Football Feature Friday: Young Line Making Process
ALBANY, N.Y. – Many of University at Albany's biggest and strongest players are part of a close-knit unit that is much better as a group than as a bunch of inexperienced, unique individuals.
The Great Danes youthful offensive line will take time to develop, but their coaching staff believes there is enough talent in the trenches to offset a lack of previous playing time. After an up-and-down 15 days of spring practice and a tough annual spring game against a dominating defense, the UAlbany OL looks to make huge strides when the 2017 season opens this fall.
“I think potentially, I'm happy with them,” UAlbany head coach Greg Gattuso said. “We've got some guys who are swimming a little bit. Our defensive line is pretty good, and that has given the OL some stress during the spring. Some moments, they've been very good. They've been a little erratic, but that's to be expected. (Tim) Wade has been around, but the other guys are still learning.”
Gattuso knows that most of his offensive linemen still have a lot to learn. Like quarterbacks, the OL takes more time to come up to speed, especially at the Division I level and higher. “There is talent there, but the biggest issue with our OL is just a lack of experience and understanding all the things that are going on,” Gattuso said. “There are certain positions that take time. Receivers and running backs can run fast and jump high. Linebackers can use their athleticism, and defensive linemen can do the same. But offensive linemen and quarterbacks usually need to have two years under their belt before they see the field.”
One of the players who has big shoes to fill up front is 6-foot-7, 286-pound junior Luke Ritter, who will play tackle. He tried to explain why it takes so long for he and his comrades to learn their positions. “We are more of a group,” he said. “All five guys have to be pulling the same way. If one guys blows an assignment, the whole group blows an assignment. It takes a little time to get on the same page.”
Ritter said the OL is perhaps the tightest group on the team. “We are like one big dysfunctional family,” he said. “I live with two other offensive linemen, and we hang out all the time. We eat all our meals together. We all want our team to be successful. It takes time to make sure all the blocks are done correctly. If one guy messes up, the whole line messes up.”
According to Ritter, offensive line coach Jim Sweeney, a former standout in the NFL, doesn't try to teach everyone the same way. “It's not exactly how it gets done, just the fact that it gets done,” Ritter said. “Coach Sweeney says it doesn't have to be pretty, just as long as it gets done. Not every technique works for every guy. The big thing is finding your own way. You have to find out what works for you perfectly. I'm ready to go now. I wasn't ready my first two years, but I've learned from the other guys.”
Ritter added that foot speed is extremely important for the big guys up front, but not everybody handles it the same fashion. “You don't want to get too big and not be able to move around,” he said. “Foot speed is the biggest part of it. I would say we all have at least a base level that requires a solid technique and good foot speed.”
Ultimately, Sweeney and the Great Danes' coaching staff expect the Great Danes' OL to be tough. “We are expected to come out with a baseline of physicality,” Ritter explained. “It all levels out. We're bigger than most of the guys on the field, and that helps out a lot. But by no means am I the strongest guy on the team. You either get the job done or not. I haven't been sent back for a lack of strength. I just strive to get stronger in the weight room all the time. I just try to go out and beat my opponent on the defensive side.”
Senior Tim Wade, a 6-4, 275-pounder, is one of the few experienced linemen on offense. “We are brothers on and off the field,” he said. “This family we have is so important to all of us. Even if we have a little argument, we get back together very quickly. This is a team, not a bunch of individuals.”
Wade tries to give positive reinforcement to his younger peers. “If some of the young guys mess up, you don't put them down. You just tell them to forget about it and go on to the next play,” Wade said.
Like Ritter, Wade said most of the linemen have their own way of doing things. “Coach Sweeney preaches 100 percent just to be physical. We don't have to be perfect,” he said. “We are not expected to make extravagant blocks or do things out of the ordinary. For example, I see myself more as a technique player. Sometimes, I don't come off the line as strong as I should. I rely more on my technique, but I'm still trying to be as physical as I can be.”
Ritter and Wade will be the anchors for an OL that also includes junior Jack Dudzinski, sophomore Griffin Clancy, freshman Ryan McCormac, junior transfer Eric Carter, sophomore Sam Davis, freshman Micah Royster, freshman Kassy Desir, sophomore Sean Kennedy and freshman Corey Christian.