- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Glory is rarely bestowed upon offensive linemen. There are no touchdowns beyond rare fluky plays, and it isn’t always easy to gauge their effectiveness unless drives repeatedly stall or a quarterback frequently finds unwanted company in the backfield.

They are anonymous foot soldiers, and building an effective line — a deep, strong, experienced, well-conditioned unit — sounds mundane rather than magnificent. It is a multiyear process with improvement usually measured in small increments rather than vast leaps.

Yet for any college football program hoping to remain among the nation’s best, developing and maintaining an elite offensive line might be the most vital element for long-term success.

So much goes into building the line, from ultra-hyper recruiting of the handful of top-tier prospects to years of work in the weight room to fine-tuning communication on the field. And it doesn’t take much — one kid transferring, another one flunking out, another suffering a severe injury — to cripple a program.

Such was the case in recent seasons at Maryland, where the veteran lineman was an endangered species until this year. Of the seven scholarship offensive linemen in coach Ralph Friedgen’s first two recruiting classes, only three played a down for the Terrapins. Just two lasted five seasons.

“If you lose one, you make a mistake, it can come back to bite you,” Maryland offensive line coach Tom Brattan said. “For that second year, we have one guy. For that first year, we have one guy. Now it’s five years down the road, and that’s it. You’re playing with guys that aren’t ready to play, and you’re force feeding them.”

In the win-now-or-else culture of college football, that spells disaster.

‘A jolt’

True freshmen arrive on campuses each summer with the belief they simply will transfer their high school supremacy to the college game. Hotshot quarterbacks, speedy receivers and ferocious linebackers all eye immediate playing time.

It usually isn’t the case on the offensive line, where it doesn’t take long to discover just how much learning and growing are needed to become effective.

Maryland guard Andrew Crummey knows. He smiles when he thinks about coming in as a 275-pound center or even while watching film of himself playing at about 285 pounds as a redshirt freshman as he tried to master an all-encompassing position that requires size, speed, smarts and toughness.

Of course, it wasn’t fun receiving abuse whenever he got on the field for his first camp in College Park.

“I had no idea how to play. It was a jolt,” said Crummey, a junior who now weighs about 305 pounds. “It was three weeks where I didn’t feel like I got anything accomplished. Later on, you realized you did and that you got better and did stuff. It’s definitely a shock when you come in.”

So much so that at most major programs it is assumed offensive linemen will redshirt simply to mature physically. Only three true freshmen have played for Maryland in the last six seasons, and only one (Jared Gaither in 2005) regularly started.

Gaither, though, spent a year at prep school and was pressed into the lineup only after Stephon Heyer was lost during camp with a torn ACL. He also was a gargantuan 6-foot-9, 330 pounds, allowing him to become a rare quick fix.

“A corner or wide receiver, you can improve speed,” Brattan said. “We weight-lift it to a point, but you either have it or you don’t. A running back, you got moves or you don’t. You can make offensive linemen, given they have the work ethic and the frame and the desire to do it, but it just takes some time. They’re not going to help you overnight.”

Occasionally, a team must test that theory, such as when right tackle Brandon Nixon was injured in Maryland’s finale last year against N.C. State. Dane Randolph, a redshirt freshman who hadn’t played in more than a month, took Nixon’s place and lined up opposite defensive end Mario Williams.

The result was predictably unpleasant. Williams collected four sacks, many of which were shown repeatedly in the weeks preceding his No. 1 overall selection in the NFL Draft. Maryland fell to 5-6 and saw its season end.

“It’s definitely a struggle,” Maryland guard Donnie Woods said. “From what I’ve seen, it takes longer for an offensive lineman to be able to mature and be able to play at a Division I level than it does at any other position. It takes a while, and you lose people to injury. You lose people to academic reasons. It’s just nice now that we have this offensive line that’s been here long.”

Laying a foundation

Building depth on the line has long been a priority for Friedgen, especially after the five linemen in his first recruiting class combined to play in only 21 career games.

Mistakes force a staff to play catch-up in recruiting, in which there is already an emphasis to secure enough quality players to fill out two lines plus a scout team unit. It also prods a school to plan ahead — as Maryland, which anticipates signing six line commitments to replace five scholarship players whose eligibility expires after the 2007 season, already has.

To fill that quota, recruiting coordinator Dave Sollazzo relies on a formula: Usually for every eight players the Terps recruit, one will join the program. Maryland targeted more than 50 offensive linemen for the class that will sign in February, scouring its own camp and plenty of high school film to discover hard-to-find prospects.

“It takes years of good recruiting,” Sollazzo said. “Those guys aren’t walking down the street. You’re not going to find those guys every single day. You have to really, really work at it. It takes a couple years.”

Once linemen arrive, they must be nurtured for several years before they become effective. If losing a lineman after one year is irritating, watching one flunk out after a few years — as he is on the cusp of contributing — is excruciating.

“That’s what really hurts,” Friedgen said. “When you lose a lineman that you have two or three years invested in them, you can’t just go out and get another one and replace them because of the maturity, the years in the weight room. You really lose something.”

Friedgen often recounts how he knew his first Maryland team’s trip to the Orange Bowl wouldn’t end well when he saw Florida swap out its starting offensive line with a reserve unit of similar talent on a muggy night in Miami. The Terps have yet to replicate that depth, but it has improved this season.

“I think it is the deepest we’ve been,” Friedgen said. “I’m hoping to get even deeper. Right now, we’re probably playing with eight guys we’re real comfortable with. There’s a couple more that have to get better.”

In line for victories

Florida State won two national titles in the 1990s, and a common thread between the teams (besides vast talent and Bobby Bowden’s presence on the sideline) was strong line play. As the Seminoles dipped from their perch in the top five in recent years, it has been no coincidence their line play suffered as well.

“In 1993, our first national championship we had two offensive lines we felt good about, and we won a national championship,” Bowden said. “Then in 1999, when we won a national championship, I don’t remember any offensive linemen getting injured.”

While injuries surface, a more common matter is the in-game attrition any team faces. Offenses typically run between 50 and 75 plays a game, and players naturally grow weary in the second half.

A deep line solves that problem, as Texas showed last year. The Longhorns routinely shuffled reserves in with no discernable decline in production, and it ultimately helped them win a national title.

“It’s without a doubt an advantage,” N.C. State coach Chuck Amato said. “They are fresh, and way, way down the road in a particular game when the offensive line is a little fresher, a lot of people will freely substitute with defensive linemen. You’ve seen that at Florida State, and we like to do it. A fresh second-stringer is better than a tired first-stringer usually.”

Depth and experience often intersect with fifth-year linemen. As painful as it is when a multiyear investment in a player yields nothing, it is just as rewarding when a physically mature lineman can anchor the unit in his fifth season.

Brattan, Maryland’s offensive line coach, strongly believes the best lines have one or two fifth-year seniors who have experienced nearly everything.

Reaching that point takes patience, but the prospect of veteran linemen leaves nearly any coach teeming with giddiness.

“When you look to the future, it is amazing what jumps kids make from the fourth year to their fifth year,” Duke coach Ted Roof said. “We have three fifth-year guys, and I think they’re playing the best football of their lives, and I don’t think that’s any coincidence.”

With so many nuances involved, there are many ways for a line to collapse and along with it a program’s title hopes. A balky line leads only to disarray on offense, and there’s little an excess of speed at the skill positions can do to make up for it.

“I believe I’d rather have that position healthy than any other position,” Bowden said. “You can replace a receiver, replace a runner. It’s hard to replace a quarterback, but buddy, if you can’t block, nothing’s any good.”

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