Scouting potential draft talent is much like blind speed dating. The first two offensive linemen I looked at for 49ers Hub I'd seen play a bit this year. I knew what I was looking for and what I liked about both men.
Earlier today, I found out my editors had asked me to scout left guard Will Hernandez from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Just like that, someone I didn't know and had no background with sat at my table looking for a date.
Hernandez has physical attributes that jump off the page: 6'3”, 330 pounds, 49 consecutive starts at left guard and at least 2,800 total snaps during his career. He was an AP All-America Second Team for the second year in a row, a CBS Sports All-America Second Team and All-Conference USA First team this past season. On Janurary 27, Hernandez will play guard for the North Team in the 2018 Senior Bowl.
My litmus test for an offensive lineman is simple: Can he win the six-inch, violent battle at the line of scrimmage on each play, for sixty minutes? If you think back to your high school football days, the offensive linemen who could win said battle, and simultaneously open themselves up to good coaching, often saw the most success during and after the season.
Hernandez is the conquering hero in these battles; his pass-blocking efficiency was Pro Football Focus' best for the 2016 draft class. He has high praise from UTEP coaches for his work ethic and dedication to the program.
UTEP's offensive system wasn't some wild, Wishbone playbook based on triple-options and waggle passes. In fact, during a game against the University of Texas, I saw Hernandez and his left tackle execute a picture-perfect Tag block.
A tag block is when the tackle blocks down on the man covering the guard, and the guard comes around to block the linebacker outside the tackle. The tag block isn't a scheme for the faint of heart or the average lineman; it requires speed and precision for success. Otherwise, the quarterback is running from a free outside linebacker.
UTEP asked Hernandez to pull right in pass protection, and was not afraid to run his way when they needed short yardage. During a 2017 game against Oklahoma, Hernandez was responsible for at least three short-yardage first downs and a large gain early in the contest.
My notes on both games - 2016 vs. Texas and 2017 vs. Oklahoma - revealed a few improvements that Hernandez made in the offseason. Against Texas, he looked slow, with his feet not moving fast enough. Hernandez had trouble with linebackers at the second level. However, against Oklahoma, his footwork was faster and his vertical movement to the second level was more aggressive. Overall, he looked less like a lumbering guard and more like an athlete.
Against Oklahoma, he had a lovely A-gap blitz pick up early in the game, and then a fantastic lateral change of direction on a separate pass block. Hernandez was moving to his left, when the defender tried to cut across his face. Rather than lose position or reach to stop the defender, Hernandez gathered his feet with the grace of a floating ballerina and halted his opponent cold in his tracks.
My biggest concern for Hernandez is his size. At 330 pounds, he'd be the heaviest 49er offensive lineman by nearly 20 pounds, and the heaviest player on the roster by nine pounds. His size is excellent to beat the man in front of him, but it also causes him to look like his upper body is moving with Jacob Marley's chains wrapped around his deltoids and biceps. I have to assume with an NFL nutritionist, Hernandez can drop 15 to 20 pounds, keep his strength but speed up his overall play.
Hernandez had issues pulling and finding the correct man to hit. Against Texas, UTEP ran a power run to the right side. Power runs can target anyone on the line of scrimmage but mostly focus the attack on the defensive end. Hernandez pulled right in a slow, looping motion, let the Sam linebacker blow by him and then went after the Jack (inside linebacker) who is not the point of attack on a power.
It's possible that Hernandez is more flexible than he looks, but at his size - and with all the armor he wears on the gridiron - he can look as pliable as Silly Putty thawing out from a bath in liquid nitrogen. I want to see him at the NFL Combine without the pads and the neck roll to see what he can do in some of the movement drills.
Ignore anyone who says Hernandez played against sub-par talent in Conference USA; those guys made it, and you and I did not. He can play professional football, but he's not at the same skill level as Quenton Nelson, Billy Price or Frank Ragnow. Hernandez is a high-to-mid second-round choice, and if he's there when the 49ers are on the board, I wouldn't be upset if general manager John Lynch offered him a scarlet red uniform to wear this fall.