For a team coming off a winless season, there seems to be a surprising amount of positive buzz surrounding the 2014 Miami RedHawks. No doubt some of the energy comes from the top.
New head coach Chuck Martin has brought a fire to the field -- and to just about anywhere else he went over the last eight months. That covers a lot of ground, because Martin and his coaching staff have been on a mission.
Come 3:30 p.m. Saturday when Miami kicks off its 2014 campaign against Marshall, players move front and center on the mission. Any positive buzz will follow execution and wins. One of the most important units in determining wins will be the offensive line, and that group is focused on stepping up.
Like other position groups, the offensive line is more than anxious to put the last several years - especially 2013 - behind it. According to co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach George Barnett, that process is well underway - and so is the process of rebuilding the Miami front lines.
“It's coming together. ... From (where we started), we're light years ahead of where we were, but there is plenty of work to do,” Barnett said recently.
“The first thing you've got to do is get the kids that have played downs, but haven't had proficiency in those downs, is getting those seniors to realize their potential and their confidence. ... That's probably the biggest improvement we've had - those three seniors playing at a high level compared to what they have done in the past.
Seniors upfront for the opener are Jeff Tanner (6-3, 295, RG), Marcus Mathews (6-3, 323, C) and Zach Lewis (6-6, 289, RT). Joining them in starts are junior Trevan Brown (6-4, 307, LG) and Collin Buchanan, 6-5, 313, So).
According to reports, Martin and the staff appear to have put a lot of work into recruiting linemen for the 2014 and 2015 graduating classes. Depth along the line has been an issue in recent years, and three freshmen are listed as O-line backups on the Week No. 1 Two Deep.
“We're certainly building some depth. Every line coach's dream is to get eight or 10 guys ... ready to play. We're trying to get every last member in a room able to go in a game and play,” Barnett said.
With three seniors leaving after this campaign, there is even more reason build the numbers.
Barnett indicated points of emphasis for line play this year include being physical, finishing plays, and being consistent.
Considerable effort and focus has also been placed on fundamentals.
“It starts with fundamentals. If kids can have a set of base fundamentals that they can rely on when they play, that always helps. They have something to lean on, Barnett said.
Along the way, Barnett is also trying to impart a “broad” knowledge of the game. It’s “not just in their (position) room, but an understanding of the offense, as well. Seeing the big picture gives them confidence to play with their technique - knowing where their quarterback is going and knowing where their running back is going.”
According to Barnett, his group has been very receptive to instruction in general.
“The most impressive thing about this group is (that) they are kind of sponge-like. They are wanting to learn. They are very coachable - great kids and willing to do exactly what needs to be done.”
With the arrival of Andrew Hendrix, a senior transfer from Notre Dame, Miami’s passing game has moved up in the playbook. Barnett was asked how his group might adjust to an intensified passing game and the need to protect the quarterback more frequently.
“Because of what they did offensively (last year), they were playing a lot in a forward manner, and when you're doing the pass game, you are doing more lateral and deepending. Certainly, (we’re) relearning balance, feet in the ground, being confident in your lateral movements and your deep movements.”
As for getting the moribund running game untracked, Barnett said, “We’ve just got to continue to hammer it out and get the mesh between the backs and the line.”
No one can be sure when MU will register its next win or what kind of record the team will post this year. Right now, however, the RedHawks are hungry for victory. When they get that first “W,” the O-line will likely be a significant contributor.
“If they continue to work the way they're working, then they'll reap the benefits,” Barnett said.