McGrane: Block Party Rages on for O-Line
Nov. 18, 2016
SAN DIEGO -
2016 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Block Party Rages on for O-Line
They are anonymous by trade and inconspicuous by nature, the unsung and the nameless, only too happy to swap fame for fortune.
Unlike a certain Heisman hopeful whose immense likeness adorns University Towers at 55th and Montezuma, you won't find a similar a banner blaring the accomplishments of Arthur Flores. You needn't program your VCR for SportsCenter sit-downs with Antonio Rosales or Nico Siragusa, and neither Daniel Brunskill nor Kwayde Miller are soon to be hogging headlines.
It's the job. And those anticipating unadulterated adoration would do well to apply elsewhere.
"It comes with the position," said Aztecs offensive line coach Mike Schmidt, an SDSU offensive lineman from 2005-08 who became a team captain as a senior. "You understand that you're not going to get the recognition or the publicity. (But) you take great pride in the success that the running back has and keeping the quarterback upright. Offensive linemen kind of live in the darkness, but at the same time, they understand that they are a huge part of this deal."
And the deal is this: As the nation's fifth-best rushing offense, the Aztecs head into Saturday's game at Wyoming averaging nearly 300 yards (293.9) per game on the ground. They have had two 100-yard rushers in four straight games and five of their last six, the most recent coming in last week's 46-16 dismantling of Nevada, when Donnel Pumphrey (198) and Rashaad Penny (208) ran wild in an outing that saw SDSU finish with a school-record 474 yards rushing.
The Aztecs averaged --- averaged, mind you --- a first down every time they ran the ball (10.8 yards). The evening ended with Pumphrey, Doak Walker, Maxwell and Walter Camp Award semifinalist, moving into fourth place (6,051 yards) on the NCAA career rushing list.
And in the aftermath, four seniors, Miller (left tackle), Siragusa (left guard), Flores (center), Brunskill (right tackle) and junior Rosales (right guard), went back into that darkness, leaving the stars to shine. No celebrity here.
"We don't talk about it much in the room, but I think the way they interact with Pumphey after a big run, or even just a gain, seeing their interaction with him means something to them," Schmidt said. "We don't talk a lot about it, just because in the day-to-day you have to be concerned with the big picture. But you can see it in the way they count on the backs and the backs count on them. There are also a lot of plays where our backs have made yards and the play wasn't blocked (correctly). But they know they are a huge part of (Pumphrey's) success."
Said Siragusa, a full-time starter since his sophomore season: "Offensive linemen don't really seek the glory. For us to have someone (Pumphrey) get all of this national attention and notoriety, it's really special for the offensive line, because we're out there blocking our butts off.
"But Pump is always going to be our boy. He's the humblest dude. He's never too big for the team. And he's always the first one to thank (the offensive line) for what we do."
At present, few are doing it better. In an offense that makes vanilla look like tutti fruitti with the most exotic toppings imaginable, SDSU is about as unpredictable as a sunny day in the Sahara. Had the Aztecs last week approached the line of scrimmage with a bullhorn announcing their offensive intentions, the message couldn't have been clearer: Come and get it.
"It's the biggest reason I came here, and I'm sure it's the same way for our other linemen," said Flores, who in the fall was named to the Rimington Trophy Watch List, an award presented annually to the best center in the FBS. "We know we're going to run the ball, and that's what offensive linemen love to do. Sure, we know there are times when we're going to have to pass-protect, but run blocking is what we're supposed to be good at. It's just fun to be part of an offense that's so run-heavy. I love it."
Opponents? Not so much. Needing only 328 yards to break the single-season team rushing record of 3,266, established last season, the Aztecs have rushed for 200 or more yards in five straight games. Twice during their current 17-game Mountain West winning streak they have exceeded the 400-yard mark. They are an eye-popping 31-0 when rushing for more than 200 yards and have lost just two of 41 games when doing so during the Rocky Long era.
"I just love the fact that we can rush for 400 yards when everybody knows what we're going to do," Siragusa said.
Of course, there was some question of just how they would do it at the outset of the season. While Miller, Siragusa and Flores were returning starters, there was competition at right guard. There was also the matter of finding a suitable replacement at right tackle when projected starter Ryan Pope was lost for the season due to a lung contusion.
Rosales, who appeared in six games in a reserve role last season, ultimately prevailed at right guard, while Brunskill, who started every game at tight end in 2015, was moved to right tackle. In the eyes of Schmidt, it may prove the best move the Aztecs make all season, despite the fact that the 260-pound Brunskill weighs an average of nearly 50 pounds less than the other four offensive linemen.
"I think Daniel Brunskill is a prime example of the selflessness our guys have," Schmidt said. "He's really brought the group together and everybody kind of looks up to him to lead the charge. His personality and temperament are exactly what you want. He's an all-business type of guy."
"Having Brunskill come over from tight end to play right tackle was a big part of it, because he's always been one of the hardest working guys on the team," said Siragusa, who was tabbed the second-best draft-eligible guard in the country by college football guru Phil Steele prior to the start of the season. "If you watch him, he's always one of those guys blocking downfield. Seeing him become one of us and seeing how hard he works, every down, never taking a play off, it really rubbed off on everybody else.
"Coming out of fall camp, there was trust (from the coaching staff) in the offensive line just to leave the pieces in place, not take somebody out and move somebody else in, just stick with what we had. It was like, 'OK, this is the offensive line we have and we're sticking with it.' We had all of camp to come together and every week we've just gotten better."
To the point where Pumphrey has the possibility of becoming the all-time leading rusher in FBS history while earning a spot at the Heisman Trophy ceremony on Dec. 12. To the point where Penny has exceeded the 100-yard mark in four of his last six games. To the point where redshirt freshman Juwan Washington is averaging 7.6 yards per carry.