Oct. 20, 2008
When it comes to Northwestern football, they probably aren't household names. In fact, the average fan probably can't pick them out from a crowd. But that's not what matters to the offensive line.
For this tight-knit group of guys, it's all about chemistry and brotherhood.
Entering the 2008 season, uncertainty reigned supreme as the line lost three starters to graduation and the depth chart included redshirt freshmen at every position. The offensive line was one of the biggest question marks on the team and they answered the call.
Through the first five games of the season, the line allowed just two sacks, good enough to be ranked ninth in the nation (0.4/game). Compare that to last season's 16 sacks through the same number of games and the transformation is clear.
Senior left guard Keegan Kennedy credits it to a full year of preparation.
"Going back to winter, the way we worked out, the way we carried ourselves. I think when you battle with people and you go through camp Kenosha and you listen to the game plan, it eventually leads to a feeling of comfort and a feeling of chemistry."
The momentum that carried through winter and Camp Kenosha was evident in a strong first game that seemed to be a bit of a turning point.
"I don't know what it was, but I guess [the Syracuse game] got the ball rolling. It just seems like it doesn't really matter who we've got in there. It seems like we're really working well together because we're all pretty good friends, the entire offensive line," said senior right guard Joel Belding.
No one could have predicted the success they have achieved on the field so far or that this motley collection of individuals would have gelled so well.
Take Kennedy. Midway through his junior season last year, he saw an opportunity to attain a starting job and made the switch from defensive line to offensive line in just one offseason to become the starting left guard as a senior.
Right tackle Desmond Taylor
took a more traditional route to becoming a starter, redshirting his freshman year and learning from the players that came before him.
"It's been a rite of passage sitting and watching some great players that have gone through our program. I had no problem sitting back and learning from the ones that went before me because it made me the type of player that I am today," said Taylor.
Belding and junior Kurt Mattes were the only players with significant game experience, and they have taken on leadership roles, organizing meetings and events.
But no matter their role, every player on the offensive line looks beyond his own position. More than just being friends or teammates, they have become brothers in arms as they face their opponents every week.
"It's just a matter of trust", said Taylor. "It's always about earning trust. When I go into a game, there's not a doubt in my mind that they're not going to get the job done and that's how it should be. We don't have any doubts. We know our jobs and we go out there and we have confidence that we're going to get the job done."
"It's that brotherhood of looking out for the guy next to you and I think that we've developed that. Even more than being skilled or being talented or being fast or being strong, it's that passion you have to play well," echoed Belding.
That brotherhood extends beyond practice, beyond the games, beyond all the training and the film.
"We're a really close-knit group both on and off field," said Kennedy. "We're always hanging out together off the field and we're always working really hard together on the field. It's really nice to have that chemistry with the guys you're going to battle with."
Off the field, the guys spend time together in many ways, from playing video games to watching the popular television show House. Perhaps the most deeply entrenched tradition is their weekly dinner at Champp's Sports Bar.
Joined by starting quarterback C.J. Bacher, the entire offensive line descends on Champp's for a weekly dinner.
"Every Thursday, the entire offensive line from senior to freshman, we go out and we eat at Champp's. It's our ritual right now" explained Belding.
It is a ritual and a restaurant both aptly named, reflective of the championship caliber performance of an offensive that entered the year green, but which already has progressed to veteran status.