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Observations and Questions: Investigating offensive line mysteries

Did the coaches make the right decisions dealing with injuries, and what’s up with Warmack?

NCAA Football: Oregon Spring Practice Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Each piece in this offseason series, which I’ll publish at the end of each month until it’s time to start the Auburn previews, will examine one big question about the 2018 Oregon football team. I’ve collated all my tally sheets over 2018 plus the bowl game; however, in addition to excluding garbage time as usual, I’ve also decided to ignore the Civil War and the three opening non-conference games. This eliminates three of the seven worst teams in FBS (and, according to Sagarin, an even worse FCS team), and leaves the average S&P+ ranking of the remaining opponents at a healthy #45.2 out of 130. In other words, I’m only considering the meaningful snaps in the nine competitive games.

The subject of this article will be sorting out if the Oregon coaching staff made the right calls in its offensive line substitutions after the midseason injuries to two of the team’s starters.

The Numbers

First, let’s look at the cumulative numbers for each lineman, regardless of the position or point in time that he played. Getting beat for an offensive lineman is somewhat subjective, but I’ve been doing this with the same methodology for over a decade now and I can at least say I’m using consistent criteria. There’s no meaningful change in any of the linemen’s effectiveness percentages when breaking down run vs pass plays, play design, or duration of their block, so I’ll just give their totals.

2018 Oregon OL success rates, cumulative

Player Beat Snaps Percent
Player Beat Snaps Percent
#58 LT Sewell 7 225 3.11%
#68 LG Lemieux 29 568 5.11%
#54 OL Throckmorton 49 569 8.61%
#54 C Hanson 49 531 9.23%
#54 RG Warmack 32 330 9.70%
#71 RG Capra 13 130 10.00%
#66 RT Aiello 40 388 10.31%
#74 LT Jones 16 101 15.84%

The five starters, overall, had a pretty good year. #58 LT Sewell and #68 LG Lemieux played at a national-championship level - the only other teams I’ve observed that came in under a 6% error rate were Florida St and Ohio St, both in 2014. Meanwhile, #55 C Hanson, #75 RG Warmack, and #54 OL Throckmorton each came in under 10% overall, which is about conference-championship level - comparable teams include Kansas St in 2012 and Michigan St in 2013. It should also be clear that the backups -- #71 RG Capra and #66 RT Aiello -- were backups for a reason, and #74 LT Jones, while a promising player for the future, wasn’t ready for prime time yet.

Two starters, Sewell and Warmack, were taken off the field with injuries in the week 7 game against the Huskies. Sewell didn’t return until the bowl game. Warmack returned for the next game and about half of the one after that when he was again taken off the field with injury, and he then spent the rest of the season rotating in and out of the lineup in what appeared to be a planned manner. For reference and posterity, here is a link to a complete description of all o-line rotations. The summary is that Throckmorton moved over to LT for most of the rest of the year, except for a two-game experiment with the true-freshman Jones at LT for about half the drives, during which time Throckmorton would play RG or center. Aiello filled in at RT for almost the entirety of the second half of the season, and Capra and Warmack rotated at RG when it wasn’t Throckmorton.

The result is that we have about 100+ snaps, enough to meaningfully evaluate performance, on Warmack both before and after his injury, and Throckmorton at three of the four positions he played (I only recorded 38 snaps of him at center, few enough that only one or two plays going differently would dramatically change his percentage, so I’m leaving it off the chart). Interestingly, after breaking down Warmack’s numbers for every period he retook the field, it wasn’t his week 7 injury that caused his numbers to dip, but rather his week 9 injury at the start of the second quarter against the Wildcats that appears to have caused the dramatic plunge, so that’s what I used as the watershed.

2018 Oregon OL success rates, breakdown

Player Pos/Time Beat Snaps Percent
Player Pos/Time Beat Snaps Percent
#58 LT Sewell 7 225 3.11%
#68 LG Lemieux 29 568 5.11%
#54 RT Throckmorton RT only 10 181 5.52%
#75 RG Warmack Before AZ injury 13 223 5.83%
#54 LT Throckmorton LT only 22 241 9.13%
#54 C Hanson 49 531 9.23%
#71 RG Capra 13 130 10.00%
#66 RT Aiello 40 388 10.31%
#54 RG Throckmorton RG only 14 109 12.84%
#74 LT Jones 16 101 15.84%
#75 RG Warmack After AZ injury 16 92 17.39%

A few observations: first, these numbers back up my observations from the 2017 team and what I’d been saying all of the 2018 season: Throckmorton is a top-notch RT, but contrary to the coaching staff’s statements about his versatility, he’s only backup-caliber at every other position. Second, prior to that injury in Tucson, Warmack was also playing at top level, but afterwards he becomes the worst lineman on the team on a per-play basis. Third, Hanson doesn’t have either of these excuses -- when they’re all healthy he’s the weakest link on this line -- but he still performs better than the backups or Throck at RG, and comparable to Throck at LT.

Now let’s go into greater detail about each positional decision on the line.

Left Tackle

In Oregon’s nine competitive games I collated for this series, about 60% of their offensive snaps were played without their starting left tackle (which is the first thing I point to when people complain about the Ducks’ performance). The coaches’ first instinct, and the one they stuck with for about 70% of those plays without Sewell, was to move Throckmorton over from RT to LT. His numbers there are a noticeable dropoff from when he’s on the right, but it’s hardly catastrophic. The only alternative for LT among the veteran backups would have been Aiello, but a) they never used him there in 2018 so I have no numbers to say how that would have gone, and b) based on his 2017 performance when he was spelling Tyrell Crosby at LT, Aiello would probably have done worse than Throck did on the left.

In two games, week 10 vs UCLA and week 11 at Utah, Oregon experimented with Jones at LT. He rotated in and out the first game -- playing only 8 of 12 drives with Throck at LT for the rest -- but he started and played the entire game against Utah until he was injured at the end of the 10th drive and didn’t see the field afterwards. Jones has remarkable physical gifts and played decently given the circumstances; here’s a video from my film review of the UCLA game, I especially like his play on the second clip at :06 -

His injury forced the coaches’ hand, but as his numbers make clear the experiment didn’t really work out - Jones’ error rate (and I can say this was almost never from getting physically overwhelmed, but rather mistakes in technique) was simply too high and would have swamped any benefit from re-inserting Throckmorton at RT instead of a backup. That said, I don’t blame the coaches for trying this, for three reasons: first, this is the kind of thing you can’t know until you actually put a player into a game situation, and to their credit they stuck with him long enough to get useful data; second, while his performance was dramatically worse than Sewell’s, it wasn’t nearly that bad compared to Throck’s, so the actual marginal harm from his play was not that big; and third, his upside is enormous and had he worked out this would have been brilliant, so all things considered it was worth the risk.

Right Tackle

Moving Throckmorton to a different position opened up his spot, and for the entire remainder of 2018 (except for a couple of drives in the bowl when Throck finally got to play RT again), the coaches stuck with Aiello at the position. His numbers show a good but not great performance. The video above shows him playing well on all three snaps; however, here’s a video from my Arizona-game review showing some of his physical limitations -

As I said above, considering his 2017 performance I think Aiello at RT and Throck at LT was the correct decision compared to the reverse, and I generally think that sticking with the same guy is the right move at offensive line, so I applaud the coaches for this call for the most part.

However, during the Jones experiment they didn’t put Throck back at RT to maximize his value; instead they stuck with Aiello there and put Throck at right guard, where his numbers are pretty underwhelming, even when they had competent backup Capra available for RG. Furthermore, it was clear from his 2017 tape (and from just looking at him) that Throckmorton is not built like a guard, he’s naturally a tackle. This erased any possible benefit bringing Jones in at LT could have brought, further complicated the RG situation we’re about to examine, and since it was clear what Throck’s performance at RG would be like from the information they had at the time they made this decision, constitutes, in my opinion, a pretty serious unforced error by the coaches.

To put it another way, during most of the Utah game -- a one-score loss -- Oregon’s lineup was:

  • 1st half: Jones - Lemieux - Throck - Warmack (injured) - Aiello
  • 2nd half: Jones - Lemieux - Hanson - Throckmorton - Aiello

Reader, please refer back to the second chart in this article; you will see these are the two worst possible combinations that the Ducks could have fielded.

Right Guard

For this article, I set out to determine what exactly Warmack’s injury actually was. The only information released to the media was “shoulder problems” and didn’t even make clear which shoulder was the issue. Here are broadcast clips from the four plays after which he was taken off the field (these are obviously not very fun to watch; however, in a lifetime of seeing unfortunate football injuries, I would say these are relatively mild and not particularly gruesome, and I wouldn’t have included them if I thought they would turn any stomachs). First the two plays in week 7 -

And here are the two in week 9 -

It’s been quite some time since I last sat in an anatomy classroom, but these look like four left shoulder dislocations to me. Everything I’ve read about this type of injury fits with the pattern we saw during the year: that it’s not a grievous injury and the arm can be “popped” back in with a full range of motion in a short period of time, however the joint can become unstable and future dislocations become more likely - this makes sense of the coaches rotating him in and out of games, if they thought he could play well for a while but didn’t want him in too long and risking it popping out again.

If that theory is correct, then I’d need to retract one thing I’ve been writing during the 2018 season, which is that I wish the coaches would have rested Warmack until he got back to 100% health. If he’s got a “trick” shoulder prone to dislocation, there’s no such thing. Instead, if he could play at his pre-injury level for a drive or two, take a drive or two off, then get back in at pre-injury level again, that might have been the best way to approach it - you’d get an A-minus average by alternating an A-plus and a B-plus, likely an improvement on playing just Capra alone.

But the fact of the matter is that they weren’t getting A-plus play from Warmack after that first Arizona injury, they were getting performance well below what Capra was averaging. There are a number of plausible explanations for why that might be -- getting out of rhythm, fear of playing as hard, a reduced pain threshold -- but the reason doesn’t really matter when the results are this clear, and there’s no point in speculating.

Combining a sub-par post-injury Warmack with Throckmorton taking the RG spot at times (instead of the RT spot for which he’s clearly more suited) left Capra in a pretty bad spot. His level of play was a big improvement over his 2017 tape, but the coaches didn’t reward that with trust, playing time, and the chance to develop consistency. I wasn’t surprised when he announced his transfer out of the program last month. All of Capra’s statements on social media have been commendably positive, but if it were the case that he privately felt disrespected and that motivated his move, I wouldn’t blame him at all.

2019 Outlook

Despite returning all five starters from the offensive line, I think Oregon’s staff will have some decisions to make. Sewell and Lemieux obviously have their spots sewn up, and I’m sure Throckmorton will have a place in the lineup somewhere. The questions remain:

  1. Will Hanson continue at center? I spent a good deal of time defending him during the season after his heartbreaking wild snaps contributed to the loss against Stanford (focusing on a couple of bad plays instead of overall statistical performance and comparison of alternatives is a classic hot-headed fan mistake), but examining his numbers from these nine competitive games makes clear that there’s still a lot of room for improvement in his play. Even though I didn’t include his numbers in this article, this might be a spot for Throckmorton to take over. At any rate, given that Hanson’s numbers are still fairly decent, anyone who beats out a senior starter for the spot should be pretty special.
  2. Will Warmack ever reliably be 100%? If my theory about having an easily dislocatable shoulder is correct, and rotating him in and out is suboptimal, then there could be some serious competition for this spot as a full-timer. I think two years’ (at least, I haven’t closely examined 2016) worth of data demonstrates clearly that it shouldn’t be Throckmorton, even though the coaches have a mistaken overabundance of faith in him. But there have been a whole lot of big bodies brought in over the last two recruiting cycles, and RG is usually the spot you put your least technically sound linemen.
  3. If Throck leaves RT, who might step up there? The obvious candidate is Jones, who played okay on the more challenging left side and even then had the body for the position, if he could just clean up his technical play. But again, there are quite a few options on the roster here.