McGrane: SDSU’s Offensive Line is Fast Coming of Age

April 19, 2018

SDSU’s Offensive Line is Fast Coming of Age
By Mick McGrane, @GoAztecs Senior Writer (@MickOnTheMesa)

SAN DIEGO - There was no sense denying it, no escaping it and no point sweeping it under the rug.

In any light they were green. Untested, unproven and, given their accompanying naïveté, highly susceptible to coming undone.

They were the talk of spring and the fear of fall, whispers giving way to worry.

If San Diego State, whose penchant for playing bullyball, was to have a chance, it would come from an offensive line consisting of three redshirt freshmen, a junior and one senior, a group that ultimately would even include a true freshman.

Only a season before, the Aztecs’ offensive line had been anchored by a gang of graybeards comprised of four seniors and a junior. Behind them, running back Donnel Pumphrey would become the program’s all-time leading rusher as SDSU stormed to its second straight Mountain West title.

And then they were gone, save guard Antonio Rosales, leaving head coach Rocky Long’s staff, and offensive line coach Mike Schmidt in particular, to undertake a task that seemed disarmingly desperate. Once thoroughly seasoned, the team’s offensive line was now crammed with kids.

“At the beginning of the season we approached it like, ‘This is our job, this is what we have to do,’ ” said 6-7, 305-pound left tackle Tyler Roemer, one of three redshirt freshmen offensive linemen who ended up starting all 13 games for the Aztecs. “We all knew nobody believed in us, so we had to believe in ourselves. We had to get through that adversity of people saying, ‘Oh, no, what’s going to happen now? How is our running game going to work without an offensive line?’ And we heard it all summer long.”

Amidst the wailing and gnashing of teeth, however, Rashaad Penny knew better. Always the advocate for a group clearly under the microscope, Penny, who would leapfrog Pumphrey into first place on the school’s all-time rushing list, became their biggest cheerleader, telling anyone who would listen that lack of playing time was overrated.

“Once these guys get a little more experience,” Penny professed, “there’s going to be hell to pay.”

And it didn’t take long for things to heat up. Maybe the reads weren’t yet refined and maybe the fundamentals were a bit flawed, but if reservations remained for an offensive line where freshmen and sophomores combined for 88 percent of the group’s starts, they largely lacked merit. In racing out to a 4-0 start, including back-to-back wins over Pac-12 opponents Arizona State and Stanford, SDSU averaged 397.5 total yards per game. Penny, meanwhile, who would become a consensus first-team All-American en route to rushing for 2,248 yards, was averaging 179.0 yards on the ground.

“I never saw a time when I thought they were overmatched physically, but I think there were times when they weren’t as confident,” Schmidt said. “It’s a little different when you’re a young player and you finally get out there and see somebody standing six inches away from you.

“But they started believing in themselves and believing in their capabilities. We have a lot of work to do, but we’re making strides. What you saw through the course of last season is that they grew up. Some of the things that were new to them last spring became second-nature this year, and that was good to see. But we’ve still got to improve in one-on-one situations. We’ve got to create more space for our backs.”

While Penny’s burst allowed him to take advantage of the slightest crack, that challenge now falls to junior Juwan Washington, who has proven himself more than capable. Interestingly enough, Washington’s numbers after two seasons aren’t merely on par with Penny’s, in at least two categories they’re superior. Entering his third season, Penny averaged 6.2 yards per carry, 15.0 yards per reception and 29.6 yards (three TDs) on kick returns. Washington, meanwhile, SDSU’s next in line to take aim at a 2,000-yard season, enters his junior year averaging 6.6 yards per rush, 18.5 yards per catch and 26.1 yards (three TDs) on kick returns.

“We talk to Juwan every week, telling him, ‘You’re next for the 2,000 (yard) club,’ ” said right tackle Ryan Pope, now the offensive line’s elder statesman as its lone senior. “Rashaad was a great back. The way he hit the holes and the burst that he has, he really helped us a lot.

“This year, we’re a lot more confident in the things that we’re doing. Everybody is holding themselves accountable in all of the workouts and drills that we do. Everything is coming together. We’re all on the same page. We think the same way when we’re watching film. I just think the chemistry that we have this year is really going to set us apart.”

And figures to for some time. Lest one forget, both Roemer and guard Keith Ismael earned second-team all-MW honors last season as redshirt freshmen. Guard Daishawn Dixon (6-5, 320) also started every game as a sophomore, while center Dominic Gudino, a true freshman from Olympian High in nearby Chula Vista, stepped in to start six of the team’s seven regular-season games following an injury to Rosales. Add to this year’s group the likes of 325-pound redshirt freshman Desmond Bessent and 355-pound true freshman William Dunkle, and a unit that averages 6-5, 308 will be more than happy to let push come to shove.

“I thought we did a lot of amazing things last year being as young as we were,” said the 6-3, 300-pound Gudino. “If any of us ever felt (overmatched), it probably came from thinking too much about it before the game. Making that jump from high school ball to college ball, the pace is just so much faster and you’re always playing against guys who were all-everything. But for me, once I got that first hit, it was like, ‘I can do this. It’s going to be hard, but I can do this.’ You have to prepare and not let (doubt) enter your mind. If you can do that, you’re going to be fine. Going into our second year together, I really think the sky’s the limit.”

Said the 6-3, 310-pound Ismael: “There was a big learning curve for us, but we attacked it. When things went bad, we always rallied together. Being so young, we had a lot to prove. And we want to prove that we’re one of the best offensive lines in the nation. We’re going to have years together to develop and grow.”

Further fortifying an offense that in the last three years has finished 11th, seventh and 12th in the nation in rush offense.

“From an outside perspective, it looks like we have a lot of time left being together,” Roemer said. “But each day brings a new opportunity. You come in (as a freshman) with 1,200 days to get better. Now I’m two years in and I’ve got about 700 days left to get to where I need to be. I think by our third or fourth year, when we walk on the field, we’re going to be feared. That’s what I really want. I want teams to fear us.”

Kids say the darndest things.

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