From the outside looking in, there’s little love bestowed upon an offensive line. If the run game is productive, they must be doing their job. If the quarterback has time to throw, they must be doing their job. That’s about the extent of the appreciation, although if things go badly, if there’s a breakdown in those areas, the line is quickly singled out as a primary cause of a team’s offensive woes.
It’s enough to make one wonder what would possess anyone to become an offensive lineman. They never run or catch and rarely tackle. Something has gone astray if somehow they’re in the end zone with the ball in their hands. They could do their job 50 plays in a row but that one play that results in a key loss or a turnover is the one that garners all the attention.
Who loves offensive linemen?
“It’s got to come from the running backs’ and the quarterbacks’ mothers,” said University at Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn, a former offensive lineman. “That’s where the love comes from.”
This past week, recognition of another job well done came from the UB athletic department as well. The unit of center Trevor Sales, guards Graham Whinery and Jasen Carlson and tackles Andre Davis and Gokhan Ozkan was named the university’s Student Athletes of the Week after the Bulls ran for 313 yards against Ohio to remain one of the nation’s more productive teams on the ground heading into Saturday’s game at Northern Illinois.
There has been drastic improvement in the offensive trenches since Quinn’s first year as coach, when the running game was a virtual non-entity. The Bulls have rushed for 1,127 yards, the highest five-game total to start a season in the program’s Division I-A era. They’ve eclipsed 300 yards thrice in the last seven games. They’d never done it once before then. And now the school record of 2,463 single-season rushing yards is within their grasp.
“Our offensive line’s come a long way since I’ve been here,” Quinn said. “Their leadership, tenacity, being a very-close knit group has helped this team and will continue to lead this team.”
Until the injury to Branden Oliver it was difficult to discern the total impact of UB’s offensive line play. Was the blocking first-rate or was Oliver simply that good at finding his own room? The answer came in last week’s 38-31 loss at Ohio, when backup running back Devin Campbell stepped in and went for 160 yards while Alex Zordich became the first UB QB in the D-I era to rush for more than 100. For the offensive line, it was another stamp of validation.
Not that UB’s running success comes as a surprise to those in the trenches. Whinery, a senior guard, declared before the season that the goal was to rush for 2,000 yards.
“We said we were going to do it and we’re doing what we want to do,” Whinery said this week. “We’re just going to keep on going for our goal, which I said at the beginning of the season was 2,000 total rushing yards. We’re going to stay with that goal.”
“We want the team to lean on us,” said Ozkan, the other senior on the line. “We wouldn’t have it any other way. No matter who’s behind us holding the ball, we just want to protect them and get the team going offensively.”
The “O” line began to realize its potential last season, when Oliver rushed for a school-record 1,395 yards out of the team total of 1,860. Yet all that time Quinn felt that one of the best linemen in the program was Sales, who sat out last season after transferring from Delaware State. He came in at center with Whinery moving to guard and, to this point, the unit has reached a new level.
“To a certain extent, yes, there is satisfaction, but it’s kind of what we do, what we’re trying to do, what’s in our hearts: block for our teammates, whether it’s Bo, Devin, Alex, whoever’s in the backfield,” Sales said. “It’s a certain level of satisfaction but we want to win games. That’s our main goal. We need to bust out some wins here and get the train rolling. That’s our main goal right now.”
The running game has been productive. The pass protection has been solid. In part it’s a reflection of the strong bonds the five have built while working out together over the summer and constructing an important trust.
“We’re a tight-knit group and we’re always hanging out,” Ozkan said. “Any restaurant that’s open, just be careful, because we’ll come in as a group and just tear it all down.”
You can blame them all for driving up the price of chicken wings. Sales says he’s put away some 75 in a sitting. He said Carlsen is the lightweight with a 30ish appetite.
“Still solid for most people,” Sales said.
“I’m probably midway in between there,” Whinery said. “I like to enjoy my food.”
The recognition tends to come grudgingly from the outside looking in. It’s no wonder the job of an offensive lineman is often described as “thankless.”
“It’s a part of the game 50 percent of the people don’t even know exists,” Quinn said. “But it’s an area that I just love.”