Coach Tim Beckman knows where the strength of his team's offense lies - it all starts up front on the offensive line.
Never has that old adage been truer at the University of Toledo which returns four starters on the line and just two at the other six positions on offense.
With key graduation losses at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver, the Rockets' offensive line will be relied on to carry the inexperienced members of offense at the beginning of the season.
Junior left tackle Mike VanDerMeulen, senior center Kevin Kowalski, senior right guard Nate Cole, and junior right tackle John Morookian started every game last season for UT, and junior left guard Phillipkeith Manley appears poised to step in and fill the void left by the graduation of Jared DeWalt.
"I've said from Day 1 that our offensive line is going to be the foundation of this offense," said sophomore quarterback Austin Dantin, the early favorite to take over for the departed Aaron Opelt behind center. "We return every one but one guy, and I mean, we have a lot of experience on the offensive line. It's a solid group of guys."
Beckman echoed that same point and said much will be expected of the line.
"These are all guys that have played and been involved in our offense," Beckman said. "A lot of leadership needs to come from that group."
The anchor of the line, like on most college football teams, will be the center, Kowalski, Beckman said.
The Macedonia, Ohio, native started every game for the Rockets at right guard his sophomore year before making the switch to center. Kowalski (6-4, 290) also saw action during his freshman season, ending the year with 10 consecutive starts.
"He makes a lot of the adjustments and calls [for the rest of the offensive line during games], and that's why we moved him to center," Beckman said. "Some of the great ones that I've been around, they maybe started at guard or tackle but get moved to center because they're kind of the leaders of that group and have to communicate well."
Communication has come easy during the spring for Kowalski and the rest of the offensive linemen because of the cohesiveness they've developed over the last year, he said.
"We're always around each other and we do everything together," Kowalski said. "Every single lift and every workout we're grouped together. We're never really split up for anything. Spending so much time together, you learn to work pretty well with each other."
That togetherness has paid dividends on the field as well.
"It's nice to play next to four other guys who know what they're doing," Kowalski said. "We don't really have any assignment errors or anything like that. We're just focused on opening holes in the run game or protecting the quarterback or whatever our job is on that particular play."
The offensive line's experience and cohesiveness has also fostered better competition at other positions on offense this spring, especially quarterback.
"Anytime you have a veteran line, it's kind of like a security blanket for the quarterback," Beckman said. "It's reassuring to know they have four guys in front of them that have played ball before."
That's a role offensive linemen relish, VanDerMeulen said.
"We take pride in that, for sure," he said. "We kind of put it on ourselves during practice to get the offense going and really take on a leadership role. We've been here a while, we've done this, and we know what to expect. Now, we have to get everybody else going."
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