At the end of 1-on-1 drills during the Boise State football team’s pregame warm-ups, the offensive and defensive linemen gather for a quick meeting.
It’s a long-standing tradition that likely goes unnoticed — just like their play.
“No other two units get together like those guys do,” said offensive line coach Scott Huff, a former All-WAC center for the Broncos. “They really believe that we win football games up there in the lines — and they should.”
That could be more true than ever in 2015 with the Broncos returning their entire starting offensive line from last season and regaining three senior defensive linemen who were unable to play last year.
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The Broncos enter the season with 18 offensive linemen and 21 defensive linemen — more than one-third of the team. Those players have combined for 153 career starts.
For about 100 days a year, they slam into each other in practice to improve their skills and prove their worth.
For about 14 days a year, they aim all that aggression at an opponent.
“We know the game is won in the front,” said senior nose tackle Robert Ash, who also has played offensive line during his college career. “We set the tempo. We set how everything is going to go for everybody else. We’re all here together. We have one job and that’s to win. We have to do that.
“The O-line and D-line are enemies during the week and then come game time we’re best friends like it should be.”
A HEALTHY 300 POUNDS
That bond starts in the weight room, where linemen are built.
Few high school kids enter college with a chiseled frame of 280 to 300 pounds. They often need two or three years of proper nutrition, running and weightlifting to prepare for the rigors of the college game.
Sophomore right tackle Archie Lewis weighed 240 pounds when he graduated from high school. He grayshirted, redshirted and was a spot starter last year. Now three full years out of high school, he’s closing in on 300 pounds and likely will start the season opener against Washington.
“I still feel just as quick as I did when I was 240,” Lewis said. “I feel more physical, I feel stronger.”
That combination — improved athleticism and power at a larger size — is the challenge for young linemen. Strength and conditioning coach Jeff Pitman works more on flexibility, footwork and balance than he did in the past.
Linemen workouts begin between 6 and 7 a.m. They are the first players through the weight room on training days — a schedule Pitman instituted in the early 2000s during his first tenure at Boise State.
“I tell them they’re the most important group on the team, so they’ve got to set the pace for the day,” said Pitman, another former Boise State center. “The closer you get to the ball, the tougher you have to be.”
As the linemen grow — by perhaps 20 pounds or more in the first year — they often get strange looks when they return home.
Pitman warns parents on recruiting visits: They might not recognize their sons at the first school break.
“That’s happened a few times,” Lewis said.
But with increased access to nutritional advice, team meals and coaching, players at least grow in a responsible way. Mostly gone are the days of Refrigerator Perry-type linemen.
“When you had a 300-pound guy 20 years ago, they’re usually pretty sloppy,” Pitman said. “Nowadays, you’ve got a 300-pound kid and they look like they’re 260. You’ve got a much healthier individual now than you would have had 20-some years ago with guys that are that big. A lot of guys now, when they’re done, they shed the weight pretty quick.”
‘OUTSMARTING VS. REMOVING HIM’
Along with the bodies, the game has changed in the trenches.
In fact, those two are related.
The almost-universal switch to no-huddle, spread offenses has required linemen who can do their work in space and compete at a frantic pace. Hawaii coach Norm Chow calls the new style of line play “leaning and shoving.”
“In the old days, you could be a brute,” San Diego State coach Rocky Long said. “You could take two steps, grab a guy, throw him to the ground and spear him. Now you have to be agile on your feet because you’re — I call it sumo wrestling. You’re sumo wrestling instead of knocking people backwards.”
The result, some say, is a less aggressive, less physical game at the line of scrimmage. Linemen are spread farther apart and the quarterback gets rid of the ball so fast that engagements end quickly.
Aaron Taylor, a former All-American offensive lineman at Notre Dame and first-round NFL Draft pick in 1994, analyzes games for CBS Sports Network. He sees the new style leading to unprepared graduates to the NFL.
“The lack of physicality and toughness — plain and simple,” he said of the difference he sees in college today. “The game is changing significantly from what it was even 10 years ago. The advent of hurry-up, spread, tempo offenses has removed the necessity to use tight ends and fullbacks and to be physical at the point of attack. It’s become a game in many respects of outsmarting your opponent vs. removing him.”
Even some players notice the change.
They’ve watched historic film of what line play was like decades ago.
“It’s not so much banging,” Nevada senior defensive end Lenny Jones said. “It’s playing technique, reading your keys and making plays.”
But there are exceptions — and Boise State says its program is one of them. On offense, the Broncos still make extensive use of tight ends/fullbacks and call power-based run plays.
“Certain programs probably for sure,” Huff said of the declining physicality. “I don’t feel like even kind of at Boise State. Our offense is very much the same as it was in 1998.”
Jones lends credence to Huff’s claim.
“When you go play a Boise State, they run power, they spread you out a little bit but they try to run it down your throat,” Jones said. “On Sunday, you might wake up feeling a little bad.”
Boise State junior offensive lineman Steven Baggett said line play is “pretty rough ... but it’s fun.”
“The next day, you’re pretty sore,” he said. “You feel a lot better if you get a win. It’s a lot better that way.”
‘NO CLOSER GROUP’
The camaraderie and cohesiveness involved in offensive line play make the position unique, Huff says.
During his playing career — from 1998 to 2002 — the linemen would discuss replays on the video board in the huddle. That doesn’t happen in a no-huddle world.
“The guys miss out on a lot of the neat stuff,” Huff said. “That was one thing I really enjoyed. You could fix stuff if something went wrong. You could also point out burying somebody or something cool like that. But it’s still really the same position.”
The difference between the offensive and defensive lines, he said, is the teamwork involved. You need five offensive linemen to execute their assignments to create a big play on offense; you just need one defensive lineman to win to create a sack or turnover.
“If one guy doesn’t do his job, we all look bad,” Huff said. “That’s the challenging thing, but that’s the most fun. When you get those five guys and they’re coming off the field and they’re fired up and they know that they’re working as a unit and kicking butt and they want more, that’s when it’s really fun.
“You’ve got to still play as a unit because that’s how we’ll be judged. That’s why I enjoy it. And I know that’s why I liked playing, it was the camaraderie. There’s no closer group on the team, and arguably in any sport out there.”
And when those five guys trot to the sideline after a touchdown, they’re likely to get some congratulations from their practice partners.
“On the (practice) field, we kind of get after it, we have our words of exchange,” Boise State defensive end Kamalei Correa said. “But in the locker room, we’re still brothers. We’re still teammates, and on Saturday nights, Friday nights, we’re going to get after it together.”