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VOL. 128 | NO. 170 | Friday, August 30, 2013

 

O-Line’s Job: Keeping the Star Players Clean

DON WADE | Special to The Daily News

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Of all the talented yet anonymous offensive linemen in the country, Vanderbilt senior Wesley Johnson might be the closest thing to a 6-5, 295-pound invisible man as there can be. Johnson has made 38 straight starts and was expected to make his 39th on Thursday, Aug. 29, against Ole Miss.

The ultimate offensive line cliché – and it’s true – is that the guys up front never get any TV time, or hear their numbers called, unless they have been caught holding. Johnson has never been caught holding during his college career. Repeat, never. Which either makes him college football’s boy next door or the game’s top O-Line fugitive – always one step ahead of the whistle-blowers.

His explanation for this incredible feat? Good coaching, always playing through the whistle, keeping his hands inside and his feet moving. All right, fine. But there has to be more. Does he ask officials about the wife and kids? About where they vacationed in the summer? Tell them they look like they’ve lost weight?

Offensive linemen – including Texas A&M Aggies offensive lineman Jake Matthews, who is charged with protecting Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel – have a vital job, but they often go unnoticed.

(Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

“Yeah,” Johnson said, “I try to suck up as often as I can and not yell at them or anything.”

But there is talk back and forth between the respective offensive and defensive fronts – “it gets about as bad as you think it does,” he said – and Johnson does not try to convince you he is Mr. Clean.

“Every team has one or two guys who might be pretty dirty,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I might be one of those guys for our team.”

Get ’er done
While literally hundreds of reporters surrounded Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel in a ballroom at SEC Media Days, teammate and offensive lineman Jake Matthews talked to a small gathering of reporters across the room.

“You guys need to pay more attention to me,” Matthews said with a laugh and nod toward the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.

In short, Matthews’ job description is this: Keep Johnny Football clean.

Coaches lose sleep, hair and appetite worrying about their offensive line. Even coaches named Nick Saban. The two-time defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide lost three All-SEC first-team linemen in center Barrett Jones, right tackle D.J. Fluker and left guard Chance Warmack. Because of that, the Tide may give senior quarterback A.J. McCarron more latitude in the passing game.

Alabama’s Anthony Steen, the two-time defending national champion’s returning right guard, is part of a line that has to replace three All-SEC first-team linemen this year, including Memphian Barrett Jones. 

(AP Photo/Dave Martin)

“In order for us to do that we have to have our running game and play-action,” said returning right guard Anthony Steen.

Although Tennessee struggled through a 5-7 season last year, the Vols gave up a league-low eight sacks – a huge improvement from 40-plus the previous season.

“It’s been three years of grinding, grinding, grinding,” said tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson. “Two years ago, they were saying we were one of the worst lines in the country. Now they’re saying that we’re one of the best.”

In fact, Richardson and teammate Ju’Wuan James both project as NFL players and Richardson was First-Team All-SEC Preseason as voted on by the leagues’ coaches, and James was second-team. But even two great players do not a good O-Line make.

“You want that group to play like a nickel and not five pennies,” said Houston coach Tony Levine.

Smart … and hungry
Offensive linemen are a breed apart. And no, tight ends don’t really count as offensive linemen.

“We’re like a hybrid,” said Memphis tight end Alan Cross. “We run routes, get a little show time.”

Show time for a true O-Line guy comes at the dinner table.

“Barrett Gouger can put away a lot of food,” Johnson said of Vandy’s 6-4, 307-pound redshirt freshman. “He can take down like four or five Baconators at Wendy’s. It’s pretty cool.”

Not that Johnson gets cheated. Just that morning, he had gone to Pancake Pantry.

“I always get the sausage and cheese omelet with sweet potato pancakes,” he said. “It’s awesome. I crushed mine.”

Which is more or less what Johnson, another NFL prospect, has done in games. In this age of statistics for everything, Vanderbilt Sports Information reports he has made 152 “knockdown blocks” and 37 “intimidation blocks.” More impressive, he’s allowed just 6.5 sacks in 1,021 pass attempts against SEC teams, or one sack for every 157 pass plays.

It is not all brute strength.

“There are itty bitty nuances you have to be able to see at the blink of an eye and make a decision,” Johnson said.

Scouting reports help, sure, but Arkansas center Travis Swanson – another top pro prospect – gets a lot of mileage from watching film and looking for opponents’ “tells.”

“Not a lot of guys know they do it,” Swanson said. “Then you come up to the line and they get that little look in their eye (when they know you have figured something out). It’s kind of a funny reaction.”

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