“Little guys don’t know what it’s like to be hit by a 300-poundman,” Viking left tackle Steve Blatchley says matter-of-factly ashe towers above at 6-5, 295 pounds.
After ten minutes of watching him and his fellow Vikingoffensive linemen batter the midget-sized red blocking sleigh as ifit had done them bodily harm, you’re pretty sure that you’ll beable to live a long, happy life without ever knowing what suchpunishment is like.
After a forgettable year marred by losses and injuries, much ofthe hope for this year’s Viking football team rests on the healthand performance of the five (very) broad-shouldered individuals wholine up in the trenches along the offensive line every Saturdaynight.
A rash of injuries last year left four of the five projectedstarters spending more time in the training room than on the field.The projected starting line only played one game together anddidn’t even get to finish that game together because senior guardMicah Jackson-Sattler suffered a leg fracture that would sidelinehim for the year.
The patchwork line that resulted made evaluating the team’sstruggles difficult. Did the league-low 86.6 rushing yards-per-game- nearly 60 yards-per-game less than the year before – result fromthe line problems, lack of focus by running back Ryan Fuqua or poorplay calling? Did quarterback Joe Wiser’s league high 17interceptions and frequent indecisiveness stem from a lack ofconfidence in his linemen or were they a sign he doesn’t have whatit takes to compete at the D1-AA level?
To their credit, no one on the team is using injuries as anexcuse, but the excitement stirred up by the fact that the samefive players have started both games so far this season and arestill healthy and playing well is obvious.
“Now we feel free to open up the playbook and try out thingsthat we might not have done last year,” offensive line coach EricReid confidently said before a recent practice.
Wiser, one of the main beneficiaries of the healthy line, summedup the importance, “Having a healthy, good line is the biggestconfidence builder you can have. This year I don’t have to worryabout the guys up front. It makes all the difference in theworld.”
So who are these guys?
In Reid’s words, “They’re just a bunch of hogs, a bunch of hardworking, blue collar guys.”
Being favorably compared to a hog, taking pride in an oversizebelly and boasting about your ability to eat more than yourteammates are not attributes usually associated with successfulathletes. Then again, offensive linemen aren’t your typicalathletes.
When asked what the biggest difference between last year’s andthis year’s line was, Jackson-Sattler didn’t hesitate.
“We eat a lot more than last year’s team.”
Jackson-Sattler is the much-revered chef at weekly o-linebarbeques where the linemen have been known to consume upwards of10 pounds of steaks and 10 pounds of chicken in a single sitting,adding a second possible interpretation to Reid’s comment that thisyear’s line is “hungrier” than last year’s.
The get-togethers are ostensibly held to review film of upcomingopponents, but, more importantly, they build the trust andunderstanding needed for five 300-pound men to work as one.
Fifth-year senior Mike Stachowiak, the most-tenured andmost-frequently injured member of the starting five, can see thebenefits, “The chemistry is better this year. Just knowing what theguy next to you is going to do makes a huge difference. … This isthe best line I’ve been on since I’ve been here.”
The strong chemistry is evident when discussion of the weekly”pancake” competition comes up. Each week, running back Ryan Fuquarewards the o-lineman with the most “pancakes” with dinner at arestaurant of his choice. For the uninformed, a “pancake” is ablock where a lineman flattens an opposing player like theeponymous breakfast favorite.
“I’m goin’ to Ruth’s Chris (Steakhouse)!” an excited giantblurted.
“Mmm, steaks…expensive steaks,” another moaned, HomerSimpson-style.
While the lack of an equally matched opponent makes it difficultto judge the success of this year’s line based on the first twogames of the season, so far, so good.
The running game is back over the line’s 150-yard-per-game goaland solid blocking and pass protection have enabled the offensiveplay-calling to be more aggressive and incorporate themisdirection, reverses and trick plays that all but disappearedlast year.
If all 1500-pounds of men can stay healthy and keep blocking asthey have been, the Vikings will have the centerpiece for amuch-improved offense and maybe the centerpiece for their nextbarbeque will be a trophy.
Viking O-Line Profiles
Favorite food: Dad’s BBQ
Nickname: Old Man
Favorite food: Mom’s soul food
Peter St. John
Year: Redshirt freshman
Favorite food: Mom’s Asian food
Favorite food: Jake’s Famous Crawfish
Nicknames: Whoa!, OD
Favorite food: Cajun