JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Offensive linemen are never in the headlines. If you hear one of their numbers called during a game it's a bad sign 99 out of 100 times. You're more likely to find a golden ticket into Willy Wonka's chocolate factory than to discover a single elementary-aged child who grows up dreaming of becoming a lineman by performing drop steps, pushing sleds, or pulling to kick out a linebacker. With nicknames ranging from big uglies to bell cows, their jobs are not the most flattering on the field. However, every member of a football team knows the significance of being on the offensive line.
Eventually, those that have found this position embrace the quirks of being an offensive lineman and rely on each other. The group is arguably the closest-knit on each football squad, and they serve primarily to lead, protect, sacrifice, and grind. The Jacksonville University offensive line does it exceptionally well.
Head coach Kerwin Bell and offensive line coach Andy McLeod benefit from two fruitful characteristics of this season's group - size and experience. When the Dolphin lineman trot out against Delaware on Sept. 4, it will be the largest group in the program's history. The linemen will also have accumulated over 50 starts during their Jacksonville careers.
Kevin Battle has gained the most notoriety heading into the fall after his selection to the Preseason All-Pioneer Football League team. Measuring at an impressive 6'4'', 315 pounds, Battle started every game a season ago in an All-PFL season and has started in all 33 games of his career. The redshirt senior displays quick footwork thanks in part to a state championship caliber volleyball career in high school. Battle is slated to move from tackle to left guard for his final year, a position that he learned during his earlier years in the program. The thought is to allow Travion Wallace the opportunity to play at left tackle, and if there's an injury, Battle has the experience of playing tackle. For the Dolphins, it's the best use of resources.
"His strength is in the pass protection," offensive line coach Andy McLeod said. "He's continually trying to play vertical off the football in the running game. He's very effective, and we're looking for him to be dominant."
Hailing from the same freshmen class is 6'6'', 275-pound tackle Tyler Adrian. The Venice, Florida native started ten games a season ago and earned Honorable Mention All-PFL. Adrian has added considerable gains in his weight during his career, and McLeod has been impressed with how he's managed to play fast in his sturdier frame. Adrian spent his summer working out with strength coach Andrew Bates, and McLeod stated that he "is farther ahead right now than when we finished last year, which is a good thing for him."
The third redshirt senior Logan Williamson (6'2'', 300 lbs.) is slated to return at center. The 2014 Honorable Mention All-PFL standout started all 11 games last year and graded out above 90% in nearly every game. Prior to 2014, Williamson started at both center and guard, and holds an important leadership position amongst the lineman as the tone-setter.
"He's good at everything, and he's the mauler off the football," said McLeod. Williamson was also bestowed a highly sought-after compliment as "the nasty guy."
Offensive line is one of the few positions where you might smile at being called "nasty."
The vocal leader also spent this past summer working out with Adrian, Bates, and the Dolphins to prepare for his final campaign. An advertising major who is set to graduate at the end of the fall semester, Williamson has aspirations of playing at the next level, and is excited for his final season with some of his closest teammates.
"Tyler Adrian, Kevin Battle, and I all came in the same class in 2011. We all got redshirted at the same time and since then we all took the same route as far as two or three-year starters on the offensive line. We know each other front and backwards and we love playing for each other. We can't wait to get the season started," said Williamson. "The JU line this year has the chance to be the biggest in JU history. I'm the smallest at 6-2, 300 pounds, and we'll probably average 6-4, 315 pounds. We will not only have the chance to move the ball through the air but put up a 2,000-yard rush season. That's our goal."
The offensive linemen's length is at its extreme at left tackle, where 6'7'' 280-pound Travion Wallace is penciled in for his first season as a starter. Wallace played in six games last year as a redshirt freshman and uses his long arms as a strength against bull rushes off the edge. Wallace is up almost 30 pounds from the end of last season while he rehabbed a shoulder injury.
"It's his job to lose, and he's held up his end of the bargain on that. As of right now I feel very confident with him out there," said McLeod.
Also anticipating his first season in a starting role is right guard Mark Bodkin. The fifth-year senior saw action in four games last season and McLeod stated that "he's having the best camp that he's ever had." The 6'7" 300-pounder previously played tackle but moved inside to guard during spring practice. To the untrained eye, it's a simple adjustment moving from tackle to guard. However, the switch requires tweaks to the footwork, handwork, and vision of a lineman.
"The key for him is to be able to stay low from the inside. He's had a really, really solid camp and has adjusted well," said McLeod. "Mentally, he's there and it's just a matter of getting used to playing that position and getting used to playing next to Tyler (Adrian)… He's done a great job, through camp we haven't missed a beat at that position."
Coach McLeod has also been impressed with the camps of Robert Ritterhoff and Mark Bodkin's younger brother, Ander. Ritterhoff will rotate between playing center and guard and his coach exuded confidence in Ritterhoff's ability to succeed this fall.
"Ritterhoff could start for us at all three positions. He's had an unbelievable camp. He's up to 300 pounds now, and has always had the athletic ability… Through camp he is easily my most improved player. He's playing physical and low," said McLeod.
"Ander Bodkin has a lot of potential but needs the reps. From a knowledge, size, and physicality standpoint, he can be a big benefit for us out there."
A unique challenge for McLeod and the Dolphins this fall is a large drop off in experience for those in the mix for a starting spot. It's split even between nine upperclassmen in camp and nine true freshmen. There seems to be the talent from the incoming freshman class to start for Jacksonville in the future, but it will take time for that talent to develop.
"We're in a perfect position because it gives us a year to get these guys ready and have them at a position so hopefully by the time we get through next spring, they've got the experience they need to be contributors for us."
There have been a few of the newcomers that have caught a slice of McLeod's eye this fall. Jake Dempsey, Justin Auer, and Josh Nichols have been drinking out of a fire hose, but the coach is excited about the foundation the three have shown. McLeod described Dempsey as "a beast of a young man. He shows a lot of power."
There's high expectations for the present starters and the future is bright. When you watch the Dolphin running backs dash down the field for huge gains, or sit in awe as Kade Bell unravels passes to a plethora of receivers across the gridiron, be sure to appreciate the work of the five men up front, because you won't find their names in the headlines.