Unheralded men of the football gridiron
If we're bigger than you don't be offended. Western's offensive line (the guys who are hunched over) prepare to snap the ball to quarterback Oliver Curri.
By Alex Chiang
Although they may often be the brunt of weight jokes off the field, many teams have learned that there is nothing funny about facing the Western Mustang offensive line in varsity gridiron action.
There's no disputing that the average weight of the offensive lineman is much greater than any other position on the team, but many people do not understand, nor appreciate, the amount of athleticism and effort that is needed to be a successful offensive front-man.
"It's not a glamour position and it's not visible when you're playing well," Western football head coach Larry Haylor said. "It's only recognized when it makes mistakes, but when things are done right, the running and passing game are both working."
So far this season, the Mustang offence has been very impressive with 118 points, 26 more than Guelph, who has the second most in the division. Furthermore, the Mustangs have yet to allow a sack a testament to the amount of time they are buying for the team's quarterback Oliver Curri.
"Their performance has been exceptionally good so far this season," Haylor said. "They have an exceptional work ethic, attitude and mental toughness."
The fact that Western's front men have dominated the line of scrimmage in the first three games of the season has given the Mustang coaching staff the luxury of running the ball more. It's a perfect compliment to the slew of talented running backs in the lineup from with the likes of Mike Laszlo, Fabian Rayne, Scott Crawley, Craig Higgins and Jason McKibbon.
Haylor determined early in the preseason that he wanted to avoid putting added pressure on the quarterback and that he didn't want Curri to feel that he had to win the game for them. For this reason, the coaching staff has elected to stay away from the fancy trick book and concentrate on more basic sets.
"So far the line has been more consistent," Haylor said. "The coaching staff has emphasized executing plays. We're not trying to fool anyone, we just want to be a team of high consistency and execution."
According to assistant coach Joe Leckie, who along with Sean McKeown is responsible for coordinating the offensive line, the hard work of the linemen before the start of the season and in practice is paying big dividends on the field.
"They came into training camp in far better shape than what we had expected and their work effort has really allowed us to do more with them than we had anticipated," Leckie said. "That's something that you can't coach. They all work hard and that combined with the extra attention that we've given to them has led to their success so far this season."
Remarkably, none of Western's dominating starting offensive linemen ever made a big name for themselves or were heavily scouted at the high-school level. Starting left guard Theo Versteegh, who played defence for most of his young career, only switched to the offensive side of the ball last season.
Haylor said the recruiting process for offensive linemen in Canada is one of the most difficult of all positions to fill.
"Anyone who's six-foot-four or more is certainly recruited for American programs, so there's fewer people left to choose from out of the pool of high school players," he said. "It's a difficult task to find good, big people who can play because often they don't work hard enough.
"We take as many good ones as we can get and I guess were lucky since it's unusual for a university to have five good ones like we do."
Yet even though they're not the biggest offensive line around, nor were they the most sought after as freshmen coming out of high school, Haylor said the ideal profile for the Mustang offence is a strong and mobile player.
"The offensive scheme places a premium on offensive linemen who can move and strike," he said. "We're spending more time focusing on the offensive line and I think it has accelerated the learning curve tremendously for both the young and older players.
"It takes a long time to develop the skills of an offensive lineman. It's not like the defensive lineman who can just let his athleticism take control. They're not the biggest, but they have the potential to be one of the better groups that have ever played at Western."
The abundance of talent the Mustangs possess on the offensive line has made the departure of 1996 second-team conference all-stars Doug Scarlett, Dennis Shaw and Sonny Pirrotta less painful. With more young prospects like Tim Bakker coming up the ranks, the future remains bright.
"Last year's line was bigger, but we're a lot faster and stronger," said Mike Abou-Mechrek, who also earned second-team conference all-star honours last season. "We feel that if we play our best, no defense can stop us, except maybe our own."
Centre Aaron Sussex, who missed last season with a hand injury, said this Mustang team is different than any other one that he has played on.
"This is the closest team I've been on at Western," he said. "Everyone's taking it one game at a time and I think that was the problem we ran into last season, when we got ahead of ourselves. I don't think one person has mentioned finishing first or winning it all. We know that we're good if we stay focused. We're excited about our potential."