Linemen Emerge From Trenches
Television in years gone by often portrayed the offensive linemen as oversized immature children sporting double-extra-large letterman's sweaters who made a habit at frat parties of eating goldfish and harassing frightened underclassmen. The antics aside, these giants remained in the background while the star quarterback got all the glory -- and the girls.
In 1996, goldfish and freshmen can rest easy and finding a girlfriend isn't the hassle it once was. Yet, even today, picking up Sports Illustrated with a college offensive lineman on the cover and getting anything beyond a token mention of the line on the nightly sports are rare.
However, slowly but surely things are beginning to change for the guys in the trenches at Texas Tech. There have been a few more interviews, some newspaper columns and long lines of fans at autograph day.
Tech's offensive line is being touted as one of the best in school history. You don't have to grab the newspaper for that prognostication, just ask the head coach.
"We've got a chance to have the best offensive line that we've had here," said Spike Dykes. "Coach Ted Unbehagen has done a great job with those guys."
Last week, Tech traveled 11 offensive linemen to Kansas State. The list included starters Ben Kaufman, Chris Whitney, Jay Pugh, Shane Dunn and J.T. Sprouse, who subbed for Casey Jones. Kevin Ward, Robert Haddon, Justin Collingsworth, Lynn Scherler, Nick Lee and Erik Carruth also made the initial Big 12 trek to Manhattan.
Whatever publicity the unit gets is well received, but the current corps of linemen understand their role. If tailback Byron Hanspard rushes for 200 yards and four touchdowns and Zebbie Lethridge has time to throw touchdown passes to Field Scovell and Sheldon Bass, they've done their job.
"The people who know about football knows the game is won and lost in the trenches," said Whitney, the junior starting right tackle. "We don't get a lot of glory and we do a lot of the work."
Unbehagen has tutored the offensive linemen for nine years. In year number 10 of his second stint coaching at Texas Tech, he has his best squad.
"We have a chance to be pretty good in the offensive line," Unbehagen said. "But you have to remember we also are playing better people."
Unbehagen is rock-solid from the old school. Whatever may look good on paper doesn't matter. Just the results. Call him a throwback to the old days. Call him old fashioned. Whatever you call Unbehagen, just remember his players consider him one of the best coaches in the country.
"He is one of the smartest and best coaches as far as technique," said Dunn, the senior starting right guard. "I've learned so much. He knows the game so well. How to step well. How to keep your balance. I think he is the best in the country."
While modern-day coaches use innovative pass- and run-blocking schemes, the Red Raiders are considerably more traditional. The "pancake" block is the epitome of success in the Unbehagen system. Simply drive the opponent on his back. It is an offensive lineman's religion, their code, their badge of honor.
"We come off the ball a lot harder than most teams," Whitney said "We are probably a more hard-hitting offensive line than even the bigger offensive lines in the conference."
As the Red Raiders put up some explosive numbers, the success rate is no accident. It all starts up front behind a pair of veterans in Jones and Kaufman. Both seniors could be playing on Sundays next year.
Kaufman has started the last 25 games, the most of any offensive player. At tackle, he teams with Jones to form one of college football's most formidable left sides.
"We have been playing together for a long time offensively," Kaufman said of his teammate Jones. "After playing with someone for so long you know what the other person is going to do and you know what to expect from them and how to adjust your game accordingly."
Jones was a big reason the 6-5, 285-pound Kaufman came to Tech from his home in Edinburg, deep in Texas near the Mexico border. He was All-Rio Grande Valley and All-District 31-5A.
"When I came to visit Tech," Kaufman said, "Casey Jones was my host and coach Unbehagen was up front and told me the way it was. That impressed me the most."
Kaufman's career, which could likely include Big 12 and possibly All-American honors at year's end, has been outstanding. As a freshman, he started all 12 games and helped the Red Raider offense set a school record with 475 yards in total offense per game. He also relished in glory few other linemen achieve -- to score a touchdown. He recovered a fumble in the end zone against Nebraska in 1994.
Jones has 22 starts, including all 12 games last year when the Red Raiders, behind Hanspard and Lethridge, gained almost 400 yards a game.
"It's exciting when you think about what this team could accomplish," Jones said. "We have a lot of unity, a lot of guys who can play. That should only help us, especially in this league."
Jones remembers his days as a freshman, almost feeling like an outsider his rookie year. He has ensured that the newcomers on the line don't have the same feeling -- hence the unity the entire line enjoys this year.
"It's important for all of those younger guys to be included," Jones said. "I know it was important to me. As leaders, we have to help them and prepare them to play. We are very tight group, and I think that will make us better."
While the two slots on the left side are nailed down, the battle for center continues between Ward and Pugh. Pugh got the nod in the opener at KSU, but Ward is not far behind. The duo agrees that the competition makes the entire line better.
"We both have to know what is going on," Pugh said, "because at any time both of us could have to go in and play. It's good that we know both situations and we need to go in with that attitude that both of us are going to play."
Pugh and Ward split time last year. From Abilene, Pugh started five games as a sophomore and played as a backup as a freshman after redshirting in 1993.
A senior, Ward is a former walk-on from Lubbock. His hard work and diligence transformed him into one of the biggest 1995 surprises with seven starts, including the last six games.
"This is my last go around," Ward said. "This can be one of the great offensive lines and one of the best teams Tech has had. I want to work as hard as I can, especially since this is the first year of the Big 12."
Meanwhile, on the team charter last Saturday, the mood was somber. Mistakes on special teams and missed opportunities cost Texas Tech in the inaugural Big 12 game at Kansas State, 21-14
"We didn't get it done," said Dunn, a starter for the first time this year. "We had a lot of chances, but couldn't pull it off. It hurts when you see how we could have just as easily won the game."
Dunn is the newcomer to the starting unit. He won the right guard slot through shear intensity and effort last spring. He was name the team's most improved player. The hometown Lubbock kid has proved that patience pays off after working three years as a backup.
"It's fun," Dunn said. "It's an honor, but it's a lot of pressure to start. You mess up, you might get somebody hurt, you might cost the team a ballgame. You want to do good for all the people around you."
Another solid spring and preseason positioned Whitney for his start in Saturday's opener at KSU. He played at right tackle last year and made his first start at SMU, only to suffer a broken hip. Healthy now, the Pampa product is transforming into a force on an already potent line.
"Our strength of our offense is in the offensive line," Whitney said. "I feel that with the experience that's there, I definitely say that's our strength. With a great quarterback and a great running back, we just have to go out there and take care of business."
No attention. No problem. Few interviews. Big deal. The bottom line to this Red Raider offensive line is success. And just what is that?
"The satisfaction in doing your job," Whitney said, "knocking the crap out of somebody and helping them up. Then come back and do it again."