Bloomington, Ind. – Bobby Johnson knows what his seven freshman offensive linemen are going through.
Fifteen years ago, Johnson was a true freshman at Miami (Ohio), a promising offensive line prospect who was good enough to play his way onto the field in his debut season. The excitement of getting a chance to play was quickly replaced by the realization that this wasn't high school football anymore.
"My initial surprise was just the physical nature of the game," Johnson said. "Unlike a lot of positions, on the offensive line, you're getting hit or hitting someone every single play. It might not be high impact collision, but it's a collision nonetheless."
But the challenge facing Johnson wasn't limited to the physical. As his first football camp came to a close and it was apparent he was going to get a chance to play, there was a whole new set of challenges thrown his way.
"The biggest thing that sticks out in my mind is the mental wear you go through," Johnson said. "Right now, all they're thinking about football. Then we're adding stuff everyday, adjusting things everyday, so that starts to wear on them mentally. Then you factor in classes once school starts, and on game week, you tend to hit that freshman wall, where mentally they kind of shut down."
That experience will come in handy for Johnson, who is overseeing the development of the "Seven Blocks of Limestone" – seven true freshman offensive lineman that Coach Terry Hoeppner believes will be the offense's foundation in the not-too-distant future. It's a group that consists of four tackles (James Brewer, Alex Perry, Mike Stark and Rodger Saffold), two guards (Pete Saxon and Cody Faulkner) and one center (Jarrod Smith).
While all seven won't play this fall, it's a good bet a couple will. And from a physical standpoint, Johnson thinks two in particular are the most prepared.
"Right now, the guys that could physically handle the rigors of playing a Big Ten schedule are probably the two guard bodies, Cody Faulkner and Pete Saxon, just by their sheer size and just their natural strength could probably hold up," Johnson said.
There hasn't been a great deal of shuffling in the two-deep just yet, but both Faulkner and Saxon have been getting some reps with the No. 2 offensive line, with Saxon playing behind projected starting left tackle Kyle Thomas and Faulkner backing up starting right guard Jonathan Sandberg. While the 6-5, 315-pound Faulkner and the 6-6, 310-pound Saxon obviously arrived on the IU campus with the strength and size to make an early contribution, Johnson has been equally impressed with what they've been able to pick up in just a week of college football.
"Cody is a guy in the (offensive line) meetings that you could tell really understood, and with his physical size, he's 6-5, 315, he has some natural strength where he can hang in there and handle some of the physical part of the game,"Johnson said. "Pete Saxon, the same way. He's a little bit behind Cody as far as the mental understanding but he's still right there understanding what we're doing, and has the ability to get in the two-deep. Those two guys, physically, are probably the closest."
Indiana's other five newcomers on the offensive line, meanwhile, have some filling out to do before they're ready to play. The most obvious case is 6-7, 250-pound Alex Perry, a gifted athlete who has been working with the No. 4 line at right tackle. But the same holds true for the No. 3 left tackle Saffold (6-5, 275), No. 3 center Jarrod Smith (6-4, 278) and the No. 3 right tackle Stark (6-8, 280).
The 6-8, 295-pound Brewer, meanwhile, has a tremendous frame but is still learning the position of offensive tackle. Brewer concentrated on basketball at the prep level before deciding to go out for his high school football team as a senior.
"James Brewer is a kid who is a great physical specimen, very intelligent kid, but only has one year of football under his belt," Johnson said. "So he's learning some things the last five days that he didn't even know existed."
Stark is the tackle who has earned a few reps with the No. 2 unit, but Johnson admits he'd prefer to rely on veterans at the tackle spots this season to let Stark mature physically.
"Mike Stark has done a good job," Johnson said. "He's another big kid, 6-8, 280, that is really athletic. So he's not too far away. In an ideal world I'd like to maybe let him get that redshirt and let him fill out that frame that he has."
But whether it's players like Saxon and Faulkner who could help this year or newcomers such as Brewer and Perry whose contributions will mostly likely come down the road, Johnson is excited about what he's seen from the group, and he's optimistic about each of their futures.
"It's a physically impressive group," Johnson said. "Each one has very unique abilities. I think they are all going to be very good football players down the road."
Johnson Talks About Seven Blocks of Limestone
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