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Published: Wednesday, 12/28/2011

COMMENTARY

Latest class a good one for O-Line U

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

WASHINGTON -- Offensive linemen are not born. They are not even made. They're just stuck with it.

"Nobody grows up saying, 'I want to be an offensive lineman and get smacked in the face for 80 plays every game,' " said Toledo head coach Matt Campbell.

No, but when you grow to be 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds by your late teens, well, they're not going to let you line up at wide receiver.

When the Rockets play Air Force this afternoon in the Military Bowl, all eyes will be on receiver Eric Page and tailback Adonis Thomas and quarterback Terrance Owens.

They're the offensive stars. It has always been that way and always will be that way.

But they will be the first to tell you who the real stars are.

Toledo has a proud history of superb offensive line play, from Big George Machoukas to Bob Caverly of the Unbeatable Rockets to Ken Moyer, Andy McCollum, Colin Westrich, Nick Kaczur, and John Greco of more recent vintage.

Campbell goes so far as to suggest that if Penn State is Linebacker U and Southern Cal is Tailback U, then maybe UT should bill itself as O-Line U.

"It is part of the great tradition, part of the mentality of winning football here," he said.

This season's line only enhances that tradition. And it is the offensive line play that will tell the tale as UT tries to rack up the yards and points necessary to subdue Air Force.

It probably couldn't happen at a more appropriate place, old RFK Stadium, the one-time home of the Hogs -- George Starke, Russ Grimm, Joe Jacoby, and the rest -- who gained fame as the foundation for those Washington Redskins championship teams of the 1980s.

Toledo's O-line doesn't have any Hog-like nickname, although redshirt freshman Greg Mancz was handed one recently.

"He's Captain America," said Mike VanDerMeulen, the senior leader of the line.

That's because Mancz received a rare honor for a Mid-American Conference player, especially for one who didn't make any all-league team, by being named first-team freshman All-American by Yahoo! Sports.

From left to right, the starters on the UT line include VanDerMeulen (6-7, 304) at tackle, Phillipkeith Manley (6-5, 309, senior) at guard, Zac Kerin (6-5, 294, sophomore) at center, Mancz (6-5, 280) at guard, and John Morookian (6-5, 301, senior) at tackle.

There is great experience on that line -- VanDerMeulen will start his 50th straight game, Morookian his 48th, and Manley his 26th.

A dozen games ago, though, there were a couple huge question marks. A veteran center named Kevin Kowalski was off to the NFL, and there was a hole at right guard too.

No questions now. Mancz had an All-American season for a rookie, and Kerin was named second-team All-MAC.

"Zac and I got plugged in with a great group of seniors who showed us the way," Mancz said. "It made the transition easy."

The results? UT's offense ranks eighth in the nation in scoring (42.3 points), eighth in the nation in total offense (493.2 yards), and tied for sixth in fewest sacks allowed (9).

"We take a lot of pride in all that," VanDerMeulen said. "We don't necessarily get the recognition, but we don't mind that. We put it on ourselves to lead the offense and get it going. We know it starts with us. That's our challenge."

Among individual leaders nationally, Page is No. 3 in catches per game, Owens is sixth in passing efficiency, and Thomas is one of the top 20 rushers.

Added Mancz: "We have a special group of skill position guys. We know they'll make the plays if we do our jobs. We don't want to let them down.

"That's how it was for both Zac and me before the season started too. We didn't want to let the rest of the line down. We studied extra film, did extra workouts, everything, to make sure we were at the top of our games. Zac had a great year and, for me, that freshman All-American team felt really good; I'm not going to lie. But it's really the result of me being with these seniors."

There's somebody else these O-linemen don't want to let down this afternoon. Less than three weeks ago Campbell was their position coach as well as UT's offensive coordinator. Now he's the head coach at age 32.

"We were all hoping he'd get the head job," VanDerMeulen, a first-team All-MAC selection, said. "We know what a great coach he is. So, we absolutely have extra motivation to play well for him, sort of to repay him for everything he's done for us.

"He's a great guy, on and off the field, but when it comes down to it, he demands excellence of you. He expects it. He'll take Toledo football to a new level."

And the guys from O-Line U can help him take the first big step this afternoon.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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