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November 30, 2016

Offensive line stepping up

Despite starting eight different players across the offensive line, including four at right guard, and losing its top running back to injury, the ground game for the No. 14 Massachusetts football team has not skipped a beat all season.

Through the team’s first six games, the Minutemen have had four different combinations starting on the o-line. The team’s offensive productivity, though, was unchanged by the shifts made up front, as the Minutemen (4-2, 2-1 Colonial Athletic Association) have averaged 149.7 yards rushing per game this season.

The line’s continued success in the face of injury is a tribute to the team’s depth, said UMass coach Kevin Morris, who has praised his team’s ability to adapt to injuries all season.

“It’s a matter of staying focused on the task at hand, even if you’re not the starter and you’re not getting the first team reps and you may not play on Saturday,” Morris said of players stepping into bigger roles.

Coming into the season, the first team line was not established until late into fall practices. However, that parody at the top of the line has been a vital asset for the UMass offense, as a preseason injury to guard Stephane Milhim and an early season injury to center John Ihne

“That’s one of the things we had this year was depth,” said Jared Chivers, who has started at guard and center this season. “We didn’t have too much last year. It’s really helped out a lot this year. A couple guys have gotten hurt, and it’s good to know that we have guys that are capable of stepping up and doing a good job.”

Providing stability to the line all season have been right tackle Brian Ostaszewski, left guard Josh Samuda and preseason All-American left tackle Vladimir Ducasse, all of whom have started all six games this season.

“The only thing to worry about is chemistry, [the] chemistry of the whole line,” Ducasse said. “So whoever’s in, whoever’s out, we’re just trying to keep that chemistry all around. We have no problems. Whoever gets in, they just play football.”

Also expected to put hindrance on the UMass offense was the loss of last season’s leading rusher, Tony Nelson. After rushing for 342 yards in the team’s first three games, Nelson had only played in two of the last three games, gaining 35 yards while being mostly confined to the sideline with a thigh contusion.

In his absence, redshirt sophomore Jon Hernandez has handled the bulk of the carries, and the offense has hardly shown a difference. In his two starts this season, Hernandez has racked up 306 yards on 58 carries (5.3 yards per carry).

While Hernandez has earned the accolades over the team’s recent success (UMass-New Hampshire game MVP and UMass/Dinn Bros. Athlete of the Week), the entire offensive unit has had a part in that success.

“Hernandez is a good running back, don’t get me wrong,” Chivers said. “A lot of it is just team effort running the ball, with the o-line, wide receivers, fullbacks, everybody has to do their part. It’s not just the running backs, it’s the whole team in the running game.”

In addition to the success the team has had on the ground, UMass’ passing game has hardly shown any weaknesses from the personnel changes up front. Through six games, quarterback Kyle Havens has been sacked just seven times and has passed for 1456 yards, nine touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Due to injuries, players like Brandon Flanagan (two starts at right guard) and Ihne (one start at right guard after starting at center) are making spot starts. The fact that the offense has not suffered a major blow is something that Morris says is something that his players have worked to accomplish.

“It’s a great testament to the kids we have on the o-line. Doing a great job of being able to step up and put it all together in a one-game scenario,” Morris said.

Focusing on the upcoming game and one’s job has been one of the key factors for the entire offensive line unit.

“Everyone focuses on their assignments,” Chivers said. “First, second and third team, they know they’re important to this team and they have a responsibility to know their job and, when they’re called on, we all have faith that they can get the job done.”

Nick O’Malley can be reached at nomalley@student.umass.edu.

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