LEADING THE WAY
ASHLAND — When the bulk of your existence involves pushing around 300-pound men in a 10-yard span over and over again, making postgame headlines is the least of your concerns.
Anyone who has toiled in the trenches can tell you the life of an offensive lineman is not glamorous.
When others are marveling over an in-flight football destined toward a dynamic touchdown, you’re likely locked up facemask-to-facemask against a foul-breathed counterpart and have no view of the aerial display.
When that shifty ball carrier darts through a hole and carves through the gridiron leaving all others behind, there’s a good chance you’re face down on the turf and can only hear what’s transpiring ahead of you.
It’s not a life of constant interview requests or television highlights, it’s one of hard work and sacrifices.
But it’s also a life that Southern Oregon University senior Drew Gibson wouldn’t trade for anything.
“It’s interesting because growing up having always been an offensive lineman, you always hear about the quarterbacks and the running backs and they get all the recognition,” says the 6-foot-6, 285-pounder. “It’s nice because our quarterback (Austin Dodge) does give us quite a bit of recognition in his interviews and things like that, but you kind of take pride in the fact that we’re kind of the unsung heroes of the team.”
“You kind of have to take a different mentality,” adds Gibson. “We’re not the people who are always making headlines and not the people they’re always talking about, but you kind of have to turn it into a positive in a way that makes us work harder.”
Those positives definitely come in calculable form when you’re a member of the Raiders. Without the blocking of the right tackle Gibson and his linemates Dylan Bratlie (right guard), Ronald “Bubba” Rylance (center), Max Proudfit (left guard) and Tylor King (left tackle), there’s no way SOU could rank second in the NAIA at 549.9 yards per game and third at 43.5 points per game.
Dodge also couldn’t rewrite the NAIA record books, as he’s done, if he were flat on his back all the time. Fortunately for eighth-ranked SOU (9-2), he hasn’t been and that’s led him to No. 1 in the NAIA in total offense (360.5 ypg) and passing (357.8 ypg).
“That’s the best offensive line in the country,” says SOU head coach Craig Howard. “(Gibson’s) the best in the country at his position. Everybody talks about the quarterback but they don’t understand we’ve got some other guys who are the best at what they do, too.”
The recognition factor isn’t a concern for Gibson, who is a three-year starter and has been a first-team all-Frontier Conference selection in each of the past two seasons. When it comes to being in the limelight, most linemen would pass on that possibility.
“My name has been announced three times this year, and it’s all because of penalties,” Gibson, 21, says with a laugh. “If they don’t know your name it’s usually a good thing when you’re an O-lineman.”
The fact that Gibson is in the position he’s in today is a lark in its own right. He was an all-conference lineman at North Medford High but definitely a little light for his position and with a mind for education above all else. Then Howard entered the picture in the spring of 2011.
“I wasn’t going to go play football,” recalls Gibson. “I was just going to go to Oregon State and be done playing and concentrate on my (engineering) major. But I came here on his first recruiting weekend and right away just hearing him talk, it’s electric the way he says stuff, I knew that I had to come here. My decision was made up pretty fast after that.”
It’s a decision that certainly has paid off for both parties. Howard uses the words “rock” and “stability” and “consistent” to describe a player that worked his way into a role as a backup right tackle by the time his first camp at SOU was complete.
“You may go to bed at night worrying about certain things but I’m not going to worry about this guy protecting our quarterback,” Howard says as he gives a nod toward Gibson. “He’s done a great job and his (playing) grades are consistently above 90 percent. One of the mantras of coaching is do your job. It seems simple but it’s hard, and he does his job every game, every season and that’s why he’s an All-American.”
“It’s just been neat to see a skinny ol’ kid from North Medford grow into a man like he has,” adds the fourth-year head coach, “and I’m really excited about what he’s going to do career-wise, too, after this. He’s going to have a great life.”
Gibson is a dual-major at SOU and expects to complete his physics degree before moving on to OSU for his engineering degree and, potentially, a master’s degree in that field. So much for the age-old notion of dumb linemen, right?
“These are all smart guys, 3.8 and 3.9 (GPA) students,” says Howard. “People don’t realize how smart our guys are. When they get out there in that no-huddle, they’ve got a complete system of calls they must make within milliseconds. They’ve got to correct and adjust and make calls to block this thing, both run and pass. And they’ve got to make dummy calls because they can’t make the same calls because the defense picks them up, so it’s a game within a game going on with these guys.”
Adds Gibson: “There’s a certain level of intelligence you need to play offensive line. In high school you’d go out and play football and it’d just be something you’d do because the plays were pretty easy to learn. Here it’s really like you’re taking at least another class, if not a few more classes on top of that.”
In fact, Gibson and company sat through two meetings with SOU offensive line coach Chris Fisk to accompany their 7 a.m. regular practice.
“There’s a lot of studying you have to do and we take tests in order to know that we know everything,” Gibson says of the life of a lineman. “It is difficult sometimes but it’s also one of the great things about it. There’s so many intricate things you can do with it and it’s fun that way. There isn’t a play that goes by without us making certain calls, there’s communication through everything that we do.”
“You could have a good lineman who’s huge, strong and fast but they’re not going to be a great lineman unless you have the smarts,” he adds. “And then it can be the other way around, you can have good linemen who are really smart but aren’t the same size-wise. It really takes a mix between the two of that, and I’d say the best offensive linemen are the hardest workers.”
As well as the ones you rarely hear anything about.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry