Thursday, November 8, 2012
The Aggies' pillars of protection
By Chris Low
How well will Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews, who have given the Aggies plenty of time to run their offense, fare against Alabama?
Johnny Manziel's numbers this season cause you to sit back and kind of go, “Wow!”
He’s been that explosive, and so has the entire Texas A&M offense, which is fifth nationally in total offense.
But to have the kind of success Texas A&M has had in its first season in the SEC doesn’t happen if you’re not good up front offensively.
The Aggies aren’t just good. They’re outstanding, and they’re led by the best offensive tackle tandem in college football in juniors Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews.
“They’re very, very good, and probably as a pair, as good as anybody we’ve played this year,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
It’s one of the matchups that makes Saturday’s Alabama-Texas A&M game so intriguing.
Joeckel and Matthews have the strength, size, quickness and talent to buy Manziel the kind of time that very few offensive lines have been able to buy for their quarterbacks against Alabama’s defense.
“The thing about Alabama is their depth,” said Matthews, the Aggies’ right tackle and son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews. “They just roll guys in. It’s not like the first group is the only good group. They’ve got guys coming in just as good as the guys that were on the field before.
“We feel like our tempo should help us out, trying to keep those other groups off the field and wearing them down.”
Everybody wondered back in the summer how equipped Texas A&M would be to come into the SEC and hold its own this first season. The Aggies were moving from a pro-style offense under the old regime to Kevin Sumlin’s up-tempo, spread attack, and they were also transitioning on defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3.
What was probably overlooked, though, by a lot of people was how rock-solid the Aggies were in their offensive line.
It’s not just Joeckel and Matthews, either. Senior center Patrick Lewis has been a force in the middle of that line after moving over from guard prior to the 2011 season.
“Everything starts with our center, Patrick Lewis,” Joeckel said. “He makes every call, every check. He’s the heart of our offense. He does a great job of getting us ID’d on who we need to be on. It helps having two good tackles, but it all starts with Patrick.”
Still, there’s no substitute in this league for having a pair of bookend tackles that can neutralize game-changing defensive ends and outside linebackers.
Even before the LSU game, Joeckel was considered one of the best left tackles in the country. But he didn’t give up a sack against Sam Montgomery, and his stock is soaring every time he takes the field.
The 6-foot-6, 310-pound Joeckel is plenty big enough, but he also has great balance and footwork. ESPN’s Mel Kiper said this week that Joeckel’s in the mix to be one of the first three players selected in April's NFL draft.
In his latest Big Board of the top 25 prospects for the 2013 draft, Kiper has Joeckel No. 5 and Matthews No. 21.
Obviously, both Joeckel and Matthews would have to give up their senior seasons to turn pro. But if they do, there’s a very good chance that both would be drafted in the first round.
Only once in the last 30 years have two offensive linemen from the same SEC team both been selected in the first round of the same draft. In 1991, tackles Charles McRae and Antone Davis of Tennessee went No. 7 and No. 8, respectively.
The thing that’s so impressive about Joeckel and Matthews is how versatile they’ve been. They haven’t missed a beat despite going from a pro-style offense to a spread offense this season.
“It was a lot harder than a lot of us thought it would be with the up-tempo offense and running up to the ball and getting on the ball right away,” Joeckel said. “It was different than last year, and the blocking schemes were different, a lot more pass protection and a lot more two-point stances.
“But when it comes down to it, it’s the same technique, the same blocking. You’ve still gotta be a tough guy, still gotta cover your man up. It comes down to the simple things.”
There’s nothing simple about blocking the pass-rushers in this league. You’re going against a future pro just about every week.
“You have to be on top of your game every Saturday,” Joeckel said.
The Aggies have watched enough film to know what’s coming this Saturday. The Crimson Tide will come after Manziel from every conceivable angle. They’ll disguise and jump out of one look and into another, and they’ll also probably take a page from the book Florida (in the second half) and LSU used against Manziel.
They’ll look to take away his running alleys and try to keep him in the pocket.
“The thing about Johnny is that if you give him a little extra space or give him an extra second, you know he’s going to make plays,” Joeckel said. “It’s our job to do that.”
As good as the Aggies have been this season on offense, they were held to fewer than 20 points in both of their losses. It just so happens that both of those losses came against the two best defenses they’ve faced -- Florida and LSU.
In both of those games, Texas A&M went belly-up offensively in the second half.
What’s more, Alabama hasn’t given up more than 17 points to an FBS team since the end of the 2010 season.
“The biggest thing coach Sumlin has been pushing is that if we can play a complete game, it’s going to be hard for anyone to beat us,” Matthews said. “The thing that slows us down is ourselves. If we’re getting penalties and having mental errors, that’s the biggest thing that slows our offense down.
“We have the ability and the talent to go out and beat any of these SEC teams, and we’re looking forward to proving that.”