An authentic eastern European meal was the first step in giving Tom Amstutz confidence in the future of the University of Toledo offensive line.
When Amstutz visited the Palos Heights, Ill., home of Jan Gewont in December 2005, he was served food prepared by Gewont's Polish-born parents.
After a meal of pierogies, Amstutz knew the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Gewont had grown up well fed. It was as sure a sign of potential as any for the coach.
"I ate some great Polish food at his house," Amstutz said. "Make sure that gets in the story."
A few months later, UT signed Gewont and three other offensive linemen as part of one of the Mid-American Conference's top recruiting classes.
A year and a half later, those four signees are potential starters this season for the Rockets.
"It's good to have a big, strong offensive line that's going to be working several years together," Amstutz said. "Those are aggressive kids that are really turning out to be good football players."
Left guard Jared DeWalt, center Levi George, right guard Gewont and right tackle Chris Meenan are currently No. 1 on the depth chart along with
senior left tackle John Greco.
George, Gewont and Meenan are redshirt freshmen, and DeWalt is a sophomore after starting eight games last year in place of injured senior Jesse Anderson.
"I'm really pleased with their progress so far," UT offensive line coach Stan Clayton said. "They understand the task at hand. They're handling it at a very mature level. They approach the game in a professional way."
Gewont was second-string last year but his redshirt was saved. DeWalt, 6-4, 318, was projected as a backup, but got the call when Anderson was injured.
He was just the second true freshman to start for the Rockets on the offensive line since 1978. The other was current New England Patriot Nick Kaczur.
"I thought he took responsibility and handled it very well," Clayton said.
Meenan, 6-7 and the heaviest Rocket at 339 pounds, was hurt twice last year.
Although it was a challenging setback for him, he was inspired by his other classmates to stay motivated during his rehab.
"We're all really good friends, so it helps," Meenan said.
George, 6-1, 294 from Warren, Ohio, posted the second-best bench press in the off-season at 430 pounds. David Perkins had been expected to challenge George at center, but has not been at practice because of academic issues.
Greco knows there will be a learning curve for his linemates once the season starts. He said he will support them through it.
"They're going to be asked to step in there and asked to do the best they can," Greco said. "We believe in them. We're going to rally behind him."
Actually, Greco is a reason for the coaches to have faith in the young starters. His experience as a four-year starter and two-time All-MAC selection "is like having a second coach on the field," Clayton said.
"He looks after us, he gets us all motivated," Gewont said. "He helps us out with whatever problems we have. He's really a good teacher to show us younger guys how the game is played."
The linemen know because of players like Greco and Kaczur, there are high expectations for their performances.
"It's a big responsibility to live up to," Gewont said. "You want to try to follow in their footsteps, do exactly what they've done.
"But we're all competing, we're all trying to prove ourselves. It is definitely a good atmosphere."
Contact Maureen Fulton at: email@example.com or 419-724-6160.