By Rob Moseley
If you needed any, here are two reasons to keep an eye on Oregon center Hroniss Grasu on Saturday at Washington.
First off, Hroniss is a heck of a guy. Always in a good mood, always saying hello in casual interactions. (Personal aside: Asks me how my new job is going, things like that. And seems to genuinely care about the response.)
His reach in that regard is far and wide. Grasu is one of the true leaders of this UO football team – a “Man of Oregon,” in the team’s parlance – as documented so well today by Jason Quick of the Oregonian.
But also, Grasu will be worth watching Saturday because he’ll be involved in one of the game’s most significant one-on-one battles. Grasu, Oregon’s 6-foot-3, 297-pound center, will be head-up with UW nose tackle Danny Shelton, who goes 6-1 and 327 pounds.
Just as Washington’s up-tempo, spread offense takes many, many pages from Oregon’s playbook, so too does the UW defense. Like the Ducks, the Huskies will shift between three-man and four-man defensive lines. But in either case, Grasu and Shelton figure to be locked up.
“They’re very active, very physical,” Grasu said. “I’ve definitely got to concentrate on my technique, my hand placement, and getting off the ball.”
Like Oregon, the Huskies tend to be a two-gap team up front on defense. Linemen are responsible for the gaps on either side of a blocker; in a one-gap scheme, a lineman is looking to quickly penetrate his assigned gap, but two-gap linemen need to be bigger, stronger, more patient and able to diagnose plays.
Rather than trying to quickly penetrate gaps, two-gap defensive linemen want to avoid being tied up while diagnosing a play. That keeps blockers occupied and leaves linebackers free to make tackles, unless a runner comes into one of the linemen’s gaps, in which he’ll try and make a play.
In passing situations, the Huskies will go with a smaller, quicker line, more of a one-gap look. But with his size, Shelton is a perfect two-gap nose tackle. (Ditto Oregon’s Wade Keliikipi, in that regard.)
“He’s a big guy, and gets off the ball really well,” Grasu said.
By giving up mass to Shelton, Grasu knows he’ll need to rely on technique and speed. He wants to fire off the ball quickly, get his hands inside Shelton’s shoulders to gain leverage, then stay low enough to maintain it.
In reviewing film of their matchup from last season, Grasu said, he saw himself standing up too high a couple of times.
“I’m definitely going to fix that,” he said.
Technique will further be at a premium when Shelton correctly reads a play, and looks to fill a gap that the Ducks are trying to attack.
“If he’s going to try to come back in the other gap, I’ve got to use my off hand and – we call it ‘wrench’ – wrench him over and open the lane for the running back,” Grasu said. “I’ve definitely got to concentrate on that."
For example, the Ducks may want to run off Grasu’s left side, but Shelton could anticipate that and move to fill that gap. Grasu will need to use his left hand and arm, plus the power in his hips, to wrench Shelton back to Grasu’s right, clearing the space.
It’s an intricate dance, one for which Grasu and Shelton figure to be partners for most of the afternoon Saturday.