The spread offense really brings football back to its fundamentals. The offense requires defenses to tackle in space, forces people to be in shape, and stresses thinking quickly while winning one-on-one matchups. For most of Oregon's opponents the skill positions are overwhelming. When elite teams are met, the fundamentals and execution on both the offensive and defensive line are exposed.
Today, the most valuable players in the sport other than quarterback are the people on both lines. The speed that the SEC talks endlessly about isn't at the skill positions alone. Speed is on the offensive and defensive lines. Players that weigh more than 300 pounds but can still run to catch up with scrambling quarterbacks and running backs cutting back are the difference makers. Lines that can block interior running plays and pull to the outside to pin linebackers and create a seal are the most dynamic and powerful players in the sport.
Oregon has long preferred "bullets over bowling balls." Fans have rationalized the use of offensive linemen that don't reach 300 pounds by saying that their speed makes up for it. However, in games against top talent, it is clear that linemen need superior speed and strength. To beat 120 of the 125 teams in college football Oregon is totally fine. But to beat those last five or so teams requires Oregon to play on the lines in a way that they haven't.
This offseason adding functional size was one of the main goals of the strength and conditioning program. Players came into fall camp heavir, and notably bigger, while still maintaining their athleticism. Contrary to popular belief, adding size doesn't mean that someone slows down. (Insert fat LMJ meme here) The weight added by everyone in the program will be seen in speed, strength, acceleration, and in trucking abilities.
Players like freshman Austin Maloata could be leading the way in a new age of Oregon linemen: buffet busters who can get in the backfield and plow over defenders in the second level. It's not very often you see a player who weighs 313 pounds as a freshman and is praised for having a "high motor" out of high school.
With Armstead, Buckner, Washington, and Balducci on the defensive front Maloata can have an impact. Already making waves on the practice reports provided by goducks.com, Maloata is hopefully a greater symbol of elite athleticism and size on the line.
Hroniss Grasu leads a group of offensive linemen who are being heralded as one of the best units in the country. Will they have the strength and push to create running lanes between the tackles on the same level as the running lanes on the edges they create using their speed?
For the majority of the games the play of Mariota, the running backs, and the secondary will be enough to decide the game. But in the games that matter the most, against elite teams, the play of the line will be the make or break aspect of the game. If the lines take care of business then the skill players can roam free and make plays. The better the line play, the easier it is on everyone else. When the line dominates the athleticism and strategy used by the skill players can pull the team away for a win. If the lines don't play well then nothing else really matters.
The players that we've listed on the offensive and defensive lines are so close to making the jump. The emphasis in the off-season seems to have addressed the issues that needed the most attention. As much praise as the skill players get the linemen are really the thankless players that make the biggest difference.