Banged up O-Line gearing up for tough test

Indiana's offensive line has endured a lot of injuries, and will be challenged by Minnesota's physical and athletic offensive line when the Golden Gophers visit Bloomington for a Homecoming meeting at 3:30 p.m. today.

By nature, trench warfare is brutal. Indiana's offensive line has taken more than its fair share of direct hits, though.

With three starters out for the season and some of their backups shuffling in and out of the lineup with injuries of their own, the unit's depth has been tested, stretched and lessened, yet it keeps humming along.

Thanks to help from veteran linemen who have come back from previous injuries and the development of the Hoosiers' second and third string linemen, Indiana has weathered the storm to the tune of the Big Ten's second-ranked offense in both total yards and scoring.

"If you ask those offensive linemen, they all have a mentality that gets instilled in offensive linemen a long time ago that you have to play through pain, you have to play through injury," co-offensive coordinator Kevin Johns said. "That's a part of that position. You're never going to feel 100 percent."

IU's revamped — or patchwork, if you prefer — O-Line will have to take on Minnesota's physical yet athletic offensive line, led by defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hagemen and end Theiren Cockran, who leads the Big Ten with 5.5 sacks. Both rank in the conference's top 10 in tackles for loss.

"Those guys are big-time," Johns said of Minnesota's defensive linemen. "They're big, tall. They're strong. We've literally see a handful of times, a lot of time on film where they're just slapping offensive linemen around, knocking them on their butt, so as strong of a group as we've seen this year."

Sophomore Dan Feeney, who was slated to start at right guard, was lost for the season in August camp with a knee injury. Redshirt Sophomore David Kaminski took his spot and started IU's first five games before tearing his ACL against Penn State. He won't return this season.

Kaminski's injury forced Jake Reed — who had started games three, four and five at left guard in place of an injured Bernard Taylor — to slide over to the other side of center when Taylor returned against Michigan State Oct. 12. Reed then injured his ankle against the Spartans, pressing redshirt freshman Jacob Bailey in to duty at Michigan two weeks ago. It was Bailey's first collegiate start.

To recap, including Feeney's preseason injury and Peyton Eckert's season-ending back injury, Indiana's M.A.S.H. unit has had two different left guards, three different right guards and a pair of right tackles. Nonetheless, IU coaches and linemen have a strikingly positive outlook on the state of the line.

"I think we're pretty close to being where we were at the beginning of the season," said sophomore center Colin Rahrig, who has started every game. "It just kind of changes the faces. It's all the same scheme. We're in the same room, all doing the same thing."

Ralston Evans has started every game at right tackle in place of Eckert. Rated the No. 12 prospect in Indiana after a decorated career as a guard and defensive end at Arlington high school in Indianapolis, Evans suffered a gruesome knee injury prior to his freshman year in 2011. Now fully healthy, Evans has served as an "injury coach" of sorts for the banged up O-line.

"I know a lot of guys who come to me and just say, "Ralston, how'd you do it? How'd you come back?' he said. "And I just tell them, ‘You've just got to take it a day at a time, just keep pushing. I mean it's going to suck, but there's better days ahead. You've just got to believe and stay positive.'"

Starting left tackle Jason Spriggs said playing through pain comes with playing Division I and Big Ten football, and that seeing what Evans went through motivates the linemen to persevere.

"Ralston's knee has probably been one of the worst injuries people have seen, and he's bounced back and is doing better than ever," Spriggs said. "He's making all his blocks, so you've got to look at him and see what he's playing through and then look at yourself. You've got a bruise, he's got a messed up knee, and you've got to kind of weigh it out, and if he can play through it, you can play through it."

Feeney, Eckert and the other injured linemen are still a part of the team, Rahrig said, and are doing their part even though they can't go "toe to toe" with their teammates. Playing for the fallen linemen has become a rallying cry for those still healthy enough to plant a hand in the grass on Saturdays.

"You always want to play for the guys that don't get to play," Spriggs said. "It's killing Dan, I know it not being out there. He's always been a guy working hard and he loves the game. And David just went down, and it's been hurting him, too. Same with Peyton.

"All three of those guys really want to be out here and really play so we have to play for them, we have to play for our seniors, we have to play for the rest of the team."

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