A structure without a solid foundation will crumble.
The offensive line on a football team is a structure like any other. The O-line needs to perform as the most cohesive unit on the field or else the pocket will crumble, and passing will become difficult.
The Elon University football team has seen its young offensive line have trouble gelling at times throughout this season. Elon has tried different combinations of players among the five-person clan, with several players rotating positions on the line.
Elon’s offensive line perhaps struggled the most against the University of Richmond Oct. 25. The Phoenix surrendered seven sacks to a team that had nine through their first seven games alone.
“I thought the matchup of our O-line to [Richmond’s] D-line was one that I was concerned with,” said Elon head coach Rich Skrosky. “There’s a couple times you take a shot, protection breaks down because you’re trying to get the ball down the field, and that was kind of the basis.”
Elon’s linemen faced a strong duo in Richmond senior Evan Kelly and sophomore Winston Craig, a pair that Elon junior offensive lineman Thomas McGuire called, “Probably the best combo we’ve seen on the inside all year.”
Consistency has been tough to find, as five different combinations of starting linemen have been trotted out on the field in eight games. Redshirt freshman Ikenna Nwokeji, a left tackle, is the only lineman on the team to have started every game this season.
Senior Austin Sowell, the most experienced of Elon’s offensive linemen, has started only four games this year. He has dealt with a shoulder injury, and broke his hand in practice Oct. 22 leading up to the Richmond game.
“It’s hard to get consistency when the offensive line is where we’re at right now,” Skrosky said.
Sophomores Ty Alt and Gordon Acha have been thrown into the fold at times out of necessity, but the unit still hasn’t performed up to par. McGuire has started each of the last four games at center with Sowell out.
“The offensive has to run like a sewing machine, as five guys that have to know everything that’s going on,” McGuire said. “Early in the game [against Richmond], we were really struggling with that offensive line. In the second half, we were able to make adjustments, and I think the pocket was a little bit stronger than it was in the first half.”
When Elon made the transition to the Colonial Athletic Association this season, Skrosky said the tough, physical brand of football in the league would present a challenge for the offensive line.
“That’s a position we knew coming into the year was going to be a struggle,” he said. “And then you add on some of the injuries that we’ve had. You’re mixing and matching. There’s going to be some matchups where you’re going to be out-personelled. I think up front is probably the biggest area where we’ve got to improve and I know that will continue to come.”
With 23 sacks given up through eight games, the Phoenix is the fourth-most sacked team in the CAA. It’s an area of concern for an offense scoring 12.4 points per game.
“It’s not close to where we need to be,” McGuire said.
Dropped passes, among other inconsistencies, have plagued the offensive unit, but it all starts with the foundation — the offensive line.
“It’s hard obviously,” McGuire said. “It’s hard to keep people going on the sideline. We keep reminding ourselves, ‘keep your heads up.’ I don’t have a magic potion. If I did, I’d sell it. Just got to keep working. That’s all we can do.”
Four games remain in the season, and the road doesn’t get any easier for an offensive line that is not getting any healthier. During the next two weeks, the Phoenix will travel to Towson University and the College of William & Mary, two of the top four teams in the CAA in sacks.
“We just need to get the ball rolling as an offensive line and just keep working and keep playing and look forward to going out on the practice field to get better,” McGuire said. “I can’t wait to get back out there on Tuesday and keep working on my craft.”