Preseason Top 5: Pac-12 Interior Offensive Linemen

Photo: Sep 24, 2016; Eugene, OR, USA; Oregon Ducks offensive lineman Jake Hanson (55) set with the ball against the Colorado Buffaloes in the fourth quarter at Autzen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

I'm going to keep it a stack: the Pac-12 Top-5 previews are about to end on a shaky note.

We killed it with quarterbacks and cornerbacks -- the conference is rife with talent there. Safeties and offensive tackles were both decently strong as well. Even tight end, the most recent installment, had some strength at the top despite being weak on depth.

Our final two pieces left in the series are interior defensive line and interior offensive line. And these are probably the two weakest spots for the conference. (Good thing they square off against each other on gameday!)

Everybody who made the list today except the top dog is probably limited in terms of future pro deployment -- either man or zone blocking schemes. And even then, the best interior blocker in the conference -- Jake Hanson from Oregon -- profiles more as a "break glass in case of zone blocking scheme" player.

Interior defensive line? Woof. Let's just say, enjoy the potential NFL starters on this list while you can.

1. Jake Hanson, Redshirt Junior, Oregon (6-4 302)

I was oh so very pleased by Hanson’s tape from his past season as a Duck. A 3-star recruit coming out, Hanson’s physical profile isn’t overwhelming, so he needed to develop stellar technique to shine in the Pac-12 -- and that’s what he’s done. More so than most collegiate offensive linemen, Hanson keeps his elbows tucked, his thumbs up and inside, and his hands located on the chest plate. When executing reach and scoop blocks on zone flow, Hanson regularly wins the armpit of his opponent and can wrench him out of gaps. His grip strength rarely loses.

But it goes deeper than that. Unlike most college linemen, Hanson regularly demonstrated the ability to break his opponents’ hands on pass rush reps -- and he can do it against a variety of moves. Hanson knows he wins with his mitts, so he shoots early and aggressively in reps -- when the rusher is ready and counters, Hanson can reset his base, get his hands back underneath his opponents’ pads, and salvage the play. That’s an excellent trait, and it translates well to NFL play.

Asking Hanson to regularly take wide zone paths isn’t the smartest strategy -- he’s a bit of a lumberer and not super fluid throughout his frame -- but he can execute tough assignments on the fly. Again, it comes back to grip strength: even when he doesn’t win leverage against DTs and LBs alike, he can sustain blocks and prevent tackle attempts with his hand control.

What to watch for in 2018: Slants. Washington State caused some problems for Hanson with their 3-man slanting front, as Hanson’s lack of agility and willingness to lunge hurt him against the Cougar speedsters. Hanson must show better foot discipline in pass protection, both before and during contact, as he’ll let his feet die and allow rushers to generate angles to the quarterback they never should have achieved in the first place.

2. Nick Harris, Junior, Washington (6-1 293)

It’s easy to miss Nick Harris on a Washington OL that boasts of Trey Adams (LT) and Kaleb McGary (RT), but Harris is a strong player in his own right. Harris is built like a fridge despite tipping the scales under 300 lbs, and can drop a heavy anchor with his low, squatty frame. With good flexibility in his hips, Harris represents a nigh-on-immovable opponent for DTs who like to bull rush. He’s not overly long, so you can long-arm him and generate some displacement -- and unlike Hanson, Harris has not yet mastered the ability to break his opponents’ hands. But widely, it’s very tough to go through Harris.

Harris can turn that mass into power in the running game, in which he’s a road-paver. He uses his momentum and leverage well as a puller, with a high success rate of sealing running lanes off. With his strong upper body, he does well to forklift defenders out of leverage on zone flow, though again, his limited length can present an issue here. As a blocker primarily in a power scheme, Harris projects nicely as a potential NFL starter, with a little refinement needed.

What to watch for in 2018: Control. Harris is an uber-aggressive player who loves to win reps early, using his powerful punch and thick frame to control rushers. Smart defenders, however, use this against him: Harris is easy to bait out of position with stutter steps, outside-in rush moves, and even potential blitzers/loopers. Harris must improve his understanding of the continuity of the five offensive linemen that form the pocket and stop charging like a bull at every flash of color. If he can learn how to punch from a more balanced base, he’ll lose less often to counters, and improve his stock tremendously.

3. Brandon Fanaika, Redshirt Senior, Stanford (6-2 315)

Ask almost anyone to rank Stanford’s interior offensive linemen, and Fanaika will come up around third (he's first here). He was a rotational player last year, occasionally lining up next to three-year starter OC Jesse Burkett (5th on this list) and Pac-12 first-team RG Nate Herbig (4th on this list). Why wouldn’t he have seen starting reps, were he really so talented?

It’s a piecemeal answer. For one, it’s incredibly difficult to earn starting reps on an offensive line that regularly cycles in 4- and 5-star talent. For two, he played multiple games in which he saw over 50% of the snaps (despite no injuries to that game’s starters), so the coaching staff clearly trusted him. And for our list's purposes, Fanaika is a higher-floor, lower-ceiling prospect than Herbig, which gives him the edge for preseason rankings.

Fainaka is a ton of bricks, man. Similar in build, style, and execution to Nick Harris, Fainaka’s best reps come on aggressive jump sets in which he immediately shocks a rusher’s chest with a powerful strike. He builds a wide base and has good hip roll to generate power from the ground up. He can displace defensive linemen as a lead blocker or on pulls, and can drop and re-drop anchors in pass protection. Harris has better feet, range, and angles into the second level -- but Fanaika does have him in terms of recovery ability. He’s a disciplined player who understands his average agility and length, and works within those limits. He’ll always struggle with quickness as a pass protector, but it isn’t a crippling weakness.

What to watch for in 2018: Zone. Fanaika represents an interesting prospect for power-heavy teams, but he struggles to win zone angles right now. He’s a straight-line player. I don’t think he’ll ever be quick enough to execute some crazy reaches on wide zone, but he could vastly improve his inside zone angles and execution. Stanford loves to pull him -- and he’s a great puller -- but to generate buzz as a prospect, he’ll need to show more serviceable zone play.

4. Nate Herbig, Junior, Stanford (6-3 336)

Nate Herbig is 340 pounds, and that’s exciting. I get that. Most 340 pounders (how many 340 pounders do I even know?) can’t move the way he can -- and that’s even more exciting. There is a very high ceiling here, in terms of size/athleticism. That’s dope.

But 340 pounds only interest me in that they generate power, and as it stands, Nate Herbig is tepid at the contact point. He’s a big boy, but he prefers to use his size to screen off defenders, not move them. When approached the contact point -- in a pass set, on a pull, climbing to the second level, or just executing a down block -- Herbig does not like to grip, gain control, and sustain. He looks to pop. He fires his hands way outside of his frame, bringing zero power from his lower body, and even when he connects, the defender stays upright and is able to get involved in the play.

What about when he doesn't connect? Herbig is woefully easy to push-pull, swipe away, or even just purely “ole!” He does not bring his feet with him into contact with any consistency, and eats turf far more often than a legit NFL prospect would.

When Herbig gets his lower body involved, there are some serious flashes of true displacement power; when he does latch hands in pass protection, he can ragdoll rushers and mirror with good feet. The highlight reel of cherry picked plays is nice -- he just doesn’t bring that to the table on every snap.

What to watch for in 2018: Power. If you’re going to be a finesse blocker (don’t be one, but still), be one at 300 pounds, not 340. There’s no reason to lug all that mass around if you’re not gonna use it. I want to see Herbig’s strength show up in the run game, yes -- but my focus is pass protection. He’s easy to beat for rushers with a move or two in their arsenal right now, and with his size and athletic ability, that’s inexcusable. Deliver a punch; drop an anchor; stymie the rush.

5. Jesse Burkett, Redshirt Senior, Stanford (6-3 304)

And here we are: the end of the Stanford road. Burkett kinda is what he is at this point. He’s a good mover who can climb effectively to the second level and seal off linebackers on zone flow, but often finds himself leaning too far into contact and getting all too easily sidestepped. He can generate good displacement in the first level on down blocks, but often gets discarded by strong hands because he’s leaning too far into contact. He frames pass rushers nicely and knows where to fit his hands, but -- you guessed it -- the balance issues show up again.

Burkett isn’t particularly thick, and as such, he needs his whole body to generate significant power. His hips aren’t stiff from what I can see, he just fails to recruit his lower half enough when coming into the contact point. As such, he arrives at contact weaker than he could, and just ends up dumped so, so often.

Burkett will get some interest from zone teams because of his good angles, quickness, and hand placement -- and if he tests particularly agile, then there’s a conversation to be had regarding re-working his technique. But as of right now, he’s a good college player and a known quantity for a coaching staff. I’m not sure if he’s an NFL player.

What to watch for in 2018: Staying upright. How often does Burkett end up on the ground somewhere, having whiffed on his block? That’s everything for him.

Keep an eye on

Toa Lobendahn, Redshirt Senior, USC (6-2 292)

Lobendahn was a 13-game starter at LT for the Trojans last season, and it was...not great. He simply does not have the length or mass to survive on the edge -- it just isn’t in the cards. He’s moving back to center for 2018, which makes a ton more sense for his play style, and I’ll be sure to revisit my evaluation on him. Will moving to center cure his uninspiring strength and anchor? Probably not. But his issues getting depth on pass sets and responding to two-way goes could lessen in severity on the interior. We’ll have to find out.

Notable omission

Calvin Throckmorton, RS Junior, Oregon (6-5 307)

Tape doesn’t live up to the name, unfortunately. Throckmorton is a lumberer, folks: he’s late off the ball, tries to execute every block with his upper half alone, and can’t execute any reach blocks or climbs to the second level. Teams will love the presumed guard/tackle versatility, but being bad at both spots doesn’t make you versatile -- it makes you bad. He’s a straight-line rumbler, and that leads to some good reps, but at this point, the inability to win through angles makes him a very, very limited player.