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What can we learn from TCU’s offensive line struggles?

TCU’s offensive line is in disarray, but its construction is revealing a larger issue.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Texas Christian Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

After TCU’s 21-14 loss to Kansas State, offensive tackle Austin Myers was one of the players made available to the media. Several times throughout our time together, Myers mentioned that the offensive line was not playing as a unit, and that they needed to “go back to the drawing board.”

It’s an honest and obvious statement from a guy who has been on the receiving end of criticism from fans over the first three weeks of the 2020 season. To his credit, Myers took the podium after a loss and spoke truthfully about where the offensive line was. It’s not easy to sit there and get peppered with questions, even after a win, but to do so right after a loss, knowing that your unit struggled, that’s something else altogether.

Myers was clearly frustrated, noting that Duggan was getting hit too much. Gary Patterson said something similar in his postgame availability, when he said that Max “is taking his biggest hits when he’s dropping back in the pocket.”

It feels really strange that Patterson rolled Myers out there after the game, one in which the line struggled and two of Myers’ colleagues on the line were injured. The offensive line has taken a beating this year, and rolling a lineman out almost seemed cruel.

Of course, last season after a particularly bad game from the offense Patterson rolled Sonny Cumbie out to answer questions from the media. That was a paid coach, though, not a student-athlete. Making position coaches available to media is virtually unprecedented at TCU under Patterson, though, so rolling Myers out instead of Jarrett Anderson ultimately created fewer waves.

But herein lies the struggle for TCU fans when it comes to the offensive line. Who is more responsible for the issues we’ve seen through three games this year? Talent, or coaching?

We can talk about recruiting rankings and the job this coaching staff has done bringing in talent over the years, but realistically that’s less relevant to this particular conversation. Once the season begins you have what you have, talent-wise. And TCU is not devoid of talent on the line.

Junior Wes Harris, TCU’s starting left guard, has a 79.2 grade from PFF when it comes to pass blocking. That’s better than every other lineman save Brandon Coleman, who in his reserve role (93 snaps at right tackle, 61 snaps in pass protection) has posted an 82.2.

Coy McMillon, the team’s backup center (although he might start now, due to an injury to Esteban Avila), has the third highest pass blocking grade from PFF.

Despite having issues in pass protection, Austin Myers has been one of TCU’s best run-blockers so far this season according to PFF, and he looked much more comfortable at left tackle in place of an injured Andrew Coker on Saturday, while Brandon Coleman moved to right tackle and played relatively well.

But something needs to be noted about all of this, outside of Coy McMillon, here are TCU’s five best run-blocking linemen according to PFF: Esteban Avila, Wes Harris, Austin Myers, Andrew Coker, and Quazzel White. Coincidentally, those are TCU’s five starting offensive linemen.

Meanwhile, here are the five best pass blocking linemen for TCU, per PFF: Wes Harris, Brandon Coleman, Coy McMillan, Esteban Avila, and Quazzel White. One tackle appears on this list, and he’s played the third-most snaps at tackle this season.

TJ Storment, a grad transfer tackle from Colorado State, has only played two snaps all season. His pass blocking grade as Colorado State’s left tackle last year (80.2) indicates that he’s very good in pass protection, but he graded at 55.6 in run blocking last year with the Rams. That run blocking grade is significantly lower than Myers’ and Coker’s grades this season.

I am not under the impression that this is a coincidence. Here are a few other things to note.

  1. This offensive line is relatively new at working together, and they’ve had some pieces continue to move around in the first three weeks. Run blocking comes before pass protection for a line, if for no other reason than run blocking is slightly more straight-forward. So, we can hope that they get better as a unit - as Myers suggested on Saturday evening - over the course of the season.
  2. Jarrett Anderson is the offensive line coach again for the first time since 2016, a season during which TCU allowed 31 sacks on Kenny Hill, an incredibly mobile quarterback. This year TCU quarterbacks have already been sacked 10 times (feels like more), which is on pace for 30 in a shortened season. Chris Thomsen’s offensive lines (from 2017-19) allowed more than 18 sacks just once.
  3. Gary Patterson and Jerry Kill are both run-first guys. They love to run the football, and as traditionalists they want to wear you down, burn a ton of clock, and keep the opposing offense off the field. Meanwhile, Meacham and Cumbie are air raid disciples, where motion and expansive route trees and a gunslinger QB can just outscore anything an opponent could hope to do (oversimplified description, I know). This is a significant philosophical difference between the head coach(es) and the offensive coordinators.

So there are a few things at play. TCU’s offensive line clearly has not gelled yet. We can hold out hope that they will start to get it together, but things like Myers’ “back to the drawing board” comments seem ominous.

The issue is compounded when you consider that the current offensive line coach has been bounced around ever since losing the co-offensive coordinator portion of his title in 2014. At some point you have to ask yourself why a coach isn’t sticking at a position or advancing in his career - especially when that is coupled by a decrease in that position unit’s performance relative to his predecessor.

Jarrett Anderson’s most recent time as receivers coach saw dropped passes, bad route running, and no separation outside of Jalen Reagor and Taye Barber. We can call that a talent-related issue, but you don’t have to be the fastest guy on the field to get away from a defensive back.

It’s probably past time for Anderson to be off TCU’s coaching staff, but he’s still here, and right now his unit is in disarray.

Couple these issues with a significant philosophical difference, and the construction of the line itself starts to come into question. Is this team more focused on the running game, or the passing game? As it has been constructed over the first three games, it seems like TCU wants to be a run-first offense. With a stable of backs that can be tempting, but is TCU really going to throw away a talent like Max Duggan to run it 40 times a game?

It doesn’t seem like that’s the case from a play calling standpoint. Yes, TCU runs it too much on first down (57.8% of the time), but Duggan has attempted at least 30 passes in his two full games, and 50 of TCU’s 78 offensive plays against Kanas State were passing plays.

In short, it’s a mess.

TCU has an offensive line that is seemingly built to run, while some of the better pass protectors are on the sidelines, and a senior leader saying they need to go back to the drawing board. The drawing board is controlled by a guy who has widely, and fairly, received criticism for the performance of his position units for more than a decade. All the while it doesn’t seem like any of his four bosses can get together about what the offense is supposed to be in the first place.

Hopefully things will improve, but there are only six games left in the season and that’s a ton for this team to figure out.