Injuries force the Seminoles to replace proven performers with inexperienced linemen.
By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 11, 2005
TALLAHASSEE - If he were in the NFL, offensive line coach Mark McHale would be examining the waiver wire daily or clamoring for management to orchestrate a trade.
But he's in collegiate ball, at Florida State, which he knows leaves him little recourse to address his injury-riddled and alarmingly thin segment:
"You've just got to coach what you've got. You've got to go with the hand your dealt."
From left tackle to right tackle, he's holding redshirt junior Cory Niblock, sophomore Jacky Claude, sixth-year senior David Castillo, redshirt freshman Cornelius Lewis and redshirt sophomore David Overmyer. Entering the season, neither Claude nor Lewis had started, Overmyer had one start and Niblock never had started at tackle.
McHale had other cards to play, but then fifth-year senior guard Matt Meinrod, the former East Lake star who was the team's top lineman for the first month of the season, fractured his left leg and dislocated his left ankle against Wake Forest on Oct. 8 and was lost. Then versatile redshirt sophomore guard/center John Frady reinjured his surgically-repaired left shoulder against Maryland on Oct. 29 and had season-ending surgery Monday.
That has left the Seminoles with fifth-year senior guard/tackle Ron Lunford and seldom-used junior tackle Mario Henderson and redshirt freshman Dumaka Atkins in backup roles.
"We don't have the bodies," said Castillo, who missed two games (Citadel and Boston College) after the seventh surgery of his career. "It's very unfortunate. A lot of guys who are about a year away from when they should really be contributing, we're forced to play with them. They're doing a decent job, but games like this (North Carolina State), you need Matt Meinrod, John Frady."
Instead, a young, patchwork line has struggled, which was especially evident last weekend. Although coach Bobby Bowden said N.C. State defensive ends Mario Williams and Manny Lawson will be high NFL draft picks and played like it in the Wolfpack's 20-15 victory, he added that the inexperience of the line and other key positions was "exposed."
It's like everyone else at the table knows your hole cards and you can't fold 'em.
You're too deep into the pot.
That doesn't bode well for the Seminoles (7-2, 5-2) who travel to Clemson (5-4, 3-4) on Saturday, then meet Florida on Nov. 26 in Gainesville and likely will draw Miami in the inaugural ACC Championship Game on Dec. 3.
"When you go out there and start working with people, you get used to how they play," Castillo said. "You're like, "I can trust this guy. I know if I take this step, he's taking this one. If I make this call, he knows what I'm talking about.' "
"The big thing is communication with each other," McHale said. "You have to have that chemistry with those five. They have to know what each other's doing and they have to count on each other doing it. That's tough when you get a guy this week, a (different) guy the next week."
Even when rushing just three, N.C. State harassed quarterback Drew Weatherford. The former Land O'Lakes star praised his line for giving him time to throw, but he was sacked three times, had to scramble seven times and absorbed many full-throttle blows.
"I think we're better than what we did," Bowden said.
He's got little choice but to hope. Even if there were no injuries beyond the typical bumps and bruises a player who gets hit on every single play expects, the Seminoles' pool of veteran linemen is so shallow that a lifeguard wouldn't need to be on duty.
In 2001, FSU signed six prep linemen who would now be fifth-year seniors. Meinrod and Lunford are all that remain; Eric Broe, Matt Heinz and Blake Williams were all medical disqualifications and Andrew Henry-Kennon quit the game. The next year, Niblock was the lone lineman signed. Then last year, with longtime coach Jimmy Heggins resigning and no replacement officially named until national signing date, FSU landed just one prospect, Matt Hardrick, and he failed to qualify.
So, what can the Seminoles do? Well, for one, a few more running plays might help.
Against Virginia and N.C. State, the team's two losses, the Seminoles offense became one-dimensional. They passed first and last. Against the Wolfpack, they called three running plays in the second half.
While it's a bit easier for guys who are beat up and missed the chance to bulk up in the offseason after surgeries (like Castillo and Niblock) to pass protect rather than bulldoze defenders backward and create space, the Seminoles must have some degree of balance.
"In every game it seems like teams are respecting it less and less," Weatherford said of the ground game. "The D line is rushing upfield a lot more aggressively, not really anticipating us to run the ball very often. DBs aren't paying attention to play-action fakes. It seems like they know we're going to pass the ball every time, almost. That's made it difficult. I feel like we're going to have to run the ball more."
With the linemen they have.
There's no redealing in this game.
"Injuries can't be an excuse," Castillo said defiantly. "Inexperience can't be an excuse. Turnovers, penalties, none of that can be an excuse. We've got to go out there and we have to execute and we have to play Seminole football."