BOWLING GREEN - The day after training camp ended, Drew Nystrom and Derrick Markray decided to spend their day off together.
Nystrom and Markray are the new starters on the right side of the offensive line for Bowling Green State University, and they knew the valuable time would be well spent in each other's company. Before spring practice, the two hadn't known each other well. The better friends they became, the better they would work together.
Less than two weeks before they were to begin their first season as starters, Nystrom and Markray, two city kids from Chicago and Detroit, experienced another first together: an afternoon at the tractor pull.
They had to learn things quickly to make any sense of the competition. They made it a team effort, talking it out - at least trying to.
"It was crazy, it was loud, it was exciting," Markray said. "The crowd was into it."
Trying to talk in a loud environment ... wonder where else they will need that skill? The Falcons head into 80,000-seat Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., tomorrow for their season opener against Wisconsin.
Along with another new starter on the line, senior center Jonathan Culp, Nystrom, a sophomore tackle, and Markray, a junior guard, will go up against the replacements for the four NFL draft picks who started on the defensive line for the Badgers last season.
BGSU coach Gregg Brandon said it was hard to envision what the new Badgers defensive line would look like, but he expects it to be formidable.
"Our O-line is not going to be lulled to sleep by any stretch of the imagination," Brandon said. "They've got to be ready to block whoever it is."
Identity is key for Nystrom and Markray. Since school started, they're making their presence known whenever they meet.
"We run around screaming 'right side' every time we see each other on campus," Markray said. "We shake hands, throw up a little right side signal and walk away."
Nystrom is more experienced: he started at Northern Illinois last year and feels confident making decisions for the right side if need be. Markray's path to the lineup makes his position truly impressive.
Coaches didn't know if Markray would return after his redshirt year in 2002 because of academic issues. In the winter, the same semester he needed to get good grades, his mother had a brain aneurysm. She has recovered.
Markray succeeded in pulling up his grades, and spent last season on the scout team. He made his case for the starting position in the spring and had a good spring game, recording no missed assignments. Then in May, his nephew and lifelong best friend was stabbed to death. Markray had talked to him earlier in the day.
"I overcame every incident and it made me stronger," Markray said. "I was determined to not let anything hold me back."
Markray said learning the offense was something he struggled with in his first years, but he has focused and feels comfortable in the system. Tackle Rob Warren said he noticed in the fall Markray had picked up a new intelligence of the game.
"Drew has stepped up, and Derrick Markray has come miles since last year," Warren said.
The new starters have good examples to take from: Warren and guard Kory Lichtensteiger are two of the top linemen in the Mid-American Conference. All of the Falcon linemen are 290 pounds or more, but offensive line coach Greg Studrawa said the new line is one of the most athletic lines he's coached at BGSU.
"We had a really good offensive line last year, but the five guys that start this year as a whole will be more athletic and bigger than the guys we had last year," Studrawa said.
Markray in particular has an advantage on paper against the Badgers. At 350 pounds, he outweighs his direct matchup, left tackle Jason Chapman, by 70 pounds.
Teammates and coaches say the line has gelled in the past week despite Culp's competition with John Lanning for the spot until the end of camp.
"We were really crisp, really sharp in our assignments," Nystrom said.
Maybe it was the tractor pull.
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