This feature on the NAU (Northern Arizona University) Lumberjacks’ offensive line appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Nov. 27, 2003.
By Ed Odeven
Amidst the cacophony of whistles, blurted plays and banter, you repeatedly hear two of the most important words in a football coach’s vocabulary:
Set, hit. Set, hit, Set, hit.
Those are the words of Chris Wiesehan, NAU’s assistant head coach/offensive line coach, signaling the start of another blocking drill — offensive linemen vs. defensive linemen — during Tuesday’s practice.
Strong practices have translated into strong efforts in games for the offensive linemen, who call themselves “The Hogs.”
“We’ve been consistent for the most part,” Wiesehan said matter-of-factly.
Indeed, a lot of things have gone right for the 16th-ranked Lumberjacks (8-3) this season. One of the biggest success stories has been the determined, dominant play of the offensive line. The starting five — left tackle Sean Funke, left guard Matt Cary, center Matt Raivio, right guard Matt Ryan and right tackle Jake Sanders — has been the foundation of the offense’s success, an offense which averaged 428.3 yards per game in the regular season (13th-best output in Division I-AA). The Lumberjacks’ 282.3 passing yards per game (No. 8 in the nation) is a direct link to the sufficient time true freshman quarterback Jason Murrietta has had to make plays.
Wiesehan, who received a master’s degree in sports administration from Fort Hays (Kan.) State, doesn’t need to write a 77-page thesis on what makes an offense click in order to explain why NAU’s offense has gone from being the Big Sky Conference’s worst (313 yards per game) a year ago to the aforementioned 428.3 ypg, the league’s best output.
It really only takes two numbers: 46 and 22. The former represents the number of sacks given up by NAU in 2002, the most in the Big Sky; the latter is the league-lowest total this year.
HEALTHY AND PRODUCTIVE
Another huge key for the Lumberjacks this season has been the health of the offensive line. While the unit was besieged by injuries last year, this year’s starters have all played in 11 games.
And as any coach will tell you, you cannot overstate the importance of a healthy offensive line.
“The health of the line, that’s the one position on the field that it’s very tough to exchange personnel, because it’s not like putting a new wide receiver in the game. It’s not like putting a new running back in the game,” Wiesehan said.
“Offensive linemen have to play as one group, one unit, and not as five fingers. They have to be one fist.”
Seniors Funke and the three Matts (Cary, Raivio, Ryan) were returning starters when the season began. Sanders, a true freshman, was inserted into the starting lineup for the season-opening Saint Mary’s game and stayed there.
Three months later, the quintet plays and thinks alike, down after down.
“Yeah, definitely being together as a group for more than a year helps a lot,” said Cary, a native of Juneau, Ak.
For the four returners, that continuity has helped them improve their productivity this season.
“Overall talk and communication with everybody (is better),” said Funke, who hails from Kentucky.
And, of course, that trickles down to the rest of the offense.
“The offensive line basically stabilizes the whole offense,” said the team’s primary ballcarrier, speedy Roger Robinson, who has rushed for 100 or more yards five times this season. “They are the foundation of the offense and without them nothing happens.”
ECHO OF THE WHISTLE
Wiesehan, the players will tell you, is a stickler for details. He’s a demanding coach who expects his players to perform up to their potential every game.
“He’s a real intense coach,” Funke said. “He gets you motivated and makes you work hard. It pays off on Saturday when you come out and play hard every down, every snap.”
Or as Sanders said, “He’s helped me a lot, because I didn’t even know the offense. He helped me learn the offense and gets me prepared each week.”
Others have noticed how prepared and effective Sanders, a Buckeye High School graduate, has become as the season’s progressed.
“He’s done an amazing job,” Robinson said of Sanders. “I know at the beginning of the year I was a little worried. It’s one thing to be a true freshman and start, but to start on the offensive line is even more impressive just because it’s basically a street fight down there and he’s fighting against guys that are three and four years older than him…
“He’s just another guy in there now. He’s not a freshman anymore.”
With Sanders picking up his assignments, Wiesehan has had more time to spend coaching the group as a whole. Here are a few characteristics that he looks for when analyzes the play of the line:
“We look to be a violent line that finishes in the run and the pass and finishes their opponent,” said Wiesehan, who’s now in his third year coaching the line.
“We (strive) to find ways to play to the echo of the whistle. I think this group recognizes their talent and they recognize their deficiencies.”
Essentially, Raivio, an All-American candidate at center, jump-starts the line with a hard-nosed, intelligent persona. Wiesehan refers to him as the line’s anchor, the catalyst that ignites NAU’s high-powered offense.
“He does so many things from a mental perspective, getting us into the right checks, getting us into the right plays at times, recognizing the structures of (an opponent’s) defense and really getting our line from tackle to tackle on the same page,” Wiesehan added.
NAU coach Jerome Souers said credit must go to Wiesehan and strength and conditioning coach Casey Bond for maximizing the potential of these guys.
“You really have to credit the kids for the determination and the effort that they’ve had, the resolve that they’ve had to do it on their own,” Souers said. … “They are vastly improved in their technique. Their ability to communicate and perform as a unit has brought a lot of offensive production for us.”
After a game, running backs, receivers and quarterbacks fill the stat sheet with gaudy numbers. The offensive linemen, however, are more concerned with one statistic: knockdowns.
It’s knockdowns, after all, that lead to first downs … and touchdowns … and victories.
Funke leads the Jacks with 111 knockdowns, while Cary has done it 96 times.
That stat never makes it into the box score, but that’s fine with Wiesehan and his unit.
“It’s just the nature of the position,” Wiesehan said. “You are the workhorse and you understand your role.”
It’s a role these guys are filling admirably and effectively.