Kelly, whose top-ranked Ducks visit California on Saturday. "It's not like we have one dominant offensive lineman and then four other guys. I think we've got five pretty good guys -- actually six, actually seven or eight pretty good guys. ... I don't know if there's a standout. And to be honest, maybe that's a good thing."
Seven different guys have started games. And you can't argue with the results. The Ducks rank fifth in the nation in rushing (305.4 yards per game) and have given up just five sacks, which is tied for ninth in the nation.
So why doesn't Oregon get mentioned when folks talk about dominant offensive lines?
"They do a phenomenal job there of turning players into system-fit guys," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "I don't think you have first-round picks on their line, guys the NFL is jumping all over. They played really, really fast in the system."
Then Kiffin adds a bit of a zinger: "Obviously, it doesn't help very much for the next level, because there's no carryover in what they do."
Hmm. That's debatable. The Ducks are masters of zone blocking, which is popular in the NFL. And three Ducks linemen -- Geoff Schwartz (seventh round), Max Unger (second round) and Fenuki Tupou (fifth round) -- were picked in the 2007 and 2008 drafts. And all five 2009 starters returned this year, so none were eligible this past spring.
What do Oregon linemen do that's so different? Kelly insists that blocking is blocking, and his line coach, Steve Greatwood, is considered one of the top teachers in the nation.
Still, there is some "new school" at work here (though zone blocking isn't terribly new). The Ducks' line doesn't try to knock you back so much as stretch you out and create spaces for playmakers, such as James. It's not about driving; it's about sticking. There isn't a designated "hole," which sometimes takes some getting used to for young linemen.
"There are so many options -- I don't know what else goes on behind my back," Holmes said. "Sometimes it's frustrating not knowing where the ball's going. But as long as we're moving the ball downfield, we're OK with it."
But the real difference is tempo. The Ducks want to play as fast as possible, and plays can't start until Holmes has a spotted ball and can set the line. Suffice it to say, he gets to know the referee better than any other player on the field.
"There are a lot of officials who like to stand over the ball and wait for their buddy officials to get set up before they'll actually spot the ball," Holmes said. "They'll say, 'Don't snap the ball until I'm out of the box.' But we really never listen to them. As soon as he puts it down, we're trying to snap it."
While zone blocking isn't as aggressive as drive blocking, it's hardly patty-cake. When you watch the Ducks' line work, you see plenty of defenders on the ground. There's plenty of mauling going on, particularly at the second level. And physical play at a fast pace wears a defensive front seven down. Even a layman can sense a defense's will getting broken. Just pay close attention late in the third quarter.
"It's usually in the middle of a drive," Holmes said. "You can read body language. They're having a tough time getting their calls in. They kind of start to snap at each other. When that happens, you know they are not feeling too good. Then it's time to attack."
Yes, Holmes admits he and his linemates get tired. They are big dudes running around, after all. But he also noted they usually score a touchdown before exhaustion sets in, so they can go to the bench and relax with a cup of juice and an orange slice.
Their work has earned notice. While James and Thomas are like Brad Pitt and George Clooney starring in the blockbuster that is the Ducks' offense, the line is like William H. Macy, Forest Whitaker and Harry Dean Stanton, playing supporting roles that earn acclaim from educated eyes.
"I think that line is under-appreciated because of the numbers being run up by the individuals involved -- the quarterback's numbers, LaMichael James' numbers -- everybody's got a place to point their attention," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "But I think that line does a pretty remarkable job in handling everything at the tempo. And as well with as many schemes as they run."
But who should earn, say, All-Pac-10 honors?
"They all stand out," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "They are technicians who are able to move in space."
So, please, don't only see the Ducks' linemen as mere zone-blockers playing in a system. Or even as eye candy in alluring poses. See them as technicians. Men who move in space.
But, just FYI: Word is there will be a new Ducks linemen calendar this spring.