Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series previewing the 2019 Boise State football team by position. The previews have appeared throughout August. Previously: Defensive line, running backs, tight ends, cornerbacks, receivers, safeties, linebackers, special teams. Check out the position-by-position roster here.
Boise State offensive line coach Brad Bedell left no doubt about the urgency he was going to expect from his players with all five starters returning in 2019.
He delivered his message on Dec. 26, 2018 — the same day the Broncos’ bowl game was canceled because of weather.
Returning all five starters isn’t an asset to bank on in his eyes. It’s an opportunity to seize.
“Expectations are high next year,” Bedell said he told the players. “You better start working now.”
Eight months later, that offensive line is expected to lead the Broncos as they open the 2019 season at Florida State in Tallahassee (10 a.m. MT Saturday, ESPNews).
The starters include junior left tackle Ezra Cleveland (6-foot-6, 310 pounds), a potential early-entrant candidate for the NFL Draft; senior left guard John Molchon (6-5, 318), a team captain with incredible strength; senior center Garrett Larson (6-4, 303), the publicity-averse Fruitland product; senior right guard Eric Quevedo (6-4, 302), who shook off a rough start last season to become a key figure; and sophomore right tackle John Ojukwu (6-6, 300), the Boise High grad whose emergence sparked the line late last season.
“They’re the heart and soul of our offense,” Boise State offensive coordinator Zak Hill said.
It’s quite a change in storyline from the past two years, when slow starts by the offensive line contributed heavily to a pair of 3-2 starts that short-circuited any run at the New Year’s Six. Those teams struggled to run the ball in the first half of the season and allowed a total of 60 sacks.
Those struggles aren’t lost on Bedell, who played on a line at Colorado that returned five future NFL linemen one season. His coach didn’t let the players get comfortable, and Bedell implemented that model himself this year. He said the demands he put on players during the offseason were “rough.”
“I want a faster start,” Bedell said before fall camp began. “… I don’t care how long they’ve played, I don’t want complacency. I want to strip it down to the bolts and rebuild it. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve got good football players up front, but there’s a lot of technique things that must improve. We can get so much better.”
The linemen have built close off-the-field relationships that they — and the defenders who face them in practice — say help them communicate and jell on the field.
Molchon, Larson and Quevedo live together. So do Cleveland and Ojukwu. They socialize and do outdoors activities like fishing and shooting together, and the linemen usually meet for lunch one day every game week.
All of the starters but Ojukwu have started at least 20 games in their careers.
“We’re all brothers, pretty much,” said Cleveland, who was on the All-Mountain West first team with Molchon last season. “We all get along. We all fight. We all laugh. Pretty much every emotion goes on with us.”
The starting line averages 6-foot-5 and 306.6 pounds — an imposing group. Quevedo joked that the linemen feel like normal-sized folks when they go out together, but even on the practice field they stand out.
The Broncos’ defensive linemen — a veteran, talented group in their own right — rave about the strength the offensive linemen have built in the weight room.
“They are towers, monsters,” senior nose tackle Sonatane Lui said. “They know how to move bodies. … I hope we’re the best thing that they see this year, and I know dang well that they’ll probably be the best thing we see this year.”
The praise is new to the offensive linemen who endured relentless criticism the past two years, particularly early in the seasons. An assignment error led to quarterback Brett Rypien getting knocked out of the Washington State game in 2017, a game the Broncos lost in overtime. Rypien also took a pounding in the 2018 loss at Oklahoma State.
Bedell led the group through those situations, Molchon said — not only teaching them the technique, but connecting with them personally and fostering the chemistry that has become so cherished by the group.
The last two full games the Broncos played, running back Alexander Mattison rushed for 200 yards in each.
“Through the hard times,” Molchon said, “we leaned on each other. ... We don’t really care if people talk about us in a certain way. The film speaks for itself. We know that. That’s what we need to take care of.”
Hill, who also is the quarterbacks coach, pokes his head in the offensive line room occasionally. The environment is “eye-opening,” he said.
“That O-line room is a fun room to be in,” he said. “… Those guys feed off each other. There’s a good vibe in there.”
Now it’s time to find out what that means on game day.
Is this the year the line sets the tone for the rest of the team? Can it mask the inexperience of true freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier and launch new starting running back Robert Mahone toward a breakout season? Can it handle the size and athleticism of Florida State’s defense?
Those are big asks — but it’s what the Broncos need from the veteran group.
“I’m taking them further than they think they can go, but they know that and they’ve worked very hard,” Bedell said. “… The expectations in this building are high, and they’re answering that.”