Updated Tue, Oct 15, 2013 11:05 am
An old football adage says, “Games are won and lost in the trenches.” For the Ohio Bobcats’ offense, this proverb could not be any truer according to Ohio offensive line coach Kevin Lightner, who said he believes the offensive line is most important to the Bobcats’ offensive success. Yet, through the first five games of the 2013 campaign, Lightner’s biggest concern has not been getting his unit to play well, but rather being able to field a healthy unit.
“All four of our seniors have been down at one point [this season],” Lightner said.
John Lechner and Sam Johnson were injured in Ohio’s season opener against Louisville. Ryan McGrath was hurt in the Bobcats’ second game. Most recently, John Prior went down.
Junior lineman Mark Smith underwent surgery earlier this season to have a screw set in his hand for an injury to his thumb.
The Green and White’s injury troubles have even dated back to offseason camp, in which sophomore center Lucas Powell sustained a high ankle sprain.
“We’ve had a lot of different things from knee injuries to shoulders and all the way to thumbs,” Lightner said.
Trying to juggle injuries and putting together a capable offensive line on the field has been no easy task for the Bobcat coach.
“It’s been tough. We’ve had guys playing numerous positions,” Lightner said. “Mark McQueen started at guard and tackle. Michael Lucas has started games at guard and center. It’s not easy on those guys bouncing around.”
Ryan McGrath, who has been a sideline observer for most of the season due to injury, says that flexibility is expected of Ohio’s trench-men.
“Coach Lightner makes it clear that everybody has to be ready to step up at any point and no one is really set at one position,” McGrath said. “We’ve had a lot of guys playing three or four positions.”
Lightner says switching players around has made practice extra challenging because it leads to more snaps than usual. McGrath says linemen sometimes switch positions after just one play in practice. According to the senior, the line’s ability to change is a testament to their skill.
“Overall we’re a versatile and athletic group of guys,” he said.
With four seniors bitten by the injury bug, younger players have had to step up, like redshirt sophomores McQueen and Lucas. Lightner has even turned to true freshman Durrell Wood to play significant minutes.
“He’s come in and done a great job, Lightner said about Wood. “He’s going to be a good player here. So, we’ve had to do some different things. It’s been interesting but the guys have really jumped into it and taken it seriously.”
Not only has Ohio’s offensive line had to play through injury, but it has also dealt with challenge of replacing three very talented linemen that graduated in 2012. Tackle Vince Carlotta, center Skyler Allen, and guard Eric Herman all left behind them big shoes to fill. Last spring Allen received a rookie camp invite from the Detroit Lions and Herman was drafted by the New York Giants. The former Ohio guard is currently a member on the Giants’ practice team.
“Those are some of the best guys that ever played here, so they were difficult to replace,” Lightner admitted. “[But] in this offense we’ve got a lot snaps, so I play a lot of guys. Even though those guys were great players we still had other guys working in there to ease that [transition] when they left. We’ve got some real quality here.”
“The guys behind them are just as good and they’ve showed that this year,” McGrath said in agreement.
Ohio’s leading rusher Beau Blankenship is one player who has been most affected by the transition.
“Running behind those guys [last year], yeah, I was pretty comfortable,” he said. “I’m still getting comfortable running behind [this new line], but they’re doing a great job. Those guys are hard to replace but these guys are doing good.”
“I couldn’t be happier,” McGrath said regarding the offensive line’s performance thus far. “It’s a young group of guys and they’ve come through. They are leaders out there, they are good communicators, and show how hardworking they are in the weight room and they play to the whistle. They’re not lazy. They’re an intense physical group.”
Through five games the team has allowed just four sacks and are even on pace to allow less than last year’s team.
“It’s been challenging,” Blankenship said. “[But] those guys up front are doing a good job. We’re getting better and better.”
Circumstances are starting to look up for the Bobcats as the line gets healthier.
“We were about as thin as we can be but we’re starting to get some guys back,” Lightner said. Lucas Powell has returned, and Ryan McGrath was healthy enough to play in Ohio’s game against Akron. Mark Smith had the screw removed from his thumb and is now able to play with a small cast on his hand.
“Our offense will only go as far as we go,” Lightner said. So far so good, as their stellar play has helped the Bobcats to a 4-2 record.
Ohio looks to extend its success and grab its second conference win in three tries against Eastern Michigan (1-5, 0-2). The Bobcats and Eagles kick off at Rynearson Stadium on Oct. 19 at 1 p.m.