For the last couple of years, every Thursday, the Minnesota State offensive linemen get together for dinner at a local grocery store’s buffet.
You can imagine the cashier’s look, surely some disbelief and a bit of fear, when nearly two tons of humanity, bent on doing some damage to the chef’s offerings, come walking through the door.
This year, though, the cashier was ready, and when the boys got to the counter, all she said was, “It must be football season again.”
As much havoc as the Mavericks’ offensive line can do to an all-you-can-eat buffet, the group, now at least 10 deep, can destroy the opposing front seven in the Mavericks’ power running game.
“If you want to run the football, you have to have the guys up front,” senior tackle Evan Heim said. “We’ve put the emphasis on dudes that are big and strong and can move people from Point A to Point B.”
The Mavericks open the season tonight in Marshall against Southwest Minnesota State. It’s been almost exactly nine months since the Mavericks played a game, losing 42-25 to Ferris State in the national semifinals, but nearly all of the players who were on the Minnesota State sideline that day are back.
And while the Mavericks return All-Americans at running back and receiver, two starting quarterbacks and a defense that smothers the run, the deepest, and perhaps most talented, position group is the offensive line, where the five starters and five backups have returned.
“it’s great to have the starting unit back together from last year,” Minnesota State coach Todd Hoffner said. “We were able to play some others, here and there, so the maturity and experience we have is outstanding. That’s the key to winning football games.”
Heim, the senior left tackle, started all 14 games, as did junior center Brandon Krantz, junior right guard Carter Dowdle and junior left guard Hunter Toppel. Sophomore right tackle Jared Gossen started 13 games, as backup Kaden Lilienthal got one start. Backup tackle Regan Kropp, guards Alex Palme and Keegan Stanley and center Jack Roussel — all underclassmen — played in at least five games last season.
All of the starters, except for Krantz, are at least 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, often playing against smaller defensive linemen.
“In 2016, we probably had six (offensive linemen), and in ‘17, we had seven,” Heim said. “We have 10 guys now who are just as good as the others and could probably start on a lot of other offensive lines. We’ve all played together for at least one year so we know what each other is going to do.”
In addition to prioritizing the position in recruiting, Hoffner said the key to building a deep and effective offensive line is playing time. The offensive line doesn’t rotate as much as other positions, but getting the backups on the field helps to gain experience.
Typically, the starters will play two series, then backups will get sprinkled in on the third series. The starters might come back for a fourth series, followed by a possession with a few more backups. In the span of five series, each of the starters will have sat out at least one possession, while all five backups will have gotten at least one drive.
“You need that to sustain a high performance level, year in and year out,” Hoffner said. “We want everyone to know when they’re going in so they can mentally prepare to take the field.”
The Mavericks averaged 39.6 points and 461.0 yards of offense last season. The ground game averaged 238.9 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. Quarterbacks were sacked only 12 times in 14 games, another sign of the offensive line’s performance.
“We want to make sure the quarterback stays clean,” Heim said. “We look at yards per carry, and we want to keep getting better and make it as easy as we can for the running backs. When they do good, that makes us look really good.”
Heim said he’s excited to start his senior season. He’s already received some preseason individual recognition, though linemen rarely seek the spotlight.
“I’m looking forward to hitting somebody that’s not wearing a Mavericks jersey,” Heim said. “Being Mankato, we’re always going to have a target on our backs. We don’t really look at rankings or what people outside of our team think. We know what we have to do to have a good season.”
Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier.