How tough is it for an Alabama football offensive lineman to switch sides? 'Like it's your first time playing football'
Ross Pierschbacher didn’t last long at right guard.
After starting at left guard during the 2015 championship season, the former Alabama offensive lineman lasted only a couple games on the right side in 2016.
“It felt pretty off,” Pierschbacher said. “I only spent two games there, so obviously I wasn’t playing too well.”
Many linemen can relate to Pierschbacher, who’s now with the Philadelphia Eagles. Coaches ask offensive linemen to flip from the right to the left and vice versa all the time, whether it be in search of the best combination or because of an injury.
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Players leaving for the draft also prompts shifts. Alabama will have to again shuffle its offensive line this year, specifically at left tackle where Evan Neal is projected to move with the departure of Alex Leatherwood.
Flipping sides is common and part of the job. Neal has proven capable, playing on the right and left for the Crimson Tide. But it’s not easy for many linemen to make it seamless.
“You switch, and it just feels like it’s your first time playing football ever,” Pierschbacher said.
It’s like writing with the opposite hand or kicking a ball with the opposite foot. It takes plenty of practice to change longstanding habits.
Footwork, hand placement and stance have to adjust.
Take Pierschbacher for example. He played center and both guard spots for the Crimson Tide. At left guard, he placed his left hand in the ground and used his right leg for pushing off, with his left leg staggered behind to kick backward when pass protecting. Because he spent the most time at left guard at Alabama, his right quad is much stronger than his left.
When he moved to right guard, he put his right hand in the ground and his left leg up front. He also had to change the hand with which he punched the defender.
“Your dominant leg isn’t your dominant leg anymore,” Pierschbacher said. “You’ve got to retrain your body and your muscles and (brain), too.”
That’s where someone such as Paul Alexander comes in. An NFL offensive line coach for a quarter century with the Bengals and Cowboys, Alexander is now a personal coach, working with linemen at all levels.
It can take rep after rep after rep to create new muscle memory. Alexander also recommends to players that they do every-day tasks with the other side of their body. Other times, Alexander focuses on specific muscles or aspects of their game.
“A lot of it is eye training, balance training, just the neuropathways,” Alexander said. “One of the real keys is the guy’s spatial awareness.”
Some have better spatial awareness than others. One NFL offensive lineman with whom Alexander works is heavily one-eye dominant. So, Alexander put a blindfold on that eye and had him complete a sobriety walk.
The player had to sit down, nearly vomiting.
“It was like he had vertigo,” Alexander said. “It was crazy.”
To help, they’ve worked together on strengthening his muscles in the eye. That way, the player can look to the outside without turning his hips, shoulder or body too soon.
Another tool that can be used is a video software called Dartfish. With it, they can film a player on the right and left, then play the two videos over top of each other. The footage helps reveal how much a player is changing his technique and angles when switching sides.
But no matter how much work is done, flipping will naturally be easier for some offensive linemen. Some batters can switch-hit, some can’t.
“Some guys can kind of do it instinctively,” Alexander said. “If a guy is a natural athlete, they can usually do it.”
Alexander, who said Neal has top-notch size and athleticism at 6-foot-7 and 360 pounds, expects the Alabama junior to succeed at left tackle. Neal has experience on the blind side from his high school days.
If Alabama ultimately selects him as its next left tackle, Neal will have started at three positions. First, left guard in 2019 then right tackle in 2020. He succeeded in both spots and has the ability to thrive at left tackle.
Just know that if he makes the switch look easy, it isn’t.