AFM RSS Feed Follow Us on Twitter       

   User Name    Password 
      Password Help

Article Categories

AFM Magazine

AFM Magazine

It Starts in the Trenches

5 Coaches discuss the fundamentals and techniques involved in teaching the o-line
by: Richard Scott
© More from this issue

Click for Printer Friendly Version          

Juan Castillo has coached offensive linemen at the high school and Division II level. He’s also spent the past 11 years with the Philadelphia Eagles. Throughout this career, the daily principles he brings to his job have remained the same.

“To me it’s still the same – it’s all about fundamentals,” Castillo said. “When I was at Texas A&I, I was fortunate to learn a lot of my drills from NFL coaches and major college coaches, but I still break it down the way I did at the small college level. We still do fundamentals and you’ve got to keep teaching them.

“If you do a good job of coaching fundamentals your guys will be successful and they’ll know it. They’ll see it when they watch tape and see the results.”

It’s arguable that no area in sports requires more attention to fundamentals and techniques than football’s offensive line. With that in mind, American Football Monthly sought the experience and expertise of five accomplished offensive line coaches at various levels.


Whether it’s Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville) or the NFL, Castillo seeks the same qualities in his linemen.

“We really like tough guys, smart guys, guys who love to play the game and we like athletes,” Castillo said. “Sometimes it’s hard to find all three. Right now we’ve got a lot of really big guys but our big guys are still athletes. It’s OK for them to be really big if they’re still athletic.”

Castillo works on improving that athleticism by emphasizing flexibility. He had to make the most with what he had at Texas A&I, and that meant working long hours with flexibility drills, such as carrying 45-pound weight plates with knees bent and arms locked out. These days the Eagles do the same drills with sand bags.

“People tell me ‘this guy won’t bend,’ but we didn’t get all the best players at D-II and I learned that he can bend if we just work on it,” Castillo said. “He might not be as good as some other guys, but you can teach them to bend. We use the sand bags and take power steps for 10 yards. Then we’ll kick-slide for 10 yards. We use it as part of our pass-protection progression.”

Offensive linemen are often the worst athletes on the field and if they don’t block somebody live who’s equally as good as them during the week they’re not going to be very good on the weekend. It doesn’t do any good to block weaker opponents.” - Bill Kroenke

Another one of Castillo’s favorite drills is the mirror-dodge drill in which the offensive lineman has to mirror the movements of the defensive linemen. Many linemen struggle with leaning too far so this drill helps them keep their shoulders back, with head up and knees bent.

Castillo also puts extra time and effort into footwork. Instead of a long list of drills, he focuses on repetition over variety in core drills. “Whether it’s in the run game or pass protection, footwork is where it starts,” Castillo said. “To me the key is that we do it over and over and over until it’s natural. We work on a muscle memory type of thing so they can carry it over on to the field.

“I think you need to find certain drills you really believe in, and every once in awhile you can add a drill, but I don’t change around a lot because I want my guys to master the drills and get the carry over from the drills to the games.”

Castillo’s dedication to repetition is made possible by Eagles’ coach Andy Reid making time for it. “We have so many plays and we have to work all those different looks but sometimes if you’re not careful that takes away from the fundamentals,” Castillo said. “I’m very lucky that coach lets me start with my players before practice starts, working on fundamentals.”


Nall’s first priorities for an offensive linemen start with character and body control.

“He’s got to be able to take coaching,” Nall said. “The better character you recruit the more likely you are to find a kid who can handle coaching – hard-nosed coaching.

“Then, from an athletic standpoint, the No. 1 thing I look for is hip flexibility and the ability to bend at the knees and ankles. Then what kind of body control and balance he has and how all that comes together.

“When I’m watching high school film, I want to see how he moves; if he’s on the ground a lot; if he is on the ground a lot is it because of the blocking scheme? And if so, how does he get up off the ground? If he gets up in sections and he’s waist bender, you’re probably wasting your time.”

Once Nall has them in the fold, he wants their weight room work to focus on lifting drills that help flexibility and inside hand placement. Then he uses coaching basics as building blocks.

“The biggest thing is the fundamentals, starting with pad level, good footwork, keeping a good base,” Nall said. “With offensive linemen, really and truly their feet should never come together. Their feet should always be apart with the weight centered down inside the feet so they can adjust when a defensive player makes a move on them or when a defensive front makes an adjustment before the snap and they have to go from stepping with their right foot to their left.” To that order, Nall’s favorite drills start with old-school bags, boards and chutes, all in one drill.

“It’s about pad level and get-off with good footwork, hand and hat placement,” Nall said. “The boards are designed to keep the foot apart and the bags are what you shoot your hands into and follow through with your head gear after your hands into your attack point.”

For zone blocking, Nall likes 45-degree zone drills at least once a week during the season. With the players working inside a cage, the players focus on zone steps, working toward a 45-degree angle instead of moving straight off the ball.

“It’s important for a kid to be able to take a lateral step and get his second step down,” Nall said. “The biggest mistake made by offensive linemen sometimes, other than a bad first step, is a really bad second step. It causes them to lose their base and lose control of their body.”

For all of Nall’s emphasis on fundamentals and technique, he’s also big on hard-nosed players who will simply get after opposing players – even if it’s the wrong player.

“I grade my kids on three areas: I give them an assignment grade, a technique grade and a production grade,” Nall said. “I’m a little different on my productive grade because even if they go to the wrong way and block the wrong person and still get after someone they can still get a point on every play. Of course, they won’t be there very long if they keep going the wrong way, but my rule is ‘when in doubt, pick one out.’ Right or wrong, go get a hat on someone. That at least gives us a chance to be successful. There’s nothing worse than an offensive lineman standing around doing nothing.”


The Georgia Southern coaching staff looks for linemen with “mental and physical toughness” to provide the foundation for the Eagles’ run-oriented offense.

“We’re looking for guys who will lay it on the line every time they go out there,” Davis said.

Those players don’t have to be 6-foot-6, 320 pounds. Instead, they need to be quick and agile enough to pull and get outside. To that end Georgia Southern has had success recruiting tight ends and turning them into linemen.

“He might be a step too slow to play tight end in college,” Davis said, “but as long as he can veer, get an outside release and get out to the next level, he can do what we need him to.”

Davis starts with one-step footwork drills in the shoot. The Eagles work in an open chute that allows all five linemen to work together at one time. If a linemen’s second step falls outside the chute, the coaches know it’s too long and hurts a lineman’s ability to sprint off the ball.

“That second step is an important point of emphasis in every drill we do,” Davis said.

The Eagles also place consider emphasis on hip fundamentals.

“We’re trying to get them to roll their hips, to transfer their hips from one position to another but still keeping them square,” Davis said. “We’re always trying to get them to keep their shoulders and hips square because that technique is used in all of our blocks, whether they’re basing, veering or scooping.”

One of the prime drills for teaching the hip roll uses the sled, where the Eagles take two steps into the pad, with an emphasis on rolling the hips underneath the body and extending the hands. From there, Davis builds by working on the hands, followed by the punch.

“We work from the ground up,” Davis said.


Linemen have played an important role in Pittsburg State’s offensive success in recent years. To make that happen the coaches look for a package of attributes from their linemen.

“Toughness has to be an important part of it,” Kroenke said. “Foot quickness is part of it. Speed isn’t really a factor. We’re also looking for the ability to learn quickly and change during the game.

“We’re not a size team and height makes little difference to us. If you’re above 250 of if we think you can get to 270, 275 you’re big enough to play offensive line for us. We’ve had players who were great offensive linemen who were 5-10.”

The rest, Kroenke said, is teachable, from footwork to punching. Kroenke likes using chutes and sleds and he’s big on physical contact between the first-team offensive line against the first-team defensive line.

“We go good on good, live on live,” Kroenke said. “We do our techniques live. Offensive linemen are often the worst athletes on the field and if they don’t block somebody live who’s equally as good as them during the week they’re not going to be very good on the weekend. It doesn’t do any good to block weaker opponents.”

When he’s got his linemen to himself, Kroenke emphasizes basic footwork and hand placement drills. “We want to work on where we want them to step, which foot we want them to use,” Kroenke said. “We always work on the first two steps of where we’re going.”

Those footwork drills work hand-in-hand with assignment drills as Kroenke places defensive linemen in specific situations, such as gaps, slanting in, slanting out and combo blocks. “We do that about 10 minutes a day, plus chutes for about five minutes, sled for about five minutes,” Kroenke said.

Kroenke has heard arguments against sleds because they don’t react like live players, but he believes the sleds are still valuable.

“I agree that you aren’t going to be hitting a stationary target in a game,” he said, “but for two steps, if I know the snap count and he doesn’t and I’m doing my footwork properly, I should hit the defensive player like I hit the sled initially. That’s the only way I can guarantee pressure for as long as what we’re looking for. We’ll push that sled for five or six seconds to develop toughness – mental toughness.”


High school coaches have to take what they can get so finding and developing linemen is even more important.

“We want quick feet, aggressiveness, kids who want to hit, who can run and do it on the move,” Lankford said. “They don’t have to be huge. At Lowndes High School we’re going to get what the defense doesn’t get. We get second choice, so I’ve got a guard this year who’s only 208 pounds but he runs a 4.7, 4.8 40, benches 300 pounds. We don’t require him to block ‘on’ a whole lot but he can pull on defensive backs so it works out real well for us.”

None of Lankford’s centers or guards weigh more than 220 pounds but they have quick feet and the ability to run, necessities in Lowndes’ wing-T offense. The tackles can afford to be bigger and beefier because they block straight on most of the time.

“We want the line to move first,” Lankford said.

To prepare linemen for the wing-T, Lankford starts with a 1-step birddog drill in which the players take one step and freeze in position. From there, the birddog drill progresses to three, five and seven steps to complete the block.

For pulling drills, the Lowndes linemen “crank the lawnmower” to move their arm back with force and get the body moving to the play side. The Vikings also use a lot of reach-step drills to work on their first step getting out on the speed sweep.

The Vikings spend most of their time pulling and trapping but they still work on power steps and “on” blocking. For a dose of good ol’ toughness, Lankford uses board drills.

“It has nothing to do with wing-t football but it has a great deal to do with mental toughness,” Lankford said. “It’s just seeing if a kid can stick his face in there, shoot his hands and run his feet. We have a rule: if you lose, you go again. You might be out there five times, 10 times, 15 times but you’re not getting off that board until you win. It helps us build depth with our kids because our younger kids have to go against our older kids.”


AFM Videos Streaming Memberships Now Available Digital Download - 304 Pages of Football Forms for the Winning Coach


Copyright 2023,
All Rights Reserved