Jack Conklin had a heavy interest in the race for the NFL's rushing title last season.
Conklin, who played last season as right tackle for the Tennessee Titans, wanted to do all he could to push Derrick Henry to the top. Henry, of course, was in a tight competition for the rushing title in Week 17 with Browns RB Nick Chubb, who held the top spot over Henry by 124 yards before the final regular season game.
Then, a 211-yard performance from Henry catapulted him to the top spot. For Conklin and the Titans' offensive line, Henry's achievement also served as a way of showing how dominant they were last season, too.
"It was definitely a huge topic," said Conklin, who's now preparing to block for Chubb in his first season as right tackle for the Browns. "We really wanted to get Derrick that title. That was definitely huge for us as an offensive line and something that we talked about even on the sideline."
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Now, Conklin is hoping to bring that title to Chubb or Kareem Hunt, who was the NFL's rushing leader in 2017. He knows what it takes — both in schemes and in chemistry — for an offensive line to bond together and push a running back to the top.
Cleveland's wide zone schemes in the trenches are similar to what the Titans deployed last season. Offensive linemen focus on blocking whichever defenders are in their allotted zone rather than honing on predetermined assignments against an individual defender. During the play, a running back simply picks whichever gap is most open or can widen the run to the outside.
The scheme works best with a powerful running back and a reliable offensive line. That's what Cleveland has this year in Chubb and an O-line that features three veterans, a promising first-round pick and a healthy competition at right guard.
"It's pretty darn similar to the offense I ran last year," Conklin said about the schemes. "A few different terms here and there. Seeing the opportunities that we had last year in Tennessee and seeing the roster we had compared to the roster here, we have so many threats here. It is going to be exciting. I think there are going to be a lot of opportunities for big plays and having a lot of fun using the wide zone."
Conklin might be most comfortable so far in the scheme change due to his familiarity from last season. The rest of the offensive line was dealt a late start to practicing the schemes together after the COVID-19 pandemic forced all players to complete offseason activities from home.
The unusual circumstances were less than ideal for the offensive line, where cohesion and chemistry on each play is crucial. Players must have an understanding on where their blocking zones begin and end, so on-field practice was an important component in gelling the playbook together.
After five days of team practice, however, Conklin believes the offensive line is up to speed on the correct reads and responsibilities on each play.
"It was definitely a new challenge having to start off with Zoom, but it actually led us to have a lot more chances to just install and go over stuff over and over again," Conklin said. "It was not the physical reps, but those mental reps are huge. To be able to go over the offense three or four times and start top to bottom, that definitely helped a lot, especially with the offensive line.
"You really see the difference the second day when guys start to settle down, really key in and start figuring things out."
As Week 1 begins to creep closer on the calendar, Conklin again plans to have his eyes on the rushing title. He knows the other offensive lineman will as well if Chubb or Hunt open the season near the top of the rushing leaderboard.
To do that, however, the work in the trenches needs to be crisp. Conklin knows that best, but with a revamped offensive line in Cleveland and two of the league's best running backs behind him, Conklin is hoping to again finish on a team that touts the league's top rusher.
"It would be awesome," Conklin said. "It's going to be a lot of fun, even with Nick and Kareem. It's not often you two guys that are that good on one team. I'm excited to see just how good these guys' vision is with this wide zone offense and the opportunities they are going to have to have some big games."