O-line benefits from depth

Ask any good football coach which unit is most vital to a team’s success and they’ll almost certainly, without hesitation and with utmost confidence, say it’s the offensive line.

Yes, quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers get all the shine on offense while defenders get to stuff stat sheets with tackles for loss, sacks, pass breakups and interceptions.

But the offensive line is vital to the success of any football team.

A good one ensures the offense can move the ball effectively on the ground and protects the quarterback, giving him ample time to find an open receiver on pass plays. A bad one prevents the unit from moving the ball in any effective way.

“I don’t care if you’re at USC or you’re at Texas or you’re at Michigan or wherever you are (the offensive line) is always going to be the question mark,” said McNeese State offensive line coach Ben Norton. “Even if there’s a question mark at another position on the offense, like a quarterback or the running back, usually the offensive line is always the position. There’s not enough of those guys to go around and the depth is always an issue.”

That statement rang especially true for McNeese last season when it rotated between seven and eight guys up front all season, limiting the Cowboys’ offensive prowess.

Things didn’t look much better during spring practice when, due in large part to injuries, Norton was working with as few as seven guys, limiting the number of live reps the entire team could take.

That all changed at fall camp when incoming new players and others returning from injuries amounted to a total of 18 offensive linemen working for one of the five coveted starting spots.

“Coming out of spring we had seven guys at that position,” Norton said. “You look now and we have 18. The fact that we’ve been able to bring in more guys is a credit to (head coach Lance) Guidry and the coaching staff and our recruiting efforts to load that position up.

“Throughout fall camp we’ve been able to create more depth. Coming out of spring camp I said I thought we had scratched the surface. Now I think we’ve made a dent.”

Norton can be seen at every practice working tirelessly with each individual member of the unit, constantly challenging them to better themselves and perfect the craft.

“He pushes us every day,” said sophomore Collin Fountain. “If we mess up on just the slightest thing, he’ll correct us and fuss at us. Even when we look at film, we can win the one-on-one with our guy, but if one thing is not correct, he’ll coach us.”

Any performance less than perfect is met with tough but fair criticism and each perfect rep is rewarded with a good old-fashioned “attaboy,” that is rare enough to mean something to the receiving athlete.

“That’s the best feeling,” Fountain said. “He’s a heck of a coach. He doesn’t want to see us complacent. When he says we really did something good, we take that heart. That means a lot to us.”

Unlike last year, the Cowboys have an experienced group of guys who will share playing time.

Junior Grant Burguillos started in all 11 games last season at left guard. He will likely continue that trend this season after earning preseason second-team all-Southland Conference honors.

Fellow junior Tyrae Johnson has also emerged as a favorite to start as one of the most experienced athletes on the line with 19 starts at right guard under his belt.

The Cowboys also return Kyle Zenon who started 11 games, mostly at left tackle last season. The center and right tackle position remain up for grabs with athletes like Fountain and transfers Zack Jones and Tre Newton competing for playing time and starting roles.

Norton will be the first to say his unit has a long way to go. A”dent” is fine, but Norton said he wants to blow the whole thing up.

But Guidry said the unit couldn’t be in better hands, and he’s confident the offense will be able to do what’s necessary to win.

“Whoever you give him he coaches them,” Guidry said. “It doesn’t matter what he looks like, how big, how tall or how athletic, he’s going to coach them and try to find a way to give them the best chance to be successful. That’s what I like about him. He’s a great motivator. He’s hard on the guys, but they’re going to be sound, and they’re going to be tough.”

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Having 18 players fighting for five starting jobs will help McNeese State in games and practice with the ability to run block, pass protect and sustain long drives to keep the Cowboys defense fresh. (Rick Hickman/Lake Charles American Press)

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