Unsung Hero
Courtesy: Cal Athletics  
Release:  11/16/2011

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This article originally appeared in the Nov. 5 issue of the Cal Kickoff GameDay Magazine

By Brandon Singer

Just looking at somebody the size of Mitchell Schwartz, Cal's 6-6, 318-pound senior offensive lineman, you would have never guessed that when he started playing high school football, he had aspirations of being the quarterback.

Encouraged by his parents to join the football team in high school, Schwartz decided to try out at quarterback despite his large frame. However, the big man's time behind center was short lived and he soon found himself moving to the offensive line.

"About a week or so into high school ball the coach said, `We need a little more mobile guy at quarterback,' and moved me to offensive line," Schwartz said with a chuckle. "I think it was a ruse from the beginning that they were going to move me to the line."

Schwartz is one of the veteran offensive linemen on the 2011 Cal squad. Often going unnoticed by fans, their efforts are greatly appreciated by their coaches and teammates and critical to the overall team success.

"The offensive linemen play a great position because the only stat that matters is the score, and that is what this group is all about," offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Jim Michalczik said. "They aren't playing for the glory, the media attention and all that stuff, they play it for the true nature of the sport."

Schwartz has been a steady presence on California's offensive line over the past three seasons. After redshirting the 2007 season, he has started every game for the Golden Bears at either left or right tackle since 2008 and became a leader on offense. Schwartz has been named honorable mention Pac-10 All-Academic each of the past years (2008-10) and earned the Brick Muller Award as Cal's Most Valuable Offensive Lineman the past two campaigns (2009-10).

Currently tied with linebacker Mychal Kendricks and punter Bryan Anger for the most games played by an active player (46), Schwartz will finish the year with 51 career starts if the Bears play in a bowl game this season - only one behind former cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson's school record of 52.

Schwartz is not alone when it comes to experience on the line with his 46 starts. He leads an offensive line with a combined 125 career starts that also includes Justin Cheadle (30), Brian Schwenke (20), Matt Summers Gavin (20) and Dominic Galas (9). Their combined starts ranks second in the Pac-12 behind only Oregon State's 126. Fans typically focus more on the more high-profile position players and the stats that they produce. It is easy to forget about the linemen buying time for the quarterback or opening up running lanes when the offense is clicking. But on the flip side, if a breakdown occurs that leads to a sack or a holding penalty, the scrutiny and focus goes straight to the big guys.

"The fans may not know our jobs, so if one of us messes up, then it may look like it was someone else's fault," Schwenke said. "That is one thing that you kind of have to deal with because if we didn't communicate well and someone missed a block, but it is because of someone else, then we all take blame for that. Someone might say `This guy missed a block' when really it was an entirely different person's fault."

It takes a thick skin to shrug off undeserved criticism and not receive much praise but continue to work well as a unit. One of the keys to this is the ability to talk and have good relationships with the rest of the line.

"Communication is probably the biggest thing as an offensive lineman," Galas said. "If there is a problem, we talk about it on how to pick up a blitz or something so we are always on the same page."

Luckily for these Bears, criticism is not the norm. Cal has not been lacking in the running department in recent years as the Bears have had a 1,000-yard rusher eight of the last nine seasons. Despite coming into the 2011 campaign with little game experience, starting tailback Isi Sofele is on pace to become the next Cal running back with a 1,000-yard rushing season, thanks in large part to his offensive line paving the way.

The coordination and constant chatter between players is a key to the line's success, but their job is more complicated than it appears from the stands. There is a great deal more technique and skill to blocking than seen at first glance.

"There are obviously different types of plays. The run plays you fire straight out, while play-action you kind of jump the guy to make it look like a run before settling down," Schwartz said. "You can make it look like pass and then run it, so there is a lot of little technique stuff you can do besides just blocking the guy in front of you every time."

The foundation for offensive success starts in the offseason as the hard work to prepare for the next season begins immediately after the previous year ends.

Offseason and training camp workouts concentrate on increasing strength and conditioning to prepare for the grind of a long season. Players will focus on improving technique and watching film of themselves and try to find new things to work on.

The large amount of shared practice and game time has built the trust and confidence the line has in each other, so they can rely on each other no matter what the situation. Coach Michalczik, who rejoined the Bears this season after spending the past two campaigns with the Oakland Raiders of the NFL, can clearly see that the time spent together is paying dividends.

"They are starting to work together and really get that rhythm," said Michalczik. "When they work together enough, they are a little like a husband and wife that have been married for a while. They kind of know what the other one is thinking before it even happens."

Each week, the day after the game is spent reviewing the previous contest and getting treatment before plunging right into scouting the next opponent.

"First, we look at the basic structure of their defense and you create a personal game plan for the guy you are going to face," Schwartz said. "Then, you get the playbook and it has what we are going to run for the week against their defense because we have a lot of plays in our offense but don't run them all every week."

The hard work and preparation throughout the week allows Schwartz to relax and stay calm in the morning on game day.

"I'm not a big superstitious guy on game day," Schwartz stated. "The more you are prepared, the more you're at ease about what you should expect. I try to keep it calm and relaxed and have a good time. It is supposed to be the most fun time of our lives on game day."

Throughout the game, the linemen will get together after each series to talk about what they see from the defense, things that are working well and things that need fixing.

"We are getting better every game and that is the key in football," Michalczik said. "You keep improving every week and by the end of the year, you are pretty darn good. I'm happy with where we are at, but I'm not happy if we don't continue growing. I think this group has got a great work ethic and those five guys come out every day with total focus and commitment, and they do things the right way."

Sometimes it's a thankless job being an offensive lineman, but every time Cal gets one in the win column, that is more than enough to keep these giants jolly.