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    Blog: Do Not Overlook The Linemen

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    THE FACTOID: It all starts with the line. Despite the kinetic skills of quarterback Kain Colter; despite the promise of running backs Mike Trumpy and Treyvon Green; despite the scorching speed of Tony Jones and Venric Mark; despite that collection of wide receivers as combustible as a bad marriage; despite each of those promising facts, it all starts with the line. For if it does not open holes and provide precious seconds of protection, the 'Cat offense is nothing more than so much fish food. "We know we have play makers all around," says one in that line, the senior guard Brian Mulroe. "So it's on us. We have to be the most important group."

    "We think that all the time," Adam Cushing, its coach, will soon add. "But, certainly. We look around, and we graduated some pretty good players. But you look around the team, there's a bunch of good players. As an offensive line, you go execute, you've got a chance to be a pretty special offense."

    Its goal now, as it has been in recent season's past, is to play with Hog Pride. That, in fact, is the banner under which it operates. Hog Pride. "It is," says Mulroe, explaining what that means, "just having a nasty attitude and playing as one."

    INTRODUCTIONS: Its members are more anonymous than Deep Throat was back in the days of Watergate, and so here we pause to put some flesh on their numbers. At right tackle there is Chucky, the 6-foot-7, 315-pound senior Chuck Porcelli, at right guard there is Neal Daddy, the 6-foot-8, 315-pound senior Neal Dieters. "Obviously he's been around the program a long time and has played a couple positions," Cushing says of Dieters. "His advantage, he kind of knows the tackle position so he knows what's going on out there. A huge guy. With both he and Chuck, it'll be kind of the same thing, just playing with a consistent pad level. When you're six-seven, six-eight, whatever those two guys are, playing with your pads down is the most difficult thing to get done. Then Chuck's a guy who's been around and been playing the backup role for us. A year ago, he was our third tackle on both sides. He was by no means waiting his turn. But now that it's his fifth year, I think he's excited for the opportunity. He's having fun playing football. That's one of those fun things to see, when he's cutting it loose and having fun on the field."

    Next, at center, there is V Tabs, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound sophomore Brandon Vitabile, who started last season as a redshirt freshman. "He's got to focus on just trusting himself," Cushing says of him. "At times, he's a very good football player and he plays very naturally with his feet apart. At times, he tries to do a little more than what his job is and that's the only time he gets himself in trouble. He tries to do everything rather than just his job. But that's a good problem to have. You can fix those."

    To his left, at guard, is Muls, the 6-foot-4, 295-pound senior Mulroe, and at that tackle there is the 6-foot-7, 310-pound senior Pat Ward, who started last season on the right ("Pat doesn't have a nickname," explains Mulroe. "But if he had one, it would be genius or bookworm or something like that."). "It's a slight adjustment to move to the other side," Cushing says of that latter. "But that's what he played in high school, so he's comfortable in a left-handed stance. For him, it's simple fundamentals he has to concentrate on. He's played a lot of football for us, so we have a lot of confidence in him. But he's got to continue to develop those very basic things. Then Brian's probably the best athlete we have up front. Tremendous feet. Plays with leverage well. There's a few basic things they all need to work on. Brian, throughout his career, has been gaining the weight to be a full-fledged O-lineman. I used to give him a lot of guff about it. But he's done a great job of now playing at that Big Ten weight."

    BUT SEPTEMBER IS FAR AWAY: That quintet has appeared regularly this spring with the first unit, yet that is no guarantee the cast won't change by the fall. For in the mix too are the 6-foot-5, 285-pound sophomore Jack Konopka, the former superback who is pushing Porcelli at right tackle; and the 6-foot-5, 280-pound redshirt freshman Geoff Mogus, who is pushing Dieters at right guard; and, on the left side, the 6-foot-8, 295-pound redshirt freshman Shane Mertz ("He's an aircraft carrier out there. The USS Mertz," Pat Fitzgerald says of him) and the 6-foot-6, 295-pound sophomore Paul Jorgensen.

    "It'll probably be ongoing all the way through," Fitzgerald will say of the competition on the line's right side. "I think between the ones and twos, with both guys, I think we have a chance to have a starter there. For the first time, we might rotate some guys a little bit. We've got that much competition. We've got some pretty good depth there."

    "He's very-naturally talented, but it's a different position all together," Cushing says of Konopka, the former superback who is in the middle of that competition. "There's a million different things that go on in the offensive line. That's going to be the challenge for him, catching up to the minutiae of the game in there. When he does that, he's going to be good. His athletic ability is tremendous."

    PAUSE FOR A FLASHBACK: In 2001 Trai Essex was the tight end on the Big Ten's All Freshman team, but then-coach Randy Walker switched him to left tackle. He would go on to start 37 games for the 'Cats at that position and then be selected in the third round of the 2005 draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who gave him a $460,000 signing bonus and won two Super Bowls in his time with them. So Konopka has a precedent he can regard, and a success story to try and match.

    BACK TO THE PRESENT: Fitzgerald, as all 'Cat fans know, covets competition, and when asked the mood of his room, Cushing will say, "It's an attitude of competition. There is some good competition." So that is a benefit. But then, a sentence later, he will add, "Whenever there's competition, it's a strain for everyone to gel together, so that's what we're working on the most right now. Making sure the communication's there. Making sure the camaraderie's there, and that the trust is there with each other." So, as Hamlet famously noted, "Therein lies the rub."

    They appear, to the naked eye, to be nothing more than a bunch of Brobdingnagian bodies bashing away at the defenders confronting them. But in truth, on each snap, the offensive linemen are dance partners who must work as one to achieve their goals. Their feet, their hips, each of their moves must mesh, and to achieve the kind of synchronicity needed for success, they must know each other intimately, they must trust each other totally, they must communicate with each other nonverbally. That is why a line is better the longer it is together. That is also why, with its final makeup still uncertain, the 'Cat line is now nothing more than a work in progress. "It's growing," Mulroe will admit when asked if his group has its choreography down yet. "We haven't all played together. But it's going to keep continuing to grow and we're going to need that. We need to solidify that."

    But how do you solidify that once spring practice ends and months separate them from the opening of fall camp?   

    "They do a little bit of position work on their own through spring and summer," explains Cushing. "Very simple fundamentals. You don't want them to do too much because they might develop some poor habits. But they do some drills where they work together, just two-man combinations, so they trust the guy to their right or their left. And they hang out a lot. Spring and summer, there's a push to get together off-the-field as well. That trust from off-the-field carries over. So we get them together, we have dinner including me at times so we can all develop that trust together."

    AND FINALLY THIS, from the late futurist R. Buckminster Fuller in his book I Seem To Be A Verb: "We should look on our society as we look on the biological world, where the fungi, the manures and the worms make an extraordinary contribution. . . We tend to applaud the football player who makes the touchdown and overlook the lineman who does the heavy blocking. We should not only applaud the flower, the fruit and the ball carrier."

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