A lot of coaches will tell you the most important player on the field, with the exception of the quarterback, is the guy who protects the quarterback. The offensive tackle who plays on the quarterback's blind side -- the tackle who keeps the million-dollar arm from being blown up -- plays a vital role in a team's success.
Offensive tackles in today's game must have a combination of traits in order to carry the load up front. Some of these talents are physical, while others are not measurable in terms of size or skill. Physically, the ideal offensive tackle is tall with long arms. His large wing span is essential in keeping pass-rushers at bay, and he should be quick enough to change direction laterally so he doesn't get beaten inside or outside by a speed pass-rusher.
Toughness and intelligence are two of the intangible characteristics coaches look for in an offensive tackle. Coaches want the guy who will fight to the end to sustain his block or protect his quarterback. They also seek a tackle who can recognize what stunt or blitz is coming at him on the snap.
The offensive tackle position is a solid one in the Class of 2009. Only one of the top 10 rated tackles on the ESPNU 150 is shorter than 6-foot-6, and all have good foot quickness. Rarely are offensive tackles as athletic as coaches want them to be. But guys who aren't afraid to get their noses bloodied and are reliable against talented defensive ends and outside linebackers can help make up for a lack of pure athleticism.
The man at the top of the tackle heap for the 2009 recruiting class is Mason Walters (Wolfforth, Texas/Frenship). He meets the desired physical dimensions for the position and gives the extra effort it takes to excel up front. Even though he is a talented offensive center, he is destined to stand out at the tackle position.
Walters is one of the more mobile offensive linemen in the class; he can pull with authority and loves to pick up blocks downfield. He has excellent body control in tight spaces and in the open field.
Mack Brown has to be in heaven knowing our top two ranked offensive tackles will be playing college football for the Longhorns. In addition to Walters, the tough, talented Paden Kelley (Austin, Texas/Lake Travis) is headed to Austin.
Kelley is a tall, rangy athlete who has good foot quickness he displays when reach blocking and pass protecting. It's not uncommon for Kelley to run a speed-rusher deep past the pocket because of his technical skills and long arms.
Our third-ranked offensive tackle is another Texan, but this one is headed across the Mississippi. Stavion Lowe (Brownwood, Texas) will further his offensive line career at LSU. Like Walters and Kelley, Lowe has a huge wingspan and uses his hands and arms to control the defender.
Lowe keeps great body position and leverage on the pass-rusher and has the ability to recover after he's gotten off balance or overextended. He demonstrates his foot agility when pulling and turning upfield to pick up linebackers; he is smooth and fluid when on the move.
Kevin Graf (Agoura, Calif.) is another one of the elite offensive tackles in the Class of 2009. Like Kelley, he displays lateral quickness when reaching the primary contain player on the sweep and zone. He is able to gain outside pad control and is tenacious in churning his legs to maintain position on the defender.
Graf also is a solid pass-protector who uses his hands well and rarely gets beat by a hard inside move or a fast edge rush. Once he becomes a better knee bender, Graf should excel at all phases of blocking
Austin Long (Memphis, Tenn./Briarcrest Christian) rounds out the top five ranked offensive tackles. He is the only top-5 tackle who isn't at least 6-foot-6. At just under that height, Long is an excellent all-around tackle. He is an effective pass-protector from both the three-point and two-point stances. He displays rapid-fire hands and is a real fighter in winning his individual battles.
The rest of the top 10 offensive tackles are a very sound group of linemen who have outstanding potential at the next level. Like the players ranked just above them, they are physically gifted and have motors that never quit.
O-line grading criteria
Scouts Inc. grades offensive linemen in eight categories:
1. Initial Quicks: Are they quick when coming off the ball? Do they have good footwork? Are they faster than the defensive line?
2. Run Block: Do they control the opposition at the point of attack? Are they balanced? Do they play with leverage?
3. Pass Block: Do they have good footwork? How quick is their setup? Can they adjust and mirror the pass-rusher? Do they sustain their blocks?
4. Pull and Trap: Do they have the athleticism to get to a moving target? Can they adjust in space?
5. Use of Hands: Do they get separation? Can they keep defenders away from them? Do they play with good leverage?
6. Strength: Do they play with leverage? Can they move the pile in the run game? Can they anchor in pass protection?
7. Explosion: Do they finish their blocks? Do they play low and show some pop at the point of attack?
8. Long Snap: Do they have the ability to long snap, and are they proficient at it?
Morgan Moses (Richmond, Va./Meadowbrook) and Maurice Hall (Cleveland, Ohio/Glenville) earned positions in the top 10 because of their run-blocking skills. Moses really gets after defenders and takes pride in being a great finisher by "pancaking" the opposition. He locks in his hands and drives his legs until the man across from him is on his back.
Hall shows his strength at the point of attack by moving the defensive man off the line of scrimmage with his powerful hips and huge upper body. The only thing keeping him from being in the top five is consistency in pass protection.
It's not often you can say a 275-pounder is light on his feet, but that is the case with Xavier Nixon (Fayetteville, N.C./Jack Britt). He show his agility when pass protecting and when darting across the field from the backside of the play to get a downfield block.
Two Big Ten-bound tackles also broke into the top 10. David Barrent (Clive, Iowa/Valley), who is headed to Michigan State, and Eric Shrive (West Scranton, Pa.), who is committed to Penn State, will fit in well with the physical nature of the conference. Barrent has a jarring first punch that stalemates opponents. His jolting initial blow along with his leg drive make him an impressive run-blocker.
Shrive takes pride in being a real workhorse on the line of scrimmage. He stays after the defender even though he plays a little high. Once he plays with more consistency in space, he'll be able to play either tackle position.
Zach Martin (Indianapolis/Chatard) and J.K. Jay (Greenville, S.C./Christ Church Episcopal) both were close to breaking into the top 10. They both are athletic, high-motor football players. Notre Dame (Martin) and Clemson (Jay) will enjoy having these two talented offensive linemen on the field.
These twelve tackles all possess the technical skills and intangibles to develop into outstanding collegiate linemen. These players all are in the upper tier at their position and currently set the standard for 2009.
Bill Conley worked at Ohio State for 17 years as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. Since retiring from Ohio State in 2004, Conley has worked as a contributor and analyst for Columbus-area print and broadcast media and as a professional speaker. He also published a book recounting his years as the Buckeyes' recruiting coordinator, "Buckeye Bumper Crops."