FLORHAM PARK, NJ — Pro Football Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz had the chance to meet Alijah Vera-Tucker in the weeks leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft. As part of the Hall of Fame’s mentorship program, Munoz spent time with Vera-Tucker in Arizona, where the future New York Jets first-round pick was training. The former USC Trojans watched a movie together, talked about X and O, and did some fieldwork.
Munoz knew Vera-Tucker would be a good offensive lineman in the NFL. But this good? Someone who has played in three different positions this season at a high level?
“It’s amazing,” said Munoz, a former Cincinnati Bengals great.
Vera-Tucker, who played left guard as a rookie, started at right guard (three games), left tackle (one) and right tackle (two), becoming just the third lineman since 2006 to playing four different positions in his first 22 games, according to Sports Radar. (The other two were Brady Christensen of the Panthers and Michael Ola of the Saints and Chargers.) In Vera-Tucker’s three starts at tackle, he has yet to allow a sack or a quarterback and has only been penalized. once (illegal training, which was refused). He leads the Jets with a 94.3% pass block success rate. Until two weeks ago, he had never played a good tackle at any level.
His exploits resonate far beyond the Jets locker room. ESPN interviewed five former offensive linemen from different eras, including three Hall of Famers, and they were all blown away by Vera-Tucker’s versatility, skill and selflessness.
“I don’t think you can overstate how difficult it is, what he does,” said Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf, who started all five positions during his career with the Cardinals. of St. Louis (1971-1983).
Former Jacksonville Jaguars star Tony Boselli, another Hall of Famer and former Trojan who started watching Vera-Tucker in college, said: “I was impressed from afar and even more impressed to understand what he is doing this year with the constant change of positions.”
“I don’t know if people can really appreciate what he’s done this year,” said ESPN analyst Damien Woody, who held four different positions over his 12-year career. “It’s just remarkable.”
John Schmitt, the starting center for the Jets’ Super Bowl III team, said, “The only thing he doesn’t do is sell hot dogs at halftime.”
A layman might wonder, “What’s so hard about changing positions?” All he has to do is move a few feet to his left or right. Well, yes, that’s true, but it’s much more nuanced than that.
First, the left tackle and left guard line up in a southpaw stance; the right tackle and the right guard are in a right hand position. Bill Muir, who coached the offensive line for seven teams for 30 years, said it’s a tougher adjustment than people realize and some players can’t handle it.
Offensive linemen are creatures of habit. Their performance relies heavily on repetition and muscle memory. Disrupt the rhythm and it can derail a player, even the best of the best. Munoz, arguably the greatest left tackle in history, attempted to play right tackle late in his career – a three-week stint in training camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He struggled with change, one of the reasons he decided to retire at that time.
Going from guard to tackle (or vice versa) on the same side of the line is one thing; switching to the other side of the line is extremely difficult, former players said. That’s what makes Vera-Tucker’s feat so impressive.
“I’ll tell you,” Munoz said, “the Jets have a gem there with someone who can do that and play at a high level.”
Hand placement and footwork also vary with each stance, as do the skills of the opponent. Tacklers should block speed rushers on the edge, often unassisted. The guards take 320-pound defensive tackles in the proverbial phone booth. Vera-Tucker, listed at 6-foot-5 and 308 pounds, has the agility to handle edge rushers and the power to battle inside linemen.
“On the offensive line you’re doing something that’s not totally natural,” Boselli said. “You step back, try to stop a defender, who is usually a better athlete than you. You need reps and it’s very technical. The technique between guard and tackle, especially in the passing game, is The ability to move from one to the other, whether in-game or week to week, and performing at a high level is not only challenging physically, but mentally. different schemes, different responsibilities, and he jumps from job to job on a whim.”
The mental aspect cannot be overlooked, the ability to memorize new pieces and grasp different concepts and rules for short-term protection.
“When we played there were 25 or 30 assignments for each position,” said Schmitt, who played in three different positions during his 11-year career. “So he must have remembered 100 assignments – probably more – in a jiffy.”
Muir said Vera-Tucker’s feat “isn’t impossible, but it’s difficult because each post brings its own set of encyclopedias, so to speak.” He hasn’t studied Vera-Tucker on tape, but he knows the circumstances — three different spots this season, no glaring mistakes — and he can’t help but marvel at them.
“He must have great football instincts,” Muir said. “Not all players do it. Some players see things and anticipate things better than other players who don’t.”
Woody has played in every line position except left tackle in his career, so he can relish the challenge of change better than most. But, as he noted, his job changes happened over the course of a career, not weeks, as happened with Vera-Tucker.
“Think about it: you’re asking a guy to come out and play a position he’s never played before against the best in the world,” Woody said. “I don’t care who he lined up against. It’s the NFL. To go out there and not just play, but play at a high level – I mean, there just aren’t enough superlatives that I can give AVT for what it’s shooting right now.”
“The athletic skills required to play so many positions without making a fool of himself, blocking the wrong people or letting people go with a free run at quarterback, that’s a real compliment to him,” Dierdorf said. “Not many people can do that.”
Told that Vera-Tucker still hasn’t awarded a sack at the tackle, Dierdorf replied, “Wow, it’s getting better and better.”
Vera-Tucker was drafted 14th overall to play left guard. After a strong rookie year, he moved to right guard to make room for the acquisition of free agent Laken Tomlinson. Injured at tackle, Vera-Tucker began practicing his left tackle passes in his spare time at post-training sessions called “Flight School” – a daily gathering of players looking for extra work.
It was a “just in case” decision by Vera-Tucker, who played left tackle in her final season at USC. Luckily he did because when George Fant got injured in Week 3, he was asked if he would be okay to start at left tackle. The coaches asked; they did not order him. It happened the same way when they needed a right tackle to replace the injured Max Mitchell.
Some players, concerned about their reputation and future paydays, would have passed. Without hesitation, Vera-Tucker agreed.
“For me it says, ‘I’m confident in what I can do,'” Munoz said. “It’s team first and trust.”
Since moving Vera-Tucker to left and right tackle, also inserting Nate Herbig at right guard, the Jets are 3-0 averaging 30 ppg — tied for third most in that span. Fant, who also plays right tackle, is eligible to return next week, but it’s hard to imagine them disrupting the current chemistry.
Which means Vera-Tucker’s days at the right tackle could last longer than expected.
“It happens early in his career, so wherever he ends up it will make him a better player,” Dierdorf said. “He will have a better understanding of the online game. He will see the big picture.”