Oregon O-Line: 'One Heartbeat'
By Matt Walks
It was a long offseason for the Oregon's offensive line.
First came the defeat at the hands of Nick Fairley and the rest of the Auburn Tigers in the BCS National Championship Game, which raised questions about the unit's ability to compete with large, physical defensive fronts.
Then came the graduation of three starters - All-American center Jordan Holmes and classmates Bo Thran and C.E. Kaiser. Programs lose seniors every year, but a looming season-opener against Auburn's SEC counterpart LSU prompted media outlets across the country to key in on the line's lack of experience as a major question mark for Oregon in 2011.
"We knew we didn't have the type of ending to our season last year that we wanted," senior offensive lineman Mark Asper said. "We knew back in January that we needed to get together and work together as a unit and try to prove to people that we're not all those things that they said about us."
The doubts followed the Ducks all the way to Dallas. Against LSU, Oregon moved the ball only 95 yards on the ground, and the team was plagued with mental mistakes and penalties in the second half.
But the front five prevented quarterback Darron Thomas from getting sacked on any of his 54 passing attempts, and redshirt freshman center Hroniss Grasu surpassed all expectations in his collegiate debut.
"(The criticism) made us work harder. It made us hungry," Grasu said. "It put more fuel in our gas tanks."
Since the 40-27 loss to LSU, it's been greener pastures. Senior Darrion Weems and juniors Carson York and Nick Cody join Grasu and Asper on a line that leads the nation in rushing yards per attempt at 7.24. Even more encouraging, Oregon is back to averaging nearly 50 points per game.
Of course, it helps having LaMichael James racing between the tackles. Last year's Heisman Trophy-candidate has shaken off an early-season slump to romp for 731 rushing yards in his last three games. Still, James knows who's clearing his path.
After shredding Arizona for a school-record 288 yards, James was quick to credit the big guys.
"I'm just really happy with the way the line blocked, without those guys I wouldn't be anything," James said. "I'm really happy with those guys. I feel like that record should be called the University of Oregon offensive line and LaMichael James record."
Offensive line coach Steve Greatwood credits the line's success to the examples veteran linemen Asper and York set.
"They're a calming influence out there," Greatwood said of the only remaining starters from last year's championship game. "Whether it's in the offseason in the weight room or studying film or how they approach practice, that's when I lean on those kids, and they've done a fantastic job."
Asper, a 26-year-old married father of two, enjoys his role as the line's elder statesman.
"Yeah, I get called Papa all the time," Asper said. "After a Saturday night game, guys are talking about going here, going there. I'm like, 'Be home by midnight. Your mother and I don't want to wait up for you. And yes, you can borrow the car, but bring it back with a full tank of gas.'"
Outsiders got a glimpse of the unit's closeness after senior starting guard Ramsen Golpashin went down with a knee injury early in the season and was replaced by Cody. Golpashin hasn't seen the field since, and many speculate he's done for the year.
As a tribute, the line wore Golpashin's number 70 on their biceps before taking the field against Missouri State and Arizona.
"I think it speaks volumes for how these guys feel. When we lose one of ours, it's like losing a piece of yourself," Greatwood said.
"We're all very close to Ramsen," Grasu said. "We wanted to play for him, because we knew how badly he wanted to be out there."
Solidarity within any of a team's unit is important, but nowhere is it more crucial than in an offensive line, where five players must move, shift and communicate in sync with one another.
Greatwood emphasizes this importance of cohesion and focusing as one, and his players understand the message - team goals outweigh personal goals.
Grasu agreed. "I'm not looking for individual performance. We want to play together as one heartbeat."
"The true utopia at the end of the day is when everyone has a good day," Asper said. "When you work well as a unit, you're just kind of flowing. Everything just clicks, and you know the offense is just going to march."
Oregon marched all over Arizona State last weekend even without their premiere back in James. Instead, backup running back Kenjon Barner exploded for 171 yards on 31 carries with a touchdown. The team's collective goal was achieved - for this week, at least.
However, Asper did admit there is one goal he has yet to achieve.
"A touchdown," Asper said with a smile. "I've never had a touchdown. When I was a younger man, I did try to pry a tackle-eligible out of (head coach Chip Kelly), but he said no. Now I'm covering out into the open field, looking for a scoop and score."
"I think he may be waiting a while for that to happen," Greatwood laughed.
While Asper may have to let James or Thomas be the one to cross the chalk, the offensive line promises more touchdowns are on the way.
"We're going to keep going," Grasu said. "We're going to put points on that scoreboard."
The Colorado Buffaloes (1-6) welcome the No. 10 Oregon Ducks (5-1) to Folsom Field this Saturday in Boulder, Colo. Kickoff is slated for 12:30 p.m. PT.