A family man to his far left, a married man rotating to his right side the offensive line: Despite being a third-year, 21-year-old junior on the Oklahoma offensive line, center Ty Darlington was the young one – both physically and mentally.
Last year’s group was one that featured six seniors and a combined 20 years of experience in a rotation of almost 10 players. Four made an NFL camp this preseason. It was a line of peers, everyone equally dedicated to working on getting better and putting in time to take care of their business.
Darlington was proud to be a part of that “almost professional” line.
But teaching his new peers the lessons that everyone already knew last year and being a leader for a group that had no idea how to even be a championship line in January means something even more to Darlington.
“I don’t know if you could ever top the feeling I have for this line because of the improvement,” Darlington said. “We didn’t even know what it meant to be exceptional, what it meant to be a championship O-line last year in January. Now, we’ve got a taste of it, and we have a chance to make our mark in an even bigger way.”
A match-up in the College Football Playoff as the Big 12 Champion likely looms on New Year’s Eve, but in January when the sting of Oklahoma’s loss to Clemson was still fresh, the line started to come together – albeit slowly.
Starting right tackle Dru Samia wasn’t on campus. Left tackle Orlando Brown redshirted, filled with potential but unproven. Jonathan Alvarez had just seen action late in games last year, and even veteran Nila Kasitati was coming of an injury-hampered season.
To put it lightly, nothing was certain.
“They had to learn how to work, how to prepare, the fact that you just don’t go out and play at a high level,” Darlington said. “You can’t do that in college. They had to learn that. We’re not a unit or a family back in January. We’ve become that over the course of 12 months really.”
The development predates Oklahoma’s loss to Texas or the season opener, when Oklahoma started a pair of freshmen tackles for the first time in school history.
It goes back to the up-downs that the offensive line had to do in January if someone was a late for a work-out. Oklahoma learned team responsibility. It goes back to getting thrown out of a work-out for dropping a medicine ball during the summer. The Sooners learned the importance of every rep and every inch.
It grew with Thursday nights, when the offensive line gets together away from the field to decompress – no football allowed, or at least very little. The youthful group that had only two players ever start a game before this season learned how to become a unit.
“It’s a pride thing,” Darlington said. “I think we took a lot of pride in the way we played, not just as individuals but as a unit and the product that we were putting on the field and what we needed to be for out team to be Big 12 Champions and beyond. We were able to do that. We were able to improve.
“If we want to win the next one, we have to continue to improve during the next 30 days or so before we get a chance to play again.”
Darlington had to learn to be patient this season, something that didn’t come easy. Samia came on campus with his nose basically stuck in his iPad to learn plays, and he aced the first lineman test – even naming the receivers by their corresponding letter instead of just the Os assigned to offense players.
Brown has built up confidence to go with his mammoth size after shutting down some of the best pass rushers in the country.
And after playing as the “little brother” last year, Kasitati is learning how to lead.
“I’m still learning throughout the process of how to be a leader, not just in football,” Kasitati said. “You realize that you are that leader and that these guys look up to you. I’m not a vocal leader, at all. Ty is more of the speaker. I’d like to say that I’m leading by example. It’s definitely been an experience.”
Darlington credits offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh for the improvement, though. It took him a few years to fully understand Bedenbaugh’s methods, which Darlington said can frustrate young linemen that don’t understand why Bedenbaugh pushes the offensive line so hard.
No matter the culprit, it’s come together on and off the field.
“We sort of made up our minds on what it is, what we want to do and what we want to accomplish as a team,” Kasitati said. “Just making up our mind that we aren’t what anybody else says. We can be as great as we want to be.”
This line means more to Darlington because it didn’t come together easy. He wasn’t just an add-on to an already special unit – built long before him. He remembers the months that led up to the success on the field, not just the embarrassing spark in Dallas.
“There’s something special going on with this team,” Darlington said.