Projecting OTs is a tricky business

A month after National Signing Day and this recruiting nugget caught my eye: The three highest-rated offensive tackles heading into this year's NFL Draft were Luke Joeckel, a 4-star prospect, Eric Fisher, a 2-star prospect and Lane Johnson, who was unranked coming out of high school.

That's pretty eye-opening, no? Maybe you're thinking that the NFL Draft evaluators aren't much better than the online recruiting folks. But then consider this: of the six offensive tackles voted to the Pro Bowl, only one was considered a blue-chip tackle recruit -- Joe Thomas of Wisconsin.

The others: Duane Brown, the guy considered by many as the best tackle in football, arrived at Virginia Tech as a 3-star tight end; Ryan Clady to Boise State was a 2-star offensive tackle; Joe Staley was a 2-star tight end from Central Michigan; Russell Okung was a 250-pound offensive tackle ranked as a 3-star signed by Oklahoma State and Trent Williams was listed as a 3-star guard recruit for Oklahoma.

"Our eyes deceive us sometimes," said one college coach with a laugh. "Lots of schools get scared off by how heavy a lineman is -- or isn't -- or why he doesn't have more offers or is only rated a two-star and they'd rather go for the big, heavy kid rather than a kid 40-50 pounds lighter who is 6-4 or 6-5 and has much better feet. A lot of times that (heavier, higher-ranked) kid may dominate just because he's mauls people in high school but what happens when he's got to play in space against much faster people?"

The style of the game -- faster than ever -- has made the process of projecting offensive tackles trickier, too. It's not just being able to protect a quarterback's blindside that requires great agility for left tackles, new Tennessee coach Butch Jones points out. It's that there are also so many different kinds of screens and the way the run game has evolved that factors in, as does the influx of the up-tempo offense that has grown in college football.

"There is such a need for good foot quickness, balance and agility, and those things are very hard to find," said Jones, who apparently is a pretty shrewd evaluator/developer of talent.  

Jones recruited Staley to Central Michigan. He was the one to bring Fisher, then an agile 242-pound high school football/basketball standout to CMU a few years later before Jones moved on to Cincinnati. Jones also struck gold on another unheralded project while at Cincy, in Eric Lefeld, a former 240-pound two-star defensive end prospect, also a former basketball player, who blossomed into being a First-Team All Big East offensive tackle as a 6-foot-6, 287-pound sophomore in 2012 and is now on the NFL's radar.

Jones recalls going to watch the 6-7 Fisher play basketball one day at a high school game in Michigan with CMU O-line coach Don Mahoney. The two coaches marveled at how well Fisher moved up and down the court, but they also noticed how competitive and aggressive the kid was too.

"I kept looking to my left and to my right, thinking 'I hope there aren't any Michigan or Michigan State coaches in here,'" Jones said Thursday.

It also helped that Fisher came highly recommended by his high school coaches. Jones knew that having a big frame to project added weight to was vital, but so was having the ideal mental make-up and the commitment and desire to handle the developmental process of becoming a big-time offensive lineman.

"I laugh now when I read that Eric talks about getting up early in the mornings to eat peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches," Jones said. "We used to tell him to set his alarm for two or three o'clock in the morning just to eat a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich and to make sure you put an extra piece of bread in the middle of the sandwich."

All of Fisher's efforts are paying off. At the NFL Combine last month, Fisher measured in at 6-7, 306-pounds. He also ran a 5.05 40 and was among the best linemen there in the 20-yard shuttle and the broad jump. In Indy, I asked Fisher if any Big Ten schools even talked to him about walking on.

"The only Big Ten schools I talked to was Michigan State and Purdue, and neither of them really wanted anything to do with me," said Fisher, ranked the 48th best prospect in Michigan as a high school senior. "So hey, it doesn't matter where you start, it's where you end up. That's a big thing I take to heart."

Staley, an All-Pro the past two seasons for the 49ers, has provided quite an example for Fisher, other aspiring linemen and college recruiters, too. Jones says Fisher was a 225-pound tight end/track standout when they recruited him to CMU. But like Fisher, Staley had a great frame and a lot of grit. Staley actually caught 11 passes as a freshman at CMU before Jones told him they wanted to move him to the O-line.

"He went into a little depression for a couple of days," Jones said, "but we told him down the road, you'll thank us."

What will be interesting to see is how Jones recruits at Tennessee. When you're at smaller FBS programs, you often have to do a lot more projecting than you do at the powerhouse programs. Even at Cincinnati, where you rarely will beat the better Big Ten programs for the more touted -- and often more physically developed -- recruits, you have to do more projecting.

Jones concedes that now that he's at UT he might be "less likely" to project, but adds that the great programs that can sustain success have to have the ability to project players, and "we feel like it's easier to ask them to put weight on rather than to try and get them to take it off.

"And, at the end of the day, we are in the developmental business."

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