FB CAMP: O-Line Has New Outlook

Bloomington, Ind. – IU Offensive Line Coach Bobby Johnson has no problem with the idea of his offensive line might not get to see the best of what opposing defensive lines have to offer this fall.

Bloomington, Ind. – IU Offensive Line Coach Bobby Johnson has no problem with the idea of his offensive line might not get to see the best of what opposing defensive lines have to offer this fall.

The third-year Hoosier assistant coach feels good about the fact he has more depth up front and a year's worth of starting experience for four of the projected starters. But he's also comforted by the fact the man who will be under center, Kellen Lewis, will make his players' jobs easier.

Sure, Lewis' mobility can erase a missed block or a blown assignment, but that escapability can also limit what an opposing defensive lineman is willing to do once the ball is snapped.

"What it does is change the mindset of the defense," said Johnson.

Instead of pinning their ears back and coming after the Hoosiers' signal caller, defensive ends must be even more concerned about staying in their lanes, keeping containment and not letting Lewis get outside. Defensive coordinators are choosing to take an athletic outside linebacker or safety to "spy" on Lewis, having him move around the field with Lewis without being involved in the pass rush.

"That makes my line's job easier, because you're not getting the defensive line's best rush," Johnson said. "They're more worried about the guy running the ball than getting to him."

While Lewis' skill set makes the offensive line's job easier, Johnson is also pleased to be working with an offensive line that returns largely in tact from a year ago. Left tackle Rodger Saffold, left guard Pete Saxon, right guard Jonathan Sandberg and right tackle Charlie Emerson return after being first-year starters a year ago, while center Ben Wyss is the only newcomer to the front five.

Saffold and Saxon made their debuts a year ago as true freshmen, working their way into the starting line-up by the time the Big Ten slate got underway a year ago. While they're still just second-year college players, they've grown a great deal over the past 12 months.

"Pete and Rodger have matured greatly," said Emerson. "They have a good season under their belts and they are veterans now. They've become great players."

Saffold has gone from a virtual unknown in last year's recruiting class to arguably the most important piece on the Hoosiers' offensive line. He'll protect Lewis' blindside as the Hoosiers' left tackle, and Johnson thinks he's well equipped to blossom into a special player.

"If you watch him in pass protection he's a lot stronger, if you watch his feet and balance, he's never, ever, ever on the ground," said Johnson. "As an offensive line coach, that tickles you pink. He's going to be matched up against the other team's best pass rusher, and he's a guy that's always going to have his body between the defender and the quarterback, which always gives you a chance."

Emerson anchors the other side of the line, and is the leader of the group as a fifth-year senior. It was just one year ago that Emerson went from being a starting defensive end to the team's starting right tackle, and he's continued to learn his new position and become more comfortable with role.

"I'm more confident, I know what I'm doing, my technique, my steps," Edmundson said. "I feel a lot more confident going into game one this year than last year."

The Hoosiers have suffered a couple of injuries up front, as projected second-string left tackle James Brewer (foot surgery) and his replacement, Kenny Love (high ankle sprain), have both been sidelined for the majority of camp. But the No. 1 unit has remained in tact, and that's the unit that will see the majority – if not all – of the snaps on game days.

"I don't like to rotate offensive linemen because you want them to be cohesive," Johnson said. "So I like to play five, but I also like to have two or three (other) guys ready. My ideal number is seven, if I have eight I'm tickled pink. I'd like to have a backup for tackle, guard and center, and they have to be able to go either side.

"I'm going to put the five best on there. If that means I have to play four tackles and a center, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to get the five best on there."

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