Can Bronco Offensive Line Regain Past Magic?

An inability to consistently run the football has been unheard of at Boise State over the last ten years. So when Bronco coaches noticed this discrepancy from the norm last year, especially against TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl, it got their attention. Boise State fully expects the offensive line to mature this season into a unit hell-bent on opening huge holes once again.

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Entering the 2009 season, there are few question marks about a young but talented Bronco football team.  The QB debate has long been put to rest.  The running back roster is deep.  The wide receiver corps should perform admirably.  The defense is as solid as it ever has been.  The offensive line is…huh…how about that offensive line?  Pondering the offensive line causes the author's warm fuzzy feeling to fade but should it?  

Throughout this article we'll look at where the O-line has been, where they are now, and where they're going.  Former Bronco Jeff Cavender will weigh in on his assessment of the current line as well as giving insight to what it took to make his line so successful.

 

THE PAST  

The 2008 offensive line was in a constant state of flux.  Anchored by veteran Andrew Woodruff, the line went through more starting lineup changes than Van Halen front men: 13 different lineups to be exact.  The only constant was then-freshman, Thomas Byrd at center.  Heralded for their athleticism and potential, Boise State still fielded one of the lightest and youngest lines in recent memory.  With the exception of Woodruff, gone were the 300+ pound hogs and in their place, a new breed of 260 and 270-pound agile underclassmen.  Last year also marked the absence of an heir apparent to the Daryn Colledge/Ryan Clady crown of hot commodity left tackle.  

As second-year offensive line coach Scott Huff tweaked the lineup, trying to find the right combination, the young line occasionally sputtered.  At no time was this more apparent than against a large, physical, senior laden TCU defensive line in the 2008 Poinsettia Bowl.  As the trench warfare raged on, the line struggled to open up holes and create lanes, resulting in a net of only 28 rushing yards.  In fact, the running game was disappointing all season.  Despite a deep stable of running backs that included senior Ian Johnson, the run game averaged only 4.4 yards per carry, the lowest since 2003.  

Despite rushing woes, the 2008 O-line developed into proficient pass blockers, allowing wunderkind Kellen Moore to flourish and establish himself as the best freshman quarterback in the nation.  Athletic, agile, and fast proved to be more than a challenge to most would-be pass rushers.  The O-line would contribute to an astonishing 11.7 yards per pass, the highest since 2005.

 

THE PRESENT  

The offensive line exited spring ball with more confidence.  Despite their age, this is now a squad that can claim some experience and it's beginning to pay off.  While starters Nate Potter and Kevin Sapien were out with injuries, both recovered and participated fully in fall camp.  Unfortunately, sophomore Cory Yriarte, a seeming lock at left guard, appears to be out for the season with a knee injury sustained during a scrimmage.  Not only does this line lose his experience at guard, they also lose a back-up center.  

 

THE FUTURE  

It is imperative that Coach Huff establish a consistent starting lineup this season.  The nuances and assignments of each position are so different that as a whole, the line will suffer with a musical chairs approach.  Would-be starters must pull ahead and secure their spots in order to build cohesion and fully perform to their potential.  Another key to success is the establishment of a successful run game.  This hinges upon the line's ability to open up holes, create lanes, and maintain them long enough for a running back corps loaded with talent to get downfield.  Running backs have to be able to bust through that first level of defense successfully and take it to the linebackers and defensive backs.   Fortunately, documented bulk has been added to many of the linemen in the off season with some players adding as much as 10-25 pounds at the start of fall camp.  This is a step in the right direction towards realizing the effectiveness of this facet of the offense.

 

All starting spots on the offensive line are up for grabs in fall camp.  Here's a look at how it should play out.

 

Center: At this point the only sure bet on the entire line is sophomore Thomas Byrd (5-11, 284) at center.  Byrd, who made the Rimington Trophy watch list on August 20, started all 13 games last season and continues a tradition of short, but effective centers.  What he lacks in size, he makes up for in keen intellect, and fast snap and step ability.  Should Byrd go down with injury, look for freshman Bronson Durrant (6-3, 266) to take up the reins.  

Guards:  Junior Kevin Sapien (6-4, 286) should hold down the right guard position.  Sapien possesses great core strength and has the nasty disposition needed to excel on the line.  He played in 12 games last year, starting in 10.  With the loss of Yriarte, junior Will Lawrence (6-2, 291), a converted defensive lineman, and freshman Joe Kellogg (6-2, 305) will battle for the other spot.  Lawrence, who only played one year of high school football, has been a work in progress but brings experience from playing in three games last year on the O-line.  Sophomore Garrett Pendergast (6-4, 271) and freshmen Brenel Myers (6-2, 267) will also be looking for playing time but will need to gain more weight before they see anything but mop-up duty.  

Tackles:  Junior Matt Slater (6-4, 290) appears to be unchallenged at left tackle.  He has proven versatility, playing three different positions last year during 13 games, six of which he started in.  In addition to good speed, punch strength, and the ability to swing out as a lead blocker, he also can claim some of the best hair on the offensive line.  Sophomore Nate Potter (6-6, 295) and freshman Michael Ames (6-4, 281) are locked in a dead heat for right tackle.  With Kellen Moore being a southpaw, the all-important assignment of protecting his blind side shifts from left to right tackle.  Potter has all of the attributes and keys necessary to inherit the Colledge/Clady crown and should reach 300+ pounds by the time he is an upperclassman.  His footwork and awareness, coupled with his handwork should keep most pass rushers at bay.  He is an experienced tackle having played in 12 games last year, starting in eight.  As long as he can stay healthy - Potter has been plagued with shoulder and knee issues - his potential is unlimited.  Ames , a local Centennial High School product, distinguished himself while Potter was out and should see playing time regardless of starting status.  Sophomore Zach Waller (6-5, 289) should prove to be an able back-up with freshmen Faraji Wright (6-3, 284) and Tom Swanson (6-6, 273) also in the hunt.  

This offensive line is not yet built of big hogs but is on its way.  Depending on starting lineup, the average weight of the line should fall somewhere in the mid to high 280's.  Fortunately, the top teams Boise State will face this season do not approach what TCU was able to bring to the table last year.  Oregon 's projected defensive ends average 247 while their projected defensive tackles average 265.  It's much the same with Nevada (243, 278), Tulsa (258, 283), and Fresno (238, 280). 

The biggest lines Boise State will face are Miami of Ohio (265, 310) and Hawaii (253, 295); however their girth is more a product of Krispy Kreme than Body by Jake. Historically however, If the season goes as hoped, there is a good chance, Boise State will face a top-25 team in either a BCS bowl or in a middle tier bowl.  It will take a solid season of consistent play, and larger offensive linemen that can facilitate both the passing and running game to be successful against a top ranked team.  

In analyzing this pivotal set of positions, I recently was able to talk with a man whose experience and insight are unparalleled: former guard, center, and tackle, Jeff Cavender.

 

John V:  Jeff, you were part of a very young offensive line that evolved and developed into, arguably, Boise State 's greatest O-line.  What do you feel made your line so successful?  

Jeff Cavender:  We all didn't feel like it mattered if you were a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior.  You go out, earned a starting position and should be accountable for that spot and the team no matter what class you were in.  You're a starter for a reason, because your coaches and teammates have faith in your capabilities and it is just a matter of going out there and doing your job at a high level.  For Pete [brother Pete Cavender], Tad [Miller], and myself; we were just really hungry and wanting to prove that we belonged to be in the starting five especially after sitting out the 2003 season red-shirting.  Everyday we were trying to push each other whether in the weight room, film room, or on the practice field and I really don't think I would have had as much success individually without both Pete and Tad.  

We also had great leadership, especially from Daryn Colledge, and that mixed in with a very talented and energetic coaching staff helped to put the pieces together in the puzzle for our success which translated into team success.
 
JV:  A few starting players rotated in and out of the line through your years (Colledge, Clady, Dailey, etc.) but for the most part, the core remained the same: you, your brother, Andrew Woodruff, Tad Miller.  At what point do you feel like you really gelled as a unit?   

JC:  Communication is key with any offensive line and we learned how to do that on the practice field.  You learn different looks from the defense from film work or the practice field and you have to make quick adjustments on the line and you can't keep that a secret from the other O-lineman.  To gel as an offensive line, repetitions are the only real way to get comfortable with the guys you're playing next to and it definitely takes some time to get that done.  There are a lot of momentum shifts in a game but you have to learn how to keep on top when you have it going your way, and when the defense has the momentum, it is the responsibility of the offensive line to take back control of the game with establishing the run game which will also lead to opening up some gaps in the secondary for some play-action passes.  

The offensive-line is the only spot on a football team where it takes all five guys working together to get the job done.  Four guys could have done their job, but that one other player's missed assignment or block could result in a negative play.

 
JV:  Shifting gears, what was your analysis of last year's O-line?  Were there any players that stood out in your mind?  

JC:  Last year's offensive line really lacked game-time experience going into the season, outside of Woody, and there is no truer experience than game experience.  You can practice at full speed but it will never be like it is in a game.  

I know my last summer in Boise in 2007; I really tried to do my best to teach up some of the younger guys that I knew would get looks for playing time early in their careers.  Thomas Byrd really caught onto the system quick - he is a very intelligent player and he needs to be to make up for his lack in size but he has a strong enough drive and uses his pad-level real well to his advantage.  I have always been a fan of Kevin Sapien.  He has one of the strongest upper bodies I've seen out of all of the linemen I've played with in Boise .  When he uses great form, he is tough to beat.  Nate Potter is someone who I was impressed with even the first time I saw him practice.  The guy has great feet and a strong punch.  I really think that Nate will be one of the top-notch linemen in the WAC this year and has the potential to be the next Daryn Colledge/Ryan Clady.  

JV:  The current O-line developed into very good pass blockers however the run blocking was not as efficient.  What will this squad need to do to get the run game going?  

JC:  To be successful running the rock, you have to be confident.  The run game is a mentality that you know you are going to dominate your defender off of the line of scrimmage for the entire game--you have to have a swagger about yourself to be a great run blocking o-line.  Scott Huff, being one of the best offensive lineman to come through Boise State - which is why he is a great coach; he played the game the right way and he teaches it the right way.  You put on game film of Huff in his playing days and he is playing exactly like I am talking about.  Playing mean and nasty - the O-line way.  As long as the O-line can gain confidence in their capabilities, it will translate into bigger numbers on the ground for this year's offense.
  
JV:  While not tipping the scale, the current O-line has still been noted as being very athletic.  Is that enough?  At some point does athletic only go so far and you just need some bulk and 290 and 300 pound linemen?  

JC:  To play in Boise State's system, you have to be an athletic lineman.  It requires a lot of blocking out in space and blocking on the second and third levels.  That being said, athleticism will only get you so far and can limit you, especially when facing schools with bigger defenses like Oregon , Washington , Georgia , Oklahoma , etc.  Coach Socha and the rest of the strength staff do a great job of not letting these linemen balloon up to be 300 plus in a hurry.  You have to put it on the right way in the weight room and not in the fast food restaurant.  Building bulk takes time and they will get there as long as they keep putting in the effort in the weight room.  But if I had to choose between an athletic lineman versus an over-sized guy, I'd take the athletic lineman every time.

 

The offensive line still poses the greatest unanswered question on this year's team.  It is a question that will be answered September 3 as Bronco fans cross their fingers and hope for a resounding return to O-line dominance.


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