April 5, 2011
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By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
He is inherently a nice guy. This is one reason it is not that easy for him to chew out a teammate. He is inherently a guy who prefers to lead by example. This is another reason it is not that easy for him to raise his voice and get in a teammate's face. He is inherently a guy who is a living-and-breathing example of what is meant by the term big-ol'-teddy-bear. That is yet one more reason it is not that easy for him to chide and drive, correct and cajole a teammate.
But often this spring 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald has pointedly noted that senior left tackle Al Netter "Is doing an outstanding job leading the offensive line."
Each fall, near season's end, the American Football Coaches Association introduces its Good Works Team, which is comprised of performers who do just that. Former defensive tackle Corbin Bryant was one of its members last season, the fifth-consecutive season that the 'Cat nominated for the honor was selected.
This year that nominee is senior left tackle Al Netter, who last spring ('10) break eschewed the beaches and spent his time instead working for a week at an orphanage in Guatemala.
It was the great futurist R. Buckminster Fuller who wrote this 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. . .," he wrote. "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."
This is a truth well known by Fitzgerald and quarterback Dan Persa and any of the 'Cats who garner headlines playing what are termed the skilled positions, which is why the metamorphosis of senior left tackle Al Netter is not unimportant. For that line he leads, quite simply, will provide the very foundation of whatever success the 'Cats achieve come fall since not even Persa is skilled enough to perform his magic while lying on his back.
Al Netter is now a 'Cat co-captain and will enter next season with 39 consecutive starts behind him. "Al's a veteran. He's been out there. He's been in the arena 39 consecutive starts. He knows what it takes to be out there," says left guard Brian Mulroe, who started 13 consecutive games beside Netter last fall. "He's always bringing the guys along. He's always correcting guys if they're screwing up. And he's just a good guy. Off the field, everyone enjoys Al. He's just a good guy to work with."
Has he changed over the years, we wonder.
"He has gotten more vocal since I've been around, definitely. When he was younger, I still looked at him as a leader. But he's obviously more vocal now."
What does Fitz mean when he says Netter is doing an outstanding job leading his unit, we later ask offensive line coach Adam Cushing.
"First and foremost, Al leads by everything he does," he says. "He does it right. He does it exactly as we ask him to do it. He gives unbelievable effort. And he always has a positive attitude. His attitude's infectious, he's got a smile on his face all the time. And he's an established performer. He's done well, he's played well in the Big Ten arena. So his ability to make others (pay attention to) the attention to detail things, he does those things very, very well. So when guys see him do those, it allows him to pull those guys along with him. He can reach out and help those guys and help me as another set of eyes, another coach on the field."
What affect does that leadership have?
"It's so much easier. It's so much easier. He gets to be another coach on the field. I do a lot of things where I funnel things through Al to help him establish that role."
Did he have to get out of his comfort zone to take on that role?
"He did. He did. It's been a process. Al and I worked together on it quite a bit. And Al's been elected to the Leadership Council and worked with Coach Fitz on it as well. We've really worked on that. Because he's such a good player, the next step was to become a good leader. He could lead himself already. Now he can lead others."
We ask Al Netter himself what he thinks Fitzgerald means when he says he is doing an outstanding job leading his unit.
"What I think he means is communication," he says. "With the offensive line its all about a guy who can be there, be vocal, tell guys when it's third down, tell guys when we need to pick up the tempo, tell guys we need to get this ball down the field. I'm just trying to be that vocal leader who has control over the group."
Is that an easy thing for him to do?
"I definitely had to develop it. I'm the kind of person that, my leadership has gone through a transformation. At first I was lead by example, do the right things, not necessarily be vocal. So I definitely had to work on that, get out of my comfort zone. Last year was a huge growing period for me as far as leadership. I've really stepped up being vocal and taking control of the group."
And what attitude is he attempting to instill in that group he controls?
"We've taken a more aggressive attitude to everything," Al Netter finally says. "Run game, pass game, we're protecting our quarterback like we're protecting his life. Our running backs, we're finishing through the whistle. We're developing a different, more physical mentality than we have in the past."
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