Pass blocking hasn’t been a problem for UNLV’s offensive line, which has had little trouble keeping pass-rushing ends and linebackers off quarterbacks Omar Clayton and Mike Clausen.
The Rebels’ results are considerably mixed in their run blocking, but that hasn’t entirely been the line’s fault.
UNLV’s previous coaching staff didn’t fully commit to the running game, so it might not be fair to judge the line by less-than-stellar results the past several seasons.
The new coaches, who made the running game an integral part of their success at Montana, have shown during training camp they believe in a strong ground attack, which starts up front.
So now the Rebels’ line will get the chance to show it can be just as effective opening holes for tailbacks as it was protecting quarterbacks.
“The O-line will be defined on how well you run the ball,” line coach Chad Germer said. “It’s pretty much that simple.”
UNLV’s first test will be the Sept. 4 opener against No. 12 Wisconsin at Sam Boyd Stadium, and it won’t be an easy one. The Badgers were fifth nationally in rushing defense in 2009, allowing 88.2 yards a game. They gave up 2.9 yards per carry.
The Rebels averaged 126.8 yards rushing, seventh best in the Mountain West Conference and No. 86 nationally.
Under previous coach Mike Sanford, UNLV’s best rushing team in 2007 averaged 140.7 yards. The John Robinson-coached teams from 2000 to 2002 averaged better than 200.
Perhaps Germer can help bring back that kind of production; he is known for putting together quality offensive lines. Montana running back Chase Reynolds rushed for 1,502 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, and Germer coached four Division I-AA All-Americans in his first stint with the Grizzlies from 1998 to 2002.
Germer and head coach Bobby Hauck believe in playing the five best linemen regardless of position. It not only ensures the best blockers receive most of the snaps, it also forces the linemen to become more versatile.
Senior John Gianninoto was expected to start at center after a strong spring, but sophomore Andrew Mack showed at camp in Ely he is capable of filling the role. So Mack was elevated to first team and Gianninoto shifted to guard.
“There was a little bit of an adjustment, but I knew most of the plays already, so I knew what each position did,” Gianninoto said.
UNLV’s line is experienced and has some depth. Germer wants to feel comfortable playing 10 linemen, and is up to eight who could contribute. He won’t name the three backups in the rotation, saying, “I want to keep them hungry.”
Germer took over a line with at least two NFL prospects in Gianninoto and tackle Matt Murphy, who has a boot on his left foot because of a lower-leg injury. Hauck said he hopes to have Murphy back soon. Tackle Evan Marchal could play his way into NFL consideration.
Those players should help make up for the loss of Joe Hawley, a rookie with the Atlanta Falcons.
Coaches certainly will take a veteran line over an inexperienced one, but the one danger is inheriting a group of linemen set in their ways.
“I think any O-lineman worth his salt loves to run the ball, and these guys have taken to it pretty well,” Hauck said. “I think any time you’ve got experience, especially at the tackle spots, it helps.”
It also helps that linemen like to be aggressive. The position, of course, demands that kind of mindset.
Some of that aggressiveness disappears when linemen pass block because they literally go into a protective mode.
Run blocking is different. It’s about driving forward against defensive linemen and trying to create space for the tailback to dash through.
“I like to hit people,” Mack said. “I like to hit hard.”
With a coaching staff that believes in a strong run game, Mack and his teammates should get plenty of opportunities.
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914.