After a strong practice for the offense Thursday, AllHoosiers.com spoke to Indiana offensive linemen Bernard Taylor and Peyton Eckert and also heard from offensive line coach/co-offensive coordinator Greg Frey and offensive coordinator Kevin Johns.
Despite all of the experience and strong offensive stats from a year ago, Frey isn’t happy with the current state of the line.
“We’re not near where we need to be,” said Frey about the physicality of the unit. “We’re driving, we’re pressing for (better physicality). Hopefully we’ll cover that ground in the next couple of weeks.”
With an astounding 130 starts spread out over nine players, the depth and experience is encouraging for an offensive line that didn’t allow a sack in six games last season and surrendered one sack for every 26.1 passing attempts, which put the Hoosiers’ big uglies at third in the conference.
By the same token, since the Hoosiers return eight players who started in 2013 and add two players who missed all of last season but started 12 games each in 2012 (Eckert and Dan Feeney), there is a lot to figure out before the Aug. 30 opener with Indiana State.
Eckert is coming off a back injury sustained in 2013 camp while Feeney is also working his way back after a foot injury caused him to miss the entire season. In addition, Taylor missed spring ball.
For Eckert, the primary struggle getting back has been getting used to the tiredness and soreness in muscles that hadn’t been fully used in a while.
“That’s a big issue for me is getting over the back and getting treatment on it and just pushing through it,” the redshirt junior said. “Once we get that going, we’ll have a lot of guys with talent rotating. We have so many starters now and that’ll make a big difference.”
Even with so many players with starting experience, Frey is still pushing and prodding his guys to learn and grow as a unit in order to put the best five on the field.
“We’re trying to get guys out of their comfort zone,” the fourth year offensive line coach said. “Trying to get into situations where they’ve got to strain and stress themselves. We don’t really have a first team or a second team. Every position is open and we’re going all the way through camp.”
The positions that Frey is likely surer of is center and left tackle. Redshirt senior Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on, was recently named to the Rimington Award watch list, given to the nation’s most outstanding center.
The 6-7 junior Jason Spriggs has been a beacon of consistency, starting all 24 games at left tackle since coming to campus in 2012. The two-time honorable mention All-Big Ten performer anchors the blindside for Nate Sudfeld. While the departure of Tre Roberson and Cameron Coffman has taken depth away from the QB position, Eckert sees it as building consistency.
“With Sudfeld, we have some certainty there and that kind of helps,” Eckert said. “We know whose voice we’re listening to, we know who we’re protecting, we know the guy we’re fighting for. We know who’s behind us in the huddle.”
With defensive coordinator Brian Knorr’s new 3-4 scheme, the O-line has faced a different look in practice, which Taylor believes will pay off come Big Ten season.
“It kind of gives us an edge, because most of the teams we go up against are 3-4 defenses, so that’s given us extra reps for later in the season,” Taylor said.
“I think another thing it helps us out with is recognition,” Eckert said. “They’re moving around so much that our reactions are getting better because the second we’re off the ball they’re moving in some way.”
Offensive coordinator Kevin Johns has been impressed with the challenge that the defensive front has put up against the offensive line.
“I think our defensive line is much improved from a year ago, I think we’re blocking a much better front,” Johns said. “Our defensive line is winning a lot of battles right now because those guys have put on some muscle and they’re doing a great job in Coach Knorr’s scheme.”
As was the case with the rest of the offense, Johns is not fully pleased yet with the progress of the unit.
“I think we’re doing ok. I don’t think we’re playing at an All-Big Ten or All-American level quite yet,” said Johns after Thursday’s practice, which had the offense in white jerseys.
Frey is focused on improving technique; no matter what position or how many starts a player has under his belt.
“We’re taking all the guys, every position, whether they were here last year or not and then you’re trying to get them in uncomfortable positions,” Frey said.
More specifically, Frey hopes to have his linemen move their feet, play with a better base and to see their target. While the line is currently doing well to some extent, Frey understands it takes time to build the technique to the level at which the coaching staff hopes it to be.
From the players’ perspective, they have their own ideas of the improvements that need to be made before starting the 2014 campaign.
“I think the main thing is staying focused, staying hungry, having that drive to keep pushing even when you’re tired,” Taylor said. “Know that you’re fighting for the dude on the left and right of you. Having that brotherhood and focusing on the goal.”
“I think we have a solid foundation already, but it’s still just little things like communicating, continually making calls, working on zone steps, little things getting from film,” Eckert added.