September 19, 2008

Time For the Line to Push Back

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It doesn’t take many conversations with Jim Knowles ’87 before you can accurately predict his response to the ubiquitous question, “What’s the key to winning this week, coach?”
“Control the line.”
It may be dressed up with rephrasing, synonyms or adjectives, but the core message is always the same — “Control the line.”
Half of this responsibility falls on the offensive line. After losing three of the five starters to graduation, the offensive line will rely on the leadership of returning senior tackles Steve Valenta and Quentin Bernhard.
“We have a lot of confidence this year in the offense and the offensive line,” Valenta said. “We have a lot of veterans and we’re all a year older.”
Indeed, a well of six seniors and two juniors will vie for playing time. And this year, a year older doesn’t just mean experience, it means experience in the new offense implemented last year.
“We had really been more of a run-the-ball kind of team.,” Valenta said. “Now that we’re passing the ball more we’ve had another year in the system so we’re a little more used to the system.”
Year two of the genesis of the offense is what offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Bruce Barnum tells his players. But in order for the offense to continue to blossom, the offensive line has to keep the pressure off senior quarterback Nathan Ford. Last season, several of Ford’s 14 interceptions came on balls tipped at the line.
“Are we physically strong enough on the offensive line to not just run the football but to prevent that collapse on our quarterback?” Knowles. “A lot of our interceptions last year were tipped balls and that’s really an offensive line issue. It’s not even that we were terrible in giving up sacks [The Red gave up 22 sacks last year]. [We just have to work on] that push and tipped balls.”
For Bernhard, the key to improving this was to change the focus of the offseason workouts.
“Since the start of this past winter semester, we’ve been focusing more on getting stronger instead of focusing on conditioning,” Bernhard said. “We’ve seen huge gains in the weight room across the board … especially at the o-line. That’s allowed us to be a more physical offensive line.”
And it’s helped a veteran, but perhaps untested, line improve. Senior center Babak Motamedi has spent his time on East Hill patiently waiting for All-Ivy center Brian McGuire ‘08 and All-Ivy guard Ted Sonneberg ‘08 to graduate. Motamedi was the line’s top reserve last year, filling in at guard and center, but will transition into the role of starting center this season.
Junior Andrew Bohl played himself into starting consideration with impressive showings in the offseason.
Seniors Ryan Adams, Josh Barvin and Justin Mortensen will also get long looks and significant minutes on the line. Adams is a former tight end who brings his blocking skills to the line, while Barvin has shown the coaches great strides over the last two years.
At 6-6 and weighing 313 pounds, Valenta is the rare big man with moves to match. Valenta even started his career at Cornell getting pointers from Kevin Boothe ’06, now with the New York Giants.
“Valenta’s got all the measurables,” Knowles said. “He has the size and the thing they look for in an offensive lineman is the quickness along with the great body and pass protection skills. I think he’ll definitely get a look.”
That is, if he doesn’t get pushed around this year.
“I don’t think we’ll see any problems with that this year,” Bernhard said sternly.