McGrane: Aztecs' O-Line Anxious to Block Out Noise
Sept. 1, 2017
2017 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Aztecs’ O-Line Anxious to Block Out Noise
Come Saturday, the roles get a lot more real.
For months on end, the focal point of SDSU’s football success in 2017 has centered on its offensive line, chiefly the lack of experience therein.
When the Aztecs square off against UC Davis in their home opener this weekend, they’ll discover not only how well a pair of redshirt freshmen have been prepped for prime time, but also how deep one must dive when graduation empties the talent pool.
In losing four senior offensive linemen from last year’s two-time Mountain West defending champion, SDSU was divested of 130 combined career starts among Nico Siragusa, Kwayde Miller, Arthur Flores and Daniel Brunskill. It was a quartet that not only helped pave the way in Donnel Pumphrey’s run to becoming the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher, but also allowed the Aztecs to become the first team in FBS history with both a 2,000-yard (Pumphrey) and 1,000-yard rusher (Rashaad Penny) in the same season.
As such, SDSU, which concluded matters in 2016 having earned its first Associated Press Top 25 ranking in nearly 40 years, is faced with proving its mettle to a national media suspicious of holes in its hull.
“There are more offensive linemen here now that have the ability to become future NFL players than there have been the last two years,” said head coach Rocky Long. “Now, are they playing at that level? They’re not even close to playing at that level yet. But if you talk about their size and their strength and their athletic ability, their potential is the best we’ve had around here.
“But potential does not win football games. They’re going to be playing against older, more experienced players than they ever have before. When they were in high school, they’d run into somebody and the other player would fall down, because they were so much bigger and stronger than the guy across from them. Well, guess what? Now they’re going to run into guys who are going to fight back and they’re not going to fall down.”
The 6-foot-7, 305-pound Roemer, who along with Ismael was one of two true freshman listed on last year’s depth chart, will merely be called upon to protect quarterback Christian Chapman’s blind side as the starter at left tackle.
Ismael, meanwhile, who was initially listed as the starter at left guard heading into fall camp, has emerged as the team’s starting center, replacing a player in Arthur Flores who did not miss a start in two years.
Roemer turns 20 in March, Ismael in July.
Put another way, SDSU’s lone returning senior offensive lineman, right guard Antonio Rosales, enters 2017 with 14 career starts and appearances in 20 games. The remainder of the starting five do so having played in 26 games with zero starts.
“The younger guys knew that they were going to have to step up,” Schmidt said. “They saw what was left in the room after last year, and there were a couple of guys who took (opportunity) by the horns and said, ‘I'm going to be the starting left tackle,’ or ‘I’m going to be the starting center.’ They stepped up knowing that there wasn’t going to be a senior that they would have to play behind this year.
“Early in camp, they were a little unsure with themselves. But after working against every look possible against our defense, I think they had a much better understanding of what we’re trying to get done, both in the run game and in terms of (pass) protection. You can stand on the sideline now and hear them talking. They’re not afraid to make a (line) call, because they have confidence in making that call.”
Confidence enhanced by 6-4, 305-pound Rosales, whose preseason accolades include being dubbed the “Best Run Blocker in the Mountain West” by Lindy’s Sports. Schmidt said Rosales has embraced his leadership role in an offense that hammered away at opponents for an average of 262.9 rushing yards per game last season, the seventh-best mark in the nation.
“He did a great job in the offseason of bringing the group together,” Schmidt said. “The great thing about having a leader like Antonio is that he loves playing the game. If you watch what he does in practice, it’s the same he is in a game. He sprints onto the field, he’s excited about playing football, and that’s what he's instilling in the young guys, letting them know that it’s just football. My job is coaching, but they feed of his energy. He plays the way a lineman should play. He plays every play through to the whistle while being as physical as he can be. It’s those things that you hope prove contagious through the whole group as the season goes on.”
A season that in the early going could find defenses crowding the line of scrimmage, daring the Aztecs to run behind an offensive front that also includes junior right tackle Ryan Pope and sophomore left guard Daishawn Dixon. Pope played in the final 12 games of the season last year after missing the first two with a chest injury, while Dixon played in all 14 games as a redshirt freshman.
“I think (the offensive line) has made some huge strides,” said quarterback Christian Chapman. “We’re replacing some really good players. But I’ve talked to (our offensive linemen), and they’re ready for it. If (opponents) are going to stack the box, we’re going to have to throw. If they don’t, we’ll line it up and pound them with Penny.”
Even amidst substantial change, nothing changes with SDSU’s plan of attack.
“Everything we’ve done during fall camp has been as fast-paced as we could make it, whether it was a walk-through (practice) or an individual drill,” Schmidt said. “We also simulated game-time situations, where there’s no coaching going on and they have to make decisions on their own. They have to go out there and play.
“As long as they’re confident in the plan, after one play it goes back to playing football. After that first play, it should go back to instincts. I know that first play is going to be exciting for them, but after that, as long as they’re playing fast and playing physical with the natural talent that they have, it just goes back to playing football.
“All of the young guys in our program are eager to get on the field, but the reality of the situation is that some are more ready than others. We recruit guys who want to get on the field as soon as possible, and a couple of them are going to get their chance on Saturday.”
Said Long: “The best thing about being young is that you don’t know all of the pitfalls that an old guy like me knows. They all think they are going to be as good as they were as seniors in high school. I played as a redshirt freshman (at New Mexico) and I can remember the first game I ever played in. Everything was so much faster than anything I’d ever experienced before.
“But it’s good to be young. You don’t know what’s going to happen to you out there. You actually think you’re going to be as good as you were as a senior in high school. Well, guess what? They’re not, but I like their attitude. I like that they think they are.”