Massachusetts football coach Charley Molnar isn’t asking for much from his offensive line.
He just wants them to play average. But that’s easier said than done for a unit that allowed 32 sacks last season, which was second most in the Mid-American Conference.
Fast forward to the 2013 season opener, and it looks like Molnar may be getting his wish. The offensive line didn’t allow a single sack or a tackle for a loss (TFL) against No. 23 Wisconsin despite losing 45-0 last Saturday.
However, the offensive line still committed six penalties at the line of scrimmage, which put a partial damper on things for Molnar.
“It was a cleaner game by our offensive line. The penalties were very, very disappointing because we felt like we had more poise and that we had demonstrated that during camp,” he said. “But the upside of it is though the quarterback was pressured at times, there weren’t any sacks and we didn’t have any TFLs, we had no TFLs in that game. So every play was zero or better, which is an improvement from where we were a year ago.”
The leader of the offensive line is redshirt senior Anthony Dima at left tackle, who was named to the 2013 Outland Trophy preseason watch list. He is flanked by Tyrell Smith at left guard, Matt Sparks at center, Vincent Westcarr at right guard and Rutgers transfer David Osei at right tackle.
The offensive lineman who impressed Molnar the most on Saturday was Sparks. He had a particularly daunting task in trying to block nose guard Beau Allen, who started in all 14 games for Wisconsin last season and made 37 tackles.
“I’ve not said very much about him this camp, but Matt Sparks was up against in my opinion, maybe the best nose guard (Allen) in the country, and he fought through the whole game,” he said. “And that guy made a number of tackles, but it wasn’t a blood bath, he didn’t take over the game. He didn’t command extra help play after play, and we were prepared to help our center out in every which way possible if necessary and never had to use those strategies.”
But this was only one game. The next test for the offensive line is to remain healthy, which was a struggle for them last season. The Minutemen had to plug freshmen right into the fire last season due to injuries, and their inexperience meant quarterback Mike Wegzyn was under constant pressure.
Molnar talked about the health of some of his offensive linemen at UMass media day in August.
“Unfortunately with guys in and out, as you know (and) as I’ve talked about a few times, we’ve taken Vince Westcarr, and we’ve really tried to control his reps so we can get him through the course of the season,” he said. “So, he’s really in and out of the lineup. And now with Dima, he’s almost 100 percent, but he’s still struggling with some of the issues that have kept him out of the lineup. So, when you take those two guys out, who are bonafide starters, all of a sudden we don’t look quite as good.”
Luckily for Molnar, Westcarr and Dima are healthy at the moment, and they both were a part of the Minutemen’s improved line play on Saturday.
And as Molnar said at media day, he feels that when healthy, this offensive line “has been the best since I’ve been here.”
Cameron McDonough can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Cam_McDonough.