If you created an offensive line purely out of players who went to Oklahoma, you’d have a strong case for being the NFL’s best blocking team.
Before this year’s draft, the group of successful ex-Sooner starters in the NFL already included the likes of Philadelphia Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson, Washington left tackle Trent Williams, Carolina Panthers right tackle Daryl Williams and Baltimore Ravens right tackle Orlando Brown.
In this year’s draft Oklahoma saw four more linemen taken: Cody Ford (38th), Bobby Evans (97th), Dru Samia (114th) and Ben Powers (122nd).
The remarkable group of success stories coming from Oklahoma has earned the school the nickname Offensive Line University.
“They’ve always produced some offensive linemen down there,” Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said on draft night.
In a draft that saw Spielman trade down numerous times, the one deal he made to move up was to take Samia, Oklahoma’s 6-foot-5 lineman who was second-team All-American and first-team All-Big 12.
“He was an unbelievable interview at the Combine, maybe one of the toughest competitors we’ve seen on tape on how he finishes,” Spielman said.
Behind the success of Oklahoma O-linemen is offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, who watched the draft with pride.
“It’s a special deal,” Bedenbaugh said over the phone on Friday. “It doesn’t happen very often. You’re not in that position much…It’s an awesome feeling for those guys because it’s a lifelong dream that they get to accomplish.”
Bedenbaugh has been with the Sooners since 2013 and was bumped up to O-line coach/co-offensive in 2017. He began his career at Oklahoma Panhandle State University in 1995 and worked for Valdosta State, Central Michigan, Ferris State, Texas Tech, Arizona and West Virginia before landing in Oklahoma.
“Being an O-line coach you want your guys to be known for something,” he said of the O-line University nickname. “What we’re going to be known for is playing physical, playing tough, finishing, playing the game the right way.”
Bedenbaugh said the process of creating a star-studded offensive line filled with physical players starts with recruiting the right types of personalities.
“I think in that position that’s what we try to recruit. We try to, the best we can, find guys who are going to play like that on tape in high school. It’s not always easy,” Bedenbaugh said. “Guys can develop it some but I don’t know how much you can truly develop it. We’re fortunate to have a culture where that’s expected and that’s how you’re supposed to play and if you don’t play like that you’re probably not going to play here.”
Samia was recruited from Sacramento, California, where he was a top-15 offensive tackle recruit. Bedenbaugh said turning a top recruit like Samia into an NFL player begins in the weight room. The team uses its resources as a top program to tailor training programs specifically to each position.
“We really train these guys in the weight room in their development to be offensive linemen,” he said. “They don’t train like a receiver, they don’t train like a D-lineman. They’re going to do all the same lifts but we’ve spent a lot of time researching things and talking to people and we go out and we try to get the equipment that’s going to help them become good offensive linemen because it is such an unnatural position.”
Bedenbaugh emphasized to Samia that his size needed to be on par with NFL linemen to hold up against the best of the best. At the Combine he weighed in at 305 and the O-line coach thinks Samia can easily play at 315 without losing his athleticism. At rookie minicamp, head coach Mike Zimmer said Samia looked bigger and joked that he was “hitting the banquet circuit.”
Aside from building NFL bodies, Bedenbaugh is trying to develop NFL minds. Oklahoma’s linemen work to grasp not only their own position and blocking techniques but the bigger picture of how and why plays come together.
“They understand formations, they understand defenses, they understand play concepts and what we’re trying to accomplish within the play so they’re really, really football smart,” Bedenbaugh said. “That’s another thing I think that will give them an edge when they get there because I don’t know that everybody else teaches the way that we do here.”
The Sooners’ O-line coach said the team’s offense is close enough to NFL offenses that it makes for a smooth transition from college to the highest level.
“I think they are trained from the time they get here — if they want to play at that level and every guy here does — this is how you’re going to be successful and get there and also this is how you’re going to stay there and make money,” Bedenbaugh said.
The Vikings haven’t been shy about the fact they will be running a zone scheme this year with Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski in charge of the offense. Their top pick, center Garrett Bradbury, was known for his zone blocking skill. Samia doesn’t fit the exact height/weight/quickness specifications for zone blockers said he feels at home with zone running concepts.
“I’m very comfortable,” Samia said. “I felt like at Oklahoma we ran a pretty versatile offense, so whether I went to a team for power or zone, I felt like I was going to be a good fit. Of all the NFL coaches that I was talking to, they said that I was more of a zone scheme guy. I’ll just trust the NFL expertise.”
“I think those guys are a fit in any offense. I don’t think you can pin them down and say, ‘this guy can only play in a zone scheme, this guy can only play in a gap scheme. I don’t believe that. I’m sure as much zone as [the Vikings] are going to run they are going to run some gap schemes. [Samia] is an athlete, he understands the techniques of reaching people or on inside zone of moving people so he understands combination blocks, he understands footwork, he understands hand placement.”
Still, no matter how much preparation an offensive lineman has in college and how many schemes they ran, there is always work to be done in order to stick in the NFL. As much as Bedenbaugh emphasizes playing with physical toughness — and Samia was a poster boy for that at Oklahoma — the long-time O-line coach said harnessing his rage will be key to his success with the Vikings.
“That was the one thing he needed to do and at times play more under control,” Bedenbaugh said. “He is a physical guy that gets pissed off and sometimes he plays out of control and he’s got to play with that edge and that mentality but also play under control.”
Samia will get a chance right away to make an impact. While the Vikings drafted Bradbury, signed veteran Josh Kline and are likely to move Pat Elflein to guard, there will be competition on the interior of the offensive line in training camp. More likely than not, he will be depth in 2019 with the potential to become another one of O-line University’s quality NFL starters down the road.