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Peak Perspective: The “Science & Art” of Protecting the Quarterback

Insights from San Jose State’s offensive line coach, Joe Bernardi (6 minute read)

San Jose State offensive linemen preparing against the University of New Mexico
San Jose State offensive linemen preparing against the University of New Mexico
| Vic Aquino - San Jose Mercury News

Quick stats for some initial perspective:

2017 - Spartan QBs were sacked 2.8 times per game (ranked 112th) and averaged 14.3 points per game (126th)

2018 - Spartan QBs were sacked an average of 3.3 sacks per game (124th) and averaged 19.7 points per game (117th)

2019: Five games in, Spartan QBs are being sacked at the rate of 1.5 sacks per game (34th), averaging 25.8 points per game (77th) and are the 15th-ranked passing offense in the nation, as of this writing. Rushing overall is still problematic, but is effective in spots.

The first time walking into a spring practice session in 2017, O-line coach Joe Bernardi’s voice could be heard booming from the furthest corner of the practice field adjacent to CEFCU Stadium. Along with Spartan head coach Brent Brennan, it was also Bernardi’s first year with San Jose State, which was a tough 2-11 season.

In Bernardi’s second season, in the corridors of SDCCU Stadium, after a hard loss to the Aztecs, you could hear his voice reverberating through the locker room doors while reporters waited outside. As the doors opened, Bernardi was exacting praise and motivation with a good dose of passion to one of his linemen.

For this writer having been around a few college and NFL venues, coach Bernardi, to say the least, is certainly intense. In short, he’s also an upcoming, young coach with an old-school spirit.

Brennan laughs at the “intense” description for Bernardi like it’s a huge understatement, but on game day, like for most coaches, Bernardi strives to remain calm.

“I’ve known Joe for a long time. His dad was the tight-ends coach when I was playing at UCLA when Joe was a little guy running around at practice getting into trouble,” recollected Brennan. “When the work is done, as far as the fire and brimstone during the week, what you’ll see Joe doing on game day is trying to figure out what’s going well, what’s not and trying to figure out how to communicate effectively.”

“On game day, it’s a whole other deal, because you have to be calm and you have to solve problems,” said Bernardi. “The players always laugh at me and bust my chops, because I’m much more calm on game day than in practice, because you have to be. You have to be calm when “it’s” hitting the fan, so-to-speak. If they come off the field and it’s a yell-fest, you can’t solve the problems in the middle of the game. There’s a time to have energy and a time to have juice, but on game day, there has to be a calm and the players have to feel that calm from me when they go out there.”

Bernardi has been around football his entire life. His father, Gary Bernardi, who’s currently the University of Colorado’s offensive line coach, has been coaching for 38-years, including 2010-2012 with San Jose State. The younger Bernardi played center for the Fresno State Bulldogs from 2007-2010 and always knew coaching was in his future.

“When coach Brennan hired this staff, he wanted to have guys a little bit younger who could relate and so you look across the staff, there’s a really good blend of young and older coaches. I think Brent wanted somebody that obviously could relate to the kids and get them in the right frame of mind to be able to play their best,” stated Bernardi. “With offensive linemen, there’s a level of trust that comes with it. It was my job when I first got here to earn their trust and they had to earn mine. Now, we’ve been through the fire together going on three years, there is a level of trust and they know my expectations.”

With Bernardi well into his third season in 2019 and to finally get him in an offensive line discussion seems apropos given the early success of QB Josh Love and the Spartans. Love’s amassed 1,418 passing yards and seven TD passes with a QB rating of 139.3 so far.

“There has to be great communication. There has to be great technique. Everybody has to understand the rules of the protection based upon the call, what the defense gives us and obviously how that changes on-the-fly with pressures,” said Bernardi.

It’s an idealistic theory that can never be perfect by the very chess-like nature of the game. Offensive line play is also almost impossible to follow in real-time until you can review it on replay. Mostly, it’s vastly under-appreciated.

“Obviously, we would love to have every protection be going to where the blitz is coming from. If for instance, the protection is going the right and the blitz is coming from the left, it’s on the quarterback to either change us or the offensive line to understand, “OK, hey we need to do what we call ‘bang stuff back’, where we stop and restart essentially, going back the other direction,” describes Bernardi.

Bernardi would be the first to tell you, there’s still much improvement left for the Spartans, as he proceeded to explain without giving away too much.

“Every protection called is based off whatever route combination we have called along with it,” Bernardi resumed. “Obviously, we want our quarterback to know where is he protected either to his front-side or back-side depending on where the progression of the throw is going.”

Bernadi added, “From there, you have your different styles of protection, whether it’s 5-man pro, 6-man pro, 7-man pro and then everything is based on a count system of who the offensive line is targeted to and then from there, who the running back will be responsible for and then if they bring more than we have to block, the quarterback is responsible for it.”

“It’s an on-going process and it’s something that is very unique for a high school kid when he comes in, because the amount of verbiage and knowledge and scheming that a high schooler learns compared to what we do is so different,” says Bernardi. “Understanding how the rules of protection works against different fronts is hard. It really is hard and it takes a lot of time. Most guys don’t walk in the door and pick it up.”

After starting to get your head around what can make up all the pass protection combinations, one would think how complicated it must be, especially in today’s game, but on the contrary.

“With the way offenses are today with the up-tempo, no-huddle world, they’ve actually been watered down a lot,” says Bernardi. “When I was in college, we had a ton of protections. With the way offenses are going now, the amount of protections you carry is a lot smaller than is used to be.”

Bernardi explains, “It’s watered down from a combination of a lot of different pressures that will come and if you’re trying to be a hurry-up offense, you don’t want to waste time trying to get yourself in the perfect call all the time. As a center, when I was in college, we were a huddle team and your job was to get the offensive line in the best call possible. Now, when you go no-huddle and things like that, you gotta live be the sword, die by the sword – you gotta make a call and get the ball out.”

Though it may sound like things are left to chance, the collective intelligence levels of players today have exceeded those from 10 years ago and definitely 20 and 30 years ago. It’s just a sign of the times with players and coaches advancing with more knowledge and technology more readily available than ever before.

“Pass protection is a very interesting study: is this guy aligned here, is the safety here, is the backer there, am I expecting this, while at the same time, I know I have to go against this guy on 3rd and 8 and his favorite pass rush move is…whatever…” Bernardi describes. “You gotta spend and invest time on it. Really study the tape, walk it through, and then you gotta get full-speed reps at it. When you’re picking up blitzes, you gotta do it full-speed.”

Bernardi adds, “Whether it’s first and ten, second and six, third and one, fourth and one, third and 11, if all five guys aren’t on the same page, the goose is cooked. You’re done. You all have to see the same picture. There’s an old phrase “five guys seeing the same game through one set of eyes.” That’s the goal and the communications and seeing the same picture is so important.”

As Bernardi provides just enough information to quench this nosy reporter’s questions, he’s adamant where a good amount of credit should go.

“I have the best O-Line GA (graduate assistant) in college football, Patrick Markarian. He is just the best.” touts Bernardi. “What he does to help us during the week; the information he gives me from the press box. He’s phenomenal. That’s a huge part of it and it goes unnoticed. Pat’s understanding of the pressures and the protections. He’s breaking stuff down during the week and always preparing for the next opponent and so when I start working on the next game, he already knows. The information he gives me is always dead on. It all goes in a flow.”

Bernardi is a football lifer on an upward trajectory. From how he commands and credits his players and assistants and how he conducts himself, he’s a welcomed throwback and a necessary bridge for today’s players to succeed on and off the field.

SJSU Spartan offensive line coach & run game coordinator, Joe Bernardi