The University of Toledo football team is known for having a big and physical offensive line. Through recruiting and development, the Rockets have molded a deep and versatile unit.
That depth and versatility has come into play this season for Toledo with both starting guards (Yazeed Atariwa and Chandler Cotterman) out for the season and starting center (Nate Jeppesen) battling his own injury issues.
“It’s a testament to the guys,” UT offensive line coach Mike Hallett said. “A lot of the times the starters are going to work really hard, but the twos may not be game ready all the time, and you are trying to cover them up. We’ve had some opportunities to have some guys playing at different positions and have some rotation early in the season. When guys’ numbers are called, they get in, and they do a great job.”
Led by standout senior tackles Elijah Nkansah and Brant Weiss, the offensive line has been able to mix and match — and it is starting to develop some continuity.
“We’ve always been close as an offensive line,” Weiss said. “It helps that at practice we are constantly rotating guys at new positions. Everyone knows what is going on at every position, which is good for us. I think that says everything about our depth that we can have guys go down and guys step up and reload.”
Perhaps no one on the offensive line has shown off his versatility as much as sophomore Bryce Harris, who has played at right and left guard as well as center this season.
“From the start [this season] I wasn’t a starter in any sense,” Harris said. “I was the No. 2 at right guard, and I was the guy who would replace the left guard, the center, or the right guard whenever they needed it. That’s just been a good experience for me, because it kind of humbled me. That was a challenging experience at first, but the more I got reps in camp, the more confident I got.”
Harris settled in at center against Central Michigan on Saturday with Jeppesen out.
The past few games sophomore Brandon Heidecker, a natural tackle, has been filling in at one of the guard positions.
“Brandon has come back from a preseason injury and he has come back and played well at Miami,” Hallett said. “He played well against Eastern Michigan and played well last week. He’s more of a natural tackle, but he’s playing hard at guard and is playing the position really well.”
Also filling in at guard has been Sami Kassem, a senior who is seeing his first game action this season.
“Sami has worked his tail off here,” Hallett said. “He has really attended to his physical fitness and flexibility, the things we identified as areas that needed to improve through the summer. He’s done a great job. He has stepped right in and is pushing guys down the field. It’s really good to see those guys developing.”
Kassem, a junior college transfer in 2015, praised Nkansah and Weiss for helping him on the field.
“As a senior I have just been trying to work and become a starter and if not, I knew I was going to get my turn sometime and I would have to be ready for it,” Kassem said. “My offensive linemen next to me, like Brant and Elijah, have been really good about helping me out and making sure I have the right call and really supporting me.”
Against Central Michigan on Saturday, the line of Nkansah, Kassem, Harris, Heidecker, and Weiss dominated the line of scrimmage as Toledo rushed for 310 yards during a 30-10 win in Mount Pleasant.
“That is what we pride ourselves on is running the ball,” Kassem said. “As a Toledo offensive lineman, you always love hitting people. With all the rain we couldn’t really throw much, so we knew were going to have to run the ball the whole game, and that is what we did.”
UT coach Jason Candle was encouraged by the five-man group that played a majority of the snaps together against Central Michigan.
“It was really impressive by those guys,” Candle said. “Those are five guys who haven’t had a lot of time together in game performances yet. And Central is a good defensive front. They are a physical group and they are big. For the most part, we held up and handled our own.”
While Toledo has been searching for the right combinations on the offensive line, Hallett believes they may have found something in the rain at Central Michigan.
“Since we’ve had a variety of different moving pieces throughout the season, I think there have been some times that maybe it was tough for the guys to really understand the guys that they were playing with because of the rotation,” Hallett said. “Last week, those five guys played 76 snaps and they just kept getting better, so I think there is something to be said about the continuity of those guys getting comfortable with each other.”
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