The University of Toledo football team had to play three quarterbacks last season, but they all stayed relatively comfortable in the pocket. That's because the Rockets were ranked in 19th in the country in sacks allowed with 16 in 12 games.
With two freshman offensive tackles starting for UT this weekend against Arizona, the challenge is to make sure junior Aaron Opelt stays just as cozy.
The Rockets have one of their younger offensive lines in recent years. Redshirt freshman Mike VanDerMeulen is expected to start at left tackle and freshmen Jan Gewont and John Morookian will split time at right tackle. UT has starters back at center and both guard positions, but no seniors.
"I'm sure there's going to be a few bumps and adjustment time," UT coach Tom Amstutz said. "We're still going to ask them to go out there and play at a high level. It's going to be critical. You don't have a good offense without an offensive line."
The losses of John Greco at left tackle and guard David Perkins mean the Rockets have had to find new leaders on the line. According to Amstutz, guards Jared Dewalt and Kevin Kowalski have filled that role. Dewalt said the camp was a challenge with some new faces but they accomplished what they needed to.
"We're all really comfortable with each other," Dewalt said.
"That's probably the most important part. You've got to feel everybody out."
Gewont, 6-foot-6, 327 pounds, will be starting his second straight season opener. He suffered a season-ending injury against Purdue last year and spent most of the off-season rehabbing. Morookian (6-5, 291 pounds) came to UT in the spring after a semester at a prep school.
VanDerMeulen could have the most scrutiny as a replacement for Greco, who might start on Sunday for the St. Louis Rams after he was selected in the third round in April. Amstutz said VanDerMeulen "shows spurts" of being another excellent tackle along the lines of Greco and Nick Kaczur.
"He shows signs physically that he's that next guy," Amstutz said. "It's still early and he's still got to get out there and play."
Training camp was grueling for the offensive line under the direction of always fiery coach Stan Clayton. Going against an improved defensive line made it all that more challenging for the new starters and there was much more instruction, Amstutz said.
"You've got a lot of coaching to do, a lot of work to do," Amstutz said. "With a couple freshmen in there you've got to walk them through the next adjustment and nothing takes longer."
There is decent experience on the interior line. Junior Buster Garrett will start at center after making seven starts there last year. A junior from Lyndhurst, Ohio, Dewalt has moved back to guard after playing tackle last year. Kowalski, a sophomore, started 10 games as a freshman last season.
"The nerves aren't nearly what they were last year," Kowalski said. "I feel like I'm pretty experienced. I know what's going on out there. I'm not going to have to think this year like I did last year, I can just play and react to things as I go."
The Rockets believe they are ready to help the offense execute smoothly despite not much experience.
"We came really far from the first day of camp to now," Garrett said. "The communication is a lot better. We're ready to go."
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