Coaches see big differences this year in blocks, finishing

by: ETHAN ERICKSON/OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY - The offensive line has been a key to Oregon State's 3-0 start. Tight end Collin Hamlett (left) and Colin Kelly (center) work against Wisconsin's defensive line in the season opener.The bane of Beaver Nation’s existence during Oregon State’s lonely 3-9 season in 2011 was the offensive line.

The run blocking was as effective as Windex on a sewer grate. It just wasn’t going to get things cleaned up.

Flash forward to last Saturday in Tucson, where freshman tailback Storm Woods had plenty of daylight with which to operate en route to a 161-yard rushing performance in the Beavers’ 38-35 victory over Arizona.

With the exception of Malcolm Agnew’s 223-yard explosion against FCS opponent Sacramento State in last year’s opener — let’s not count that, even though the Hornets won — it was the best job of run-blocking by an Oregon State O-line since the 2009 season, when Jacquizz Rodgers was running free as a sophomore on a team that nearly made the Rose Bowl.

The challenge is to continue the momentum as the 3-0 Beavers, ranked 14th in the country, put their unblemished record on the line at 3 p.m. Saturday against Washington State at Reser Stadium.

Center Isaac Seumalo, guards Grant Enger and Josh Andrews and tackles Michael Philipp and Colin Kelly won the line of scrimmage against an Arizona defensive front that had held its own against Oregon, at least for a half, the week before.

“The guys did a great job,” says Mike Cavanaugh, in his eighth year as OSU’s O-line mentor. “We had guys putting (defenders) on the ground a lot, for the first time in a hell of a long time. We had guys sustaining blocks.

“We could even finish better than we did, though. There were a lot of times we had a good surge but didn’t finish.”

Quarterback Sean Mannion threw for 3,328 yards as a freshman last season, but Oregon State wasn’t able to keep opposing defenses honest because it couldn’t run consistently. The Beavers managed only 1,043 yards on the ground, 104th among 120 FCS teams.

“In order to have the Oregon State offense we want, you have to run the ball,” says Kelly, a 6-5, 300-pound senior from Kelso, Wash.

Cavanaugh carefully grades each player for his performance in each game. In a 27-20 win at 19th-ranked UCLA, most of the O-linemen were in the high 70s. Against Arizona, they were all in the low 80s, with Enger topping the list at 85.

“The kid played a hell of a game,” Cavanaugh says.” He was finishing blocks on the screen pass. We have to have that from him every damn week.

“We went from a C-plus (at UCLA) to a B-minus as a unit. We made some improvement, but we have plenty of room to grow.”

Woods was effusive in praise for the entire group after the game.

“The line was perfect,” said the 5-10, 200-pound native of Plugerville, Texas, before toning down for perspective just a little.

“They surprised me tonight, especially Seumalo. That kid’s a true freshman, but he handles his business. Because of him, there were a lot of cutbacks open. He’s a beast, man — a monster.”

The softspoken Hurricane Isaac — son of OSU D-line coach Joe Seumalo and brother of senior D-tackle Andrew Seumalo — beamed as he reflected on Woods’ breakthrough running performance at Arizona.

“Going into every game, that’s what we want to do — open the doors and let Storm run wild,” Seumalo said.

There is no one reason for the improvement from a year ago, but Seumalo’s presence can’t be understated. The 6-3, 300-pound Corvallis High grad has the potential to be Cavanaugh’s best player since All-America guard Andy Levitre, now starting for the Buffalo Bills.

“Isaac is a leader,” Cav says. “We haven’t had that in a long time. He called guys out the first day of practice — and he’s not expecting anything less than he gives himself. That tells you something.

“He’s the most competitive guy you’d ever meet. He’s physical, tough, smart — all of the things you’re looking for in a great offensive lineman.”

The other four O-linemen all put in extensive time as starters before this season. And they’ve had some time to mesh, an important piece to the puzzle.

“We’re a team, but the front five, we have to be our own little team,” says Kelly, in his second year as a starter. “We’re one working unit. We have to have great communication. If one of us does something wrong, we all do.

“Experience is key in the O-line. I know I fought it all last year. I feel much more comfortable out on the field this year.”

Philipp was a real question mark after dealing with injuries the past two seasons following a 2009 campaign in which he was named as a Freshman All-American. The 6-4, 315-pound junior from San Bernardino, Calif., has come back strongly as the left tackle guarding Mannion’s back side in pass protection.

“The redshirt year (in 2011) really helped Michael,” Cavanaugh says. “He had some surgeries, he got healthy, he did a great job in the weight room. He needed a year to catch back up. He did a real good job (at Arizona). I’m proud of him.”

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