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How to block for a mobile QB

Four linemen who helped Kyler Murray win the Heisman explain the ins and outs of protecting a one-of-a-kind QB.

USA TODAY Sports photo, SB Nation illustration

The NFL had never had a prospect quite like Kyler Murray. After becoming a first-round MLB Draft pick, he put up the second-best passer rating in FBS history, added 1,000 rushing yards for good measure, won the most exciting Heisman race ever, and lugged a bad Oklahoma defense to the Playoff, all in a 5’10 frame about four inches shorter than the average NFL quarterback. Then the Cardinals made him the first pick in football’s draft.

Murray creates different rules of engagement than most QBs. Even if linemen and linebackers get near him, they can’t count on sacking him. Defensive backs who blanket a receiver for five seconds might have to keep covering longer, because Murray might be running figure-eights in the backfield, and then he might uncork a precision deep ball that many QBs couldn’t throw while standing upright in a clean pocket.

It’s not just defenses whose lives change. His offense has to build around both his natural gifts and his tendency to freelance.

At Murray’s NFL Combine, I talked with four of his five 2018 linemen at Oklahoma to learn about blocking for such a special talent. It’s not that blocking for Murray is hard, but that it’s different.

“I never saw it as a difficulty,” right guard Dru Samia said. “I only saw it as an asset.”

“He makes our job easy,” left guard Ben Powers said.

1. The D-linemen are often an O-lineman’s only guide to what Murray’s doing.

“You don’t know where they’re at,” Powers said. “You’re not looking behind you at the quarterback. You just play the defensive players.”

If your QB is, say, Peyton Manning, you can be reasonably sure that he’s a few steps deep in the middle of the pocket, setting up to throw.

“I don’t think Peyton ever ran a 4.3,” Samia said.

If your QB is, say, Michael Vick, it’s different. If he runs in circles in the backfield, it presents challenges. Consider the times Vick got sacked while his O-linemen blocked air, not knowing where he was:

Murray falls on Vick’s end of the QB spectrum. To a lesser extent, so does Baker Mayfield, the QB who preceded him in winning a Heisman at Oklahoma.

Murray’s probably the most athletic NFL QB since Vick. His new linemen will need to get comfortable with the guy they’re protecting.

“You kind of have to play off what you think Kyler’s gonna do, but you really don’t know,” his OU right tackle, Cody Ford, said. “He might go inside. He might go outside. You never know. So you kind of have to be cautious of how you set and where you keep the defender.”

During his Heisman year, Murray got sacked on just 4.6% of his dropbacks. That put Oklahoma among the 25 best offenses in Sack Rate, despite Murray’s tendency to run around. Clearly, his OU linemen figured out enough about his movements.

2. Always, always be prepared for a scramble drill.

“You’ve kinda just gotta figure out where the D-end’s going and follow with him,” Ford said. “You saw, one of the very first plays against Florida Atlantic this year, [Murray] was one hash to the other hash within a matter of seconds, so you never know what’s gonna happen.”

And then he went back to the original hash:

Murray loves to take off. Often, that’s part of the design. The Sooners had him run a lot of zone, power, and counter reads with pass options attached, and they turned him loose on a lot of QB draws.

Often, though, he just decides he has a better chance scrambling than throwing. That’s when it really gets fun.

“At that point, you just play football,” Powers said. “That’s not a practice scenario. That’s not something you can go over and practice and say, ‘All right, when this happens in the game,’ because those scramble situations, every single one is different. Those are extremely live reps that you can’t replicate.”

Not that Murray’s teams haven’t tried. Oklahoma ran a scramble drill in practice around twice a week, Samia said, lining up a handful of QBs in the backfield. One would take off running, and the linemen would watch the defenders’ eyes to figure out where the play was going and how to block it.

Eventually, Murray might outrun his blockers.

“He fast, so it’s hard to catch him,” his OU left tackle, Bobby Evans, said.

3. Usually, don’t worry at all about Murray’s height.

Murray’s linemen all say the same thing the film says: Murray’s 5’10 stature does not create problems for him. There’s no need to focus on creating throwing lanes or getting out of his way beyond what a lineman would need to do for any other QB.

“A lot of times, I think people don’t really know him. They don’t really know how he plays. They don’t — I don’t wanna say know what they’re talking about, but I know from personal experience, he can do it,” Evans said.

There’s one occasional exception.

4. Funneling pass-rushers to the outside is even more important with Murray at QB, for two reasons.

The first is as simple as with any QB: pushing pressure to the outside preserves the pocket, and it creates running lanes that don’t exist when a D-lineman gets interior pressure.

The second, per Ford:

“One thing I had to worry about, being a tackle, was ‘don’t give up the inside,’” Ford said. “Make sure that these D-ends don’t get up the field, also.”

Why the particular worry about the inside?

“As a tackle you don’t ever wanna give up depth in the pocket and the width,” he said. “As soon as the D-end gets inside with a guy like Kyler, who’s not 6’4 or 6’5, it becomes a problem for plays to develop.”

That doesn’t mean Murray can’t make it work anyway ...

... but he has an easier time torching defenses without pressure in his lap.

5. Understand that your work will sometimes feel thankless.

How often this happens depends on how often Murray’s new team uses run/pass options. But the Sooners used them all the time. Samia estimated “almost all” of OU’s plays were an RPO in some form — Murray taking the snap, his linemen run-blocking, and Murray deciding based on some read whether to make it a run or a pass play.

Murray is deft at waiting as long as possible to bait the defense before executing a read. Offensive linemen in all systems have to accept that they’ll sometimes block for the run and have a play go another direction, but with Murray in Norman, it was a constant.

“There’s a lot of trust required,” Samia said. “The only thing about RPOs is, like, you make a great block on a run play, turn around, and the quarterback threw the ball instead, ‘cause he got that read.”

Like on this triple-option RPO against Texas, when OU’s offensive line blew open a running lane only for Murray to throw a swing pass:

“So it’s kind of frustrating when you’re like, ‘Damn, I had a big hole that just opened up, and now the ball gets thrown,’” Samia said. “But it’s all good. The offense was still amazing.”

6. “You’ve pretty much just gotta expect the unexpected.”

That point, by Evans, is the best way to sum it all up.