Conversion Program: OT T.J. Clemmings by Eric Stoner

Conversion Program: OT T.J. Clemmings by Eric Stoner

Footwork is essential for quality offensive line play. Photo of Steve Hutchinson by Rick Burtzel
Footwork is essential for quality offensive line play. Photo of Steve Hutchinson by Rick Burtzel

Eric Stoner gives an excellent primer of o-line footwork while profiling his pet project in this year’s draft, a former defensive lineman converted to offensive tackle. 

Who is T.J. Clemmings And What Does He Mean to You?

My first exposure to T.J. Clemmings came from listening to Josh Norris’ podcast Process the Process. He and Lance Zierlein discussed the Pitt offensive tackle – a defensive line convert with arms that are over 35” long – and go into tremendous detail about his strengths and weaknesses in pass protection.

If you’ve watched Lance in the RSP Film Room series, you know that his insight on offensive line prospects is tremendous, so be sure to check out that episode of Process the Process if you enjoyed Lance’s Brandon Scherff breakdown.

Josh and Lance both agreed that Clemmings’ needed some work in pass protection, and that some of his flaws were magnified at the Senior Bowl. However, they also agreed that he had the lateral agility, athletic ability, and length to play offensive tackle.

He lacked patience and trust in his kick step, causing him to rush out and either get his shoulders turned or get beat back inside after over-setting. I don’t have much to add on Clemmings as a pass blocker, other than to say I think these issues can be (quickly) corrected, and they’re more comfort and confidence related than anything else.

He has elite length and has a good understanding of how to time his punch up. Combine that with good lateral agility for his size, and you’re looking at a player who can be a high-level pass blocker on the edge fairly quickly.

While I’m optimistic on Clemmings’ ability to be good in pass protection relatively early, I have reservations about him in the run game. I’ve seen him described as a “mauler” in the run game, but I feel like a lot of those instances come from him bullying an off-balance/pursuing linebacker on the second level–although I will give him credit, he is very good at getting downfield and tracking moving targets.

A Four-Step Primer on O-Line Footwork: Clemmings’ Path

An offensive lineman’s run-block will usually result in a success or failure based on the execution of his first two steps. He must gain ground with both steps while maintaining bend in his hips, knees, and ankles. There are four specific steps an offensive lineman is taught to execute depending on his assignment and where the defender is aligned against him:

Drive – a fire off step straight ahead. Whichever foot is leading should gain at least six inches of ground. The get-off step is used in two instances: when an offensive linemen is covered and needs to drive block the defensive lineman straight off the ball.

J-Step – The J-Step is most often used on backside combination blocks by an uncovered offensive lineman who needs to get to the second level. He should make six-inch step laterally with the playside foot, followed by the opposite foot stepping inside and then upfield in one motion (the second step makes the letter “J,” hence the name). A punch inside accompanies the first jab step if the lineman needs to help secure inside help. However, he needs to not bury himself inside and turn his shoulders on the double – his shoulders should stay square to the line of scrimmage through both steps and as he works to his downfield target. As the linebacker flows inside, the offensive lineman’s straight ahead path should intersect the linebacker’s pursuit – you want offensive linemen to understand that their steps will take them to where a linebacker is going not to where he starts the play off. The J-Step can also be used on inside zone plays when the defender is head up against the offensive lineman, resulting in what’s kind of a “quick-reach” block.

Trap-step – Where the Drive step is straight ahead, and the J-Step begins with a lateral movement, the 45 degree angle of the Trap Step is usually the most difficult step for offensive lineman to apply the concept of “gaining ground” to. It doesn’t feel natural, and the most common response for an offensive lineman who hasn’t repetitively practiced this step is to pick his foot up, place it right back down in the same spot it started, pivot the foot and lean with his upper body, and then not actually start moving until the second step.

This is especially problematic, because the Trap-step is the one needed most often. It’s named after the Trap play – where a guard will pull and come down the line of scrimmage to kick out (or “trap”) an unblocked defensive lineman. The 45 degree angle step keeps him on a path to work slightly downfield in case the unblocked defensive lineman stays at the line of scrimmage and doesn’t penetrate upfield. The Trap-step isn’t just used for traps though. Since most defensive linemen play shaded, or in the gaps between linemen (as opposed to straight across from them), angle steps are absolutely critical to seal those gaps off quickly and prevent penetration. The Trap-step is used for downblocking a defender to the inside, combo-blocking to the playside, for uncovered offensive linemen who need to cut off a second level player who they know will flow quickly – when in doubt, you Trap-block to your assignment, which is why it’s so critical for young linemen to master.

Bucket-Step – The Bucket-Step’s most common and important use is when the offensive lineman needs to reach a defender with a slight outside shade (whether on toss or outside zone plays – this is also a baseline blocking skill needed for tight ends who need to seal against edge defenders). The defender has already “won” by his alignment – he’s lined up outside of the offensive lineman, whose goal is to try to get to that defender’s outside shoulder and seal him off. In order to secure this block, the player must “lose ground to gain ground.” The Bucket-Step starts with a 45 degree backwards step to the playside – basically a backwards moving trap step. The backside foot swings just like in the J-step. The third step is for the playside leg to now work 45 degrees forward. If done properly, the offensive lineman should have taken three steps gaining ground towards the playside while allowing him to keep his shoulders square and aim for the defender’s outside shoulder. If the defender’s outside shoulder can’t be secure, the offensive lineman will have a balanced, square base giving him the power and momentum to just keep driving the defender towards the sideline.

The Bucket-Step is also used for when a pulling lineman leads a running back through the hole. Where the Trap-Step is used for a short pull-and-kickout block, a pull-and-lead block must travel a longer distance, and the act of stepping backwards first (losing ground to gain ground) helps in case any of the playside blockers get driven backwards. Once again, these steps are critical and help the player to keep his shoulders square and his eyes on his moving second level target in case he needs to adjust his path.

These descriptions will make more sense to you and be easier to notice when watching if you actually get up and try them yourself. You don’t need to get in a three-point stance or anything – just stand with your feet shoulder width apart and try walking out the first three steps below, with an emphasis on gaining ground with each step and not picking your foot up and putting it right back down in the same spot.

These take practice because they’re not natural movements, especially when moving full speed. However, they can be improved through repetition and by picking up little tricks – like curling the toes of the non-stepping foot, which creates a natural push-off or springing effect (seriously, try it).

Clemmings’ Trap-Step (No.68)

This gives a pretty clear shot of Clemmings trying to make a Trap-Step and take a 45 degree angle up to the second level. The good is that he understands the path he needs to take to intersect the linebacker. But note how the first step with the left foot isn’t a step at all. He pivots it backwards, pops up and turns his shoulders, then crosses over with his right foot to make his initial “gaining ground” movement.

He makes the block, but arrives a split second late, can’t get a square hit, and lets the linebacker cross his face to make the tackle. Getting up to the backside linebacker on an isolation play like this is a key, key block – arguably more important than the fullback’s lead block on the playside linebacker – because the backside linebacker is the one who the defense funnels the ball to in their run fits vs isolation and inside zone plays. He’s responsible for making the actual tackle on the play the majority of the time.

Again, this play is a “success” – it results in a first down. But we’re talking about the difference between a two-yard gain vs a six or seven-yard gain. Or, in a worse scenario, we’re talking about him trying to make that block against an NFL linebacker like Lavonte David, who’s going to make that read and arrive in the backfield while Clemmings is still crossing his feet over.

Clemmings’ J-Step

The good news is that Clemmings showed vast improvement in his run game footwork just a month later in Pitt’s game against Miami. Clemmings and the right guard have a combination block on the 3-technique defensive tackle to the playside linebacker. You can see Clemmings execute a J-Step, gaining ground, and keeping his shoulders square.

Even as the defensive tackle stunts outside of him, Clemmings square shoulders and balanced base allow him to adjust to his moving target and simply use his length to ride the defender upfield. If he had used the footwork similar to what he displayed in the Virginia Tech game, the unbalanced weight of him leaning and burying his shoulders inside would have allowed the defensive tackle to loop around him without giving him a chance to recover.

That isn’t to say Clemmings’ run game footwork is permanently fixed, as the issue popped up again even in this Miami game. It will take thousands of repetitions for him to consistently gain ground with his first two steps – and he might even face setbacks with his feet as he adjusts to the speed of the NFL.

The second thing that may prevent Clemmings from being a functional run blocker early in his career is that he hasn’t learned to involve his hips in his movement. Unlike footwork, which can usually be improved through repetition, a lack of hip range of motion usually is the result of a physical limitation (some players simply don’t have the flexibility to sink and/or roll their hips – their range of motion comes totally from their waist instead of their hips, knees, and ankles).

What makes it tricky with Clemmings, however, is that he’s only played offensive tackle for two years. Again, we’re talking about very unnatural stances and movements, so it could simply be a matter of comfort and experience as opposed to inflexibility.

The Hip Roll

The above video outlines the “hip roll” in regards to tackling, but the exact same drill and mechanics are used once contact is established in run blocking. Rolling the hips up under the defender gives the blocker power and leverage to maintain and finish the block. Establishing contact is only part of the job, the offensive lineman must create movement against the defensive lineman.

While Clemmings shows a quick get-off here, he pops up early at the waist. Not only does he lose the leverage battle immediately off the snap, but he miss-times his punch and gets caught with his hands outside. His defender is able to easily stand him up, toss him aside, and make the tackle at the line of scrimmage.

This particular two-play sequence is perfect, because you see Clemmings execute a hip roll well and then poorly on back-to-back plays. The first play ends in him getting movement on the defender after an initial stalemate at the line of scrimmage – the result of getting underneath the defender and rolling the hips through initial contact. The very next play, he loses his technique. He false-steps, lunges his upper body, and ends up on the ground.

Despite my belief that Clemmings needs a lot of work before he can become functional in the run game, I still like him a lot as a prospect. I don’t mind inconsistency, especially from a player who is more or less new to the position. I just want to see that the player has the prerequisite ability, and Clemmings definitely shows the physical ability to play offensive tackle in the NFL. I’m more worried about his hip flexibility, especially because even in the “good play” example where he got his hips involved, he still didn’t generate a ton of power.

Clemmings’ prospects as a pro largely come down to whether he starts trusting his own feet. So much of playing offensive line is having confidence in your technique. The temptation will be there for a team to play him early, especially because his length gives him the recovery ability to survive as a pass protector until his footwork catches up. If he plays early however, I think he’ll be a liability in the run game, and you also run the risk of him developing bad habits as he tries to survive against the speed of the NFL game.

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