Talented and veteran front fives will determine the Pac-12 title race
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Business up front, party in the back.
So goes the description of the antiquated mullet hairstyle, which Washington State offensive lineman Liam Ryan sported at Pac-12 media days. Cropped short in the front and on the sides, Ryan accented his mudflap with blonde dye. Arizona State center lineman Cohl Cabral described his offensive line counterpart's flowing mane as "majestic."
In Ryan's unique haircut also lies an apt parallel to the presence of an offensive lineman: Business up front, party in the back.
"O-linemen gravitate toward each other," Cabral said. "No matter where they come from, where they are, who they are, they find a way to all end up together at some point, just because everyone thinks alike. Their mindsets [are] the same."
"Having guys like that around you just makes you want to have fun," he added. "But at the same time, you've got to do the work."
Offensive line play is some of the most thankless in sports. Cliche calls the scant few inches of turf between the line of scrimmage and defense "the trenches," and it's a fitting description. The framework of every play starts with a combination of violence and sometimes underappreciated nuance.
Yards and points come when it goes right, but rarely do the highlight GIFs blowing up on Twitter spotlight the blocking. When it goes wrong, however, line play comes under the microscope.
Winning matchups on the line requires a businesslike approach. But when it's done well, it's party time for the fellas in the backfield and lined up wide. The beneficiaries of great blocking recognize, and some, like Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, says "linemen don't get enough love."
Just don't expect any of them to start clamoring for more of the headlines or individual accolades, explains Washington center Nick Harris.
"Offensive linemen, as our nature, don't like too much shine on us," he said. "We like doing the dirty work and letting everyone else get the shine."
At Washington, commitment to the "dirty work" pays dividends in the form of two Pac-12 championships in three seasons. The Huskies will contend for a third in head coach Chris Petersen's tenure in 2019, due in no small part to the return of a veteran offensive line.
The center Harris was an All-Pac-12 selection in 2018. Left tackle Trey Adams is back after missing much of last season due to back surgery. Jaxson Kirkland is a rising star, Luke Wattenberg started every game in 2018, and Jared Hilbers has a multitude of meaningful experience after starting in Adams' place for a spell.
While much of the buzz about defending Pac-12 champion Washington stems from the homecoming of ballyhooed quarterback Jacob Eason, an Evergreen State native and transfer from Georgia, that offensive front sets the tone.
"The energy that we bring, it melts into other position groups," Harris said. "All it does is give you confidence. Because if they see the guys on the O-line â — the dudes who get no spotlight, no type of comments [from fans or media] — coming every day with that passion? Those dudes [skill position players] are going to want to play."
To defend their title, the Huskies must overcome resurgent rival Oregon. Washington and Oregon were neck-and-neck in the preseason media poll for tops in the Pac-12 North. Like the hated Huskies, the Ducks owe their 2019 forecast to a veteran offensive line.
Shane Lemieux, Jake Hanson, Penei Sewell and Calvin Throckmorton all earned All-Pac-12 recognition a season ago.
"The offensive line coming back was going to be really special," Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert cited as one of the "puzzle pieces" that influenced his decision to hold off on the NFL draft for one more year. "They make our job so much easier. They do such a great job, and they don't get nearly enough credit."
"They're the heart and soul of the team," Herbert added.
It's not just Oregon or Washington, either. Stanford's been a standard-bearer in the Pac-12 for almost a decade, producing elite offensive linemen partially responsible for three different running backs earning Heisman Trophy ceremony invites. In 2019, the uniquely talented Walker Little anchors what should be another standout Stanford front.
Meanwhile, at Washington State, stellar play at the line powers a rise that, under coach Mike Leach, sees the Cougars go from the conference to a program-best 11 wins a season ago. Leach's air-raid offense is known for cultivating record-setting passers and star wide receivers, but the line has become the signature unit of sorts for Washington State during its current run.
Andre Dillard was a first-round NFL draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles this past spring. Cole Madison and Joe Dahl were draftees in 2018 and '16, and Ryan cited Washington State offensive line coach Mason Miller's tutelage of Cleveland Browns lineman Austin Corbett as another example of the standard. Corbett played for Miller at Nevada.
"We're all gifted — we play Div. I football — but I think it's the extra, little things," Ryan said. "The film sessions, working out three times a week extra, and getting together as an offensive line group to mesh."
In that meshing, Ryan described, the business end of dominating the line on gamedays comes full circle with the parties. Washington State's majestically mulleted left guard cited playing Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo Switch as a key to the Cougars' success.