Dec. 28, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
TAMPA, Fla. - Michigan State offensive line coach Mark Staten wore his pencil eraser down to the sharp metal ring by the fourth game of the season. He had written in so many personnel changes by then, the next would result in an unreadable smudge or a jagged hole in his lineup sheet.
Fortunately for Staten, the offensive line he put on the field for the 45-7 victory against Central Michigan is no different than the one he'll put up against Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
The line not only stabilized after being disrupted by a rash of injuries and an overabundance of inexperience, it evolved into a well-oiled machine. What started out as a makeshift solution has become a bona fide answer to a problem that if not properly addressed might have seriously suppressed the team's success.
The Spartans are second in the Big Ten in quarterback sacks allowed with 1.15 per game while ranking second in passing offense and fifth in total offense. The rushing attack is 11th, but MSU's 4.0 yards per carry is in the acceptable range for most offenses.
"Fortunate, and unfortunate, I don't know which way you want to say it, we've had 10 starters, if you include Arthur Ray, over the course of the year due to some nicks, and some scrapes and some bumps and bruises," Staten said before MSU's Wednesday afternoon bowl practice at Jesuit High School.
Junior right guard Chris McDonald is the only Spartan lineman to start every game. Fifth-year All-Big Ten right guard Joel Foreman, who in a show of solidarity gave up his starting assignment in the opener against Youngstown State in favor of Ray, a cancer-survivor, has logged roughly the same number of plays as McDonald, however.
The trouble with the line started when Travis Jackson, the projected No. 1 center in preseason despite only being a red-shirt freshman, was injured and replaced in the opener by junior Blake Treadwell, a converted nose tackle.
Before the second game, sophomore Dan France won the left-tackle competition against fifth-year senior Jared McGaha. However, back-up right tackle Fou Fonoti, a junior-college-transfer who had never played left tackle at any level of football, was also getting reps on the left side.
Then, Treadwell and red-shirt freshman starting right tackle Skyler Burkland sustained season-ending injuries against Notre Dame in the third game of the season, which necessitated moving Jackson back into the starting lineup at center and Fonoti back to right tackle, but as a starter.
Meanwhile, France steadily eliminated the mental mistakes, tentative play and false-start penalties to secure the left-tackle job.
It's been France, Foreman, Jackson, McDonald and Fonoti ever since except for the ninth game of the season when junior Ethan Ruhland spelled Jackson against Minnesota.
It's understandable for fans and the media to characterize what's happened as a group of misfits and castoffs leading the Spartans to the Legends Division championship a la the movie "Hoosiers," but Foreman wouldn't call the way the line became a cohesive unit miraculous.
"From the outside in, it looks pretty remarkable because it's not what people expected," Foreman said. "But internally, we always believed we could be a great offensive line no matter how young we were, or the trials and tribulation we went through.
"No matter what was presented to us, we knew we could be successful. We came together and kind of matured and have been very fortunate to have those young guys come in and give us a level of play that isn't very normal. It's a testament to them."
The nuances of line play and the intricate coordination required to move the offense down the field is often lost on observers who only see huge bodies crashing into other huge bodies.
But, as Foreman said, "You're only as good as the guy next to you. That's how the offensive line works, and how it always will work."
McDonald explained that effective line play depends on a familiarity that can only be acquired by playing together on a consistent basis.
"We have to know each other's strengths and weaknesses," McDonald said. "Each person's footwork is different. If it's an outside zone, and Travis is in at center, I know how he's going to scoop up the defender, so I know my footwork will have to be a little quicker versus if Blake is in there, then I have to stay in there a little longer.
"And if we're going on the back side, if we're chopping or being pinned, Fo and I know how each other is going to play it. At the beginning of the season, we were just trying to get used to how people play. Being able to trust each other helps us play better."
Foreman and McDonald were instrumental in creating a working environment in which such a transformation could take place.
"They deserve all the credit," Jackson said. "If you ever met them, you'd know why we've come along so far. They're hard-working, great guys who really brought us young guys along. We've kind of rode their backs and now they've kind of letting us go on our own with them, so it's been fun."
Staten is like a proud father who has watched his baby going from learning how to not trip each other to being able surge off the line of scrimmage in unison.
"All these guys have played together in one way or another, and they feel good about the communication," Staten said. "We've been with our standard five the majority of the season from post-Notre Dame on, and they've really jelled together.
"They've been able to work combination blocks, double-teams, etc., and it's been a lot of fun to coach them and watch them get that."
France and Fonoti don't even recognize themselves on game film from earlier in the season.
"In my first game, I went out there and was nervous and had a lot of things going through my head like, `Oh man, this is my opportunity to contribute to the team's success so don't mess up,' " Fonoti said. "Looking back, it's been a long journey. I feel like where I'm at now, I've come a long way, but there are still things I need to work on."
It might not have all come together without Foreman's leadership.
"He is such a program guy," Staten said. "How he goes, we go and he and I constantly talk about that. It's good to have him out here. He's got the nickname `Yoda' because Yoda in those (Star Wars) movies was all beat up and walking out there on a cane, and when it's time to go, he was ready to go.
"He's great for that (offensive line meeting) room. Leadership is based on doing the right things, but also on what you pass on to those who come after you. I think he's doing a good job of preparing the young guys for that."
Replacing Foreman on a starting line that returns everyone else to what should be a position of strength in 2012 will be difficult, but based on how things have gone this season, a walk in the park - relatively speaking.
"We don't lose a ton," he said. "I mean we lose a great player in our left guard and we lose a very good back-up player in McGaha..., but it's going to really put some great emphasis towards competition come spring.
"Just because you've started one year doesn't necessarily mean you can come in and waltz through spring practice. So that's going to be good."