McGrane: For SDSU, It's What's Up Front That Counts
March 3, 2017
SAN DIEGO -
2016-17 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: For SDSU, it's What's Up Front that Counts
When it comes to mincing words, Rocky Long leans considerably more toward bayonet than butter knife, cutting to the chase with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
As with all football coaches worth their weight in wins, he does not suffer fools, tolerate transgressions against the program or ever leave you with the sense that your best can't be better.
And so it was that when Long briefed a media gathering prior to the start of spring drills, he offered the following assessment of his offensive line:
"Every kid that we're going to put out there this spring to try and develop into a starting offensive lineman is better, physically, than the guys we had last year, except maybe one. They could develop into NFL guys, but they haven't played at this level. All that means is that they're big enough, strong enough and athletic enough to be good, but their technique is horrible."
Lest you think the biggest subtraction from last season's team, which won its second straight Mountain West title, is the NCAA's all-time leading rusher, here's some news: Donnel Pumphrey didn't rush for 6,405 career yards without an offensive line.
An offensive line whose five starters included four seniors. An offensive line that produced the seventh-best rushing attack in the nation. An offensive line that had largely been together for five years.
An offensive line that until September will likely absorb more scrutiny than the shine on the boots of a buck private.
"There have been times when we haven't had a lot of experience in the past; you've always got to be prepared for it," said offensive line coach Mike Schmidt. "Our program has gotten guys ready in the past, so we're going to trust our program and we're going to trust our approach to coaching them."
And trust like crazy that it works.
A scan of spring's initial depth chart shows SDSU could start as many as two redshirt freshmen offensive linemen and the potential to start as many as four. Redshirt freshmen Tyler Roemer (6-7, 305) and Keith Ismael (6-3, 310) are listed as No. 1 at left tackle and left guard, respectively, while Douglas Tucker II (6-5, 300), another redshirt freshman, could push junior Ryan Pope for the starting job at right tackle. Nor would it be a stretch to suggest that Dominic Gudino, a 6-3, 300-pound incoming freshman from Olympian High in Chula Vista, could ultimately emerge as the team's starting center.
Senior right guard Antonio Rosales, who played in all 14 games last season, is the lone returning starter. Missing are right tackle Daniel Brunskill, center Arthur Flores, left tackle Kwayde Miller and left guard Nico Siragusa, who is likely to be selected in April's NFL draft. None of the four, who made a combined 130 career starts, missed a start last season.
"The one thing that you're doing is treating redshirt freshmen like they're juniors and seniors," Schmidt said. "You've just got to let them know that they're going to be coached as hard as a starter would be. You need to be sure that they're all on the same page.
"They've come a long way in the room. But obviously, that's nothing like getting out on the grass and doing it. It's easy for a veteran group, but it's different for a young group where you have to take everything you've learned in the room and try to simulate it in drills. You try to slow it down a little bit, but at the same time you need to develop as a group, so you need to get as many reps as possible. There's a fine line between how much teaching you can do when you slow it down as opposed to getting as many reps as you can on film and teaching off the film.
"Our philosophy on offense has always been to make it as simple as possible, so that guys can play as fast and as physical as possible. We want to have as many schemes carry over (from the previous season) as we can to make it easier for them, but it's still a lot for them to take on."
Particularly when filling the shoes of a group that last season extended SDSU's win streak to 32 games when rushing for at least 200 yards. The Aztecs have eclipsed the 200-yard mark 42 times since Long took over in 2011, losing only twice in the process. In 2016, SDSU broke single-season records for rushing yards (3,680), rushing touchdowns (34), rushing yards per carry (5.8) and points (493). It also became the first team in NCAA FBS history to produce a 2,000-yard rusher (Pumphrey) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Rashaad Penny) in the same season.
"It's a big step for (the offensive line), but it's a big step for me, too," said Penny, the Mountain West two-time Special Teams Player of the Year who returns for his senior season having averaged a staggering 7.5 yards per carry last year. "I know everybody's wondering what's going to happen to us with DJ (Pumphrey) gone, so I'm out here going as hard as I can on every play. I have to look at every play like it's my last, like it's my senior year, and I feel like the offensive line is taking the same approach. They have to get ready; they have no choice. But they want to be ready and they want to get better. You can see it in their eyes. If they do something wrong, they want to get right back out there and do it the right way.
"It's all about getting there physically and mentally, and it's your decision to how fast you make that happen. The season comes so fast, and spring ball is over so quick. It's all about the mindset and whether they can be ready to come out here and play. We're going to continue to get on them as captains and leaders of this team.
"But it's all up to them. That's something that I learned during my first year. The coaches will tell you that if you're soft, you can't be on the field. Coach Long isn't going to let that happen. These guys are going to get it going. Since January, since we've been working out, during our team runs and team lifts, I've seen something different about this offensive line group. They're underdogs, at their position, in our league and on this team. I'm just trying to give them as much positive feedback as possible. But I really feel like they're the best I've seen since I've been here. They're athletic, they're quick and I know they're going to get it going."
They have little choice. Following its season opener at home against a UC Davis team that finished 3-8 last season, SDSU will get ample chance to prove its West Coast worth, facing Arizona State in Tempe the following week before returning home to take on Stanford, winner of three Pac-12 titles the last five years.
"As an offensive line, they know what they're facing," Schmidt said. "They've been in the room for a year now at least. They knew what we were losing. A lot of them went through offseasons where they had to lose weight, gain weight, get in shape, put some strength on. And we've seen those improvements. You know that they know that it's their turn now. Regardless of what year of college they're in, they're going to have to be ready in the fall.
"My job is to have them ready Week 1. They all know about the high expectations that are held here, and they're striving to be ready Week 1, as well. It's all part of buying into our culture and our program. You're never going to win up front unless you're the toughest group. That's No. 1. You can have the greatest technique of anybody out there, but if you don't have the intensity, the right drive and the right finish, you're not going to be a very good unit up front. That's what we're always striving for."