Sept. 24, 2011
2011 Cal Football: Information Guide
by Brandon Singer
California's offensive line reached a little-known milestone during the Golden Bears' 63-12 win over Presbyterian on Sept. 17, reaching a combined 100 career starts.
Cal's line is one of the more experienced in the country and its 100 starts - left tackle Mitchell Schwartz (41), right guard Justin Cheadle (25), left guard Brian Schwenke (15), right tackle Matt Summers-Gavin (15) and center Dominic Galas (4) - ranks second in the Pac-12, behind only Oregon State's 101.
Despite their size, it can be easy to overlook the five 300-pound linemen who are responsible for paving the way for an offense that features two of the Pac-12's best wide receivers, a dynamic running back, and a new starting quarterback.
"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."
The Bears' experienced group has done very well if you use the score to judge Cal's first three games. The Bears rank 11th in the nation in points per game (45.0 ppg) and 27th in total offense (456.00 ypg), while most importantly starting 3-0. The line has been a big part of the early-season offensive success, but as expected they stay humble and pass the praise along to the rest of the offense.
"The whole offense works together," Schwartz said. "You look at the receivers, and they are the ones that usually spring the longer runs. The quarterback hands the ball off, but then does a fake that might hold the backside defensive end and allow the back to hit the hole, so it is a whole team thing. We all feel pride about our offense as a whole."
Media attention generally focuses more on the more high profile skill position players and the stats that they produce. It can be difficult for the average fan to understand all that goes on in the trenches with the linemen every play.
"The goal is to beat the defense up drive them back and a lot of the stuff goes unnoticed to a normal person," Galas said. "But, if you mess up or do well, it is really obvious to us."
It is difficult for many fans to understand the nuances of the offensive line's plays, and the more exciting and explosive receivers and running backs take the limelight. The linemen understand this and often embrace the lower level of interest by the media and the fans.
"It is a different speed being an offensive linemen because for me personally, I don't like a lot of attention," Schwenke said. "So, it works for me because I'm glad they are not talking about me, and I can just go play football."
While the attention is focused elsewhere when the offense is clicking, if a breakdown happens 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, but if one of us messes up, then it may look like it was someone else's fault," Schwenke continued. "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 will say `Brian missed a block' when really it was someone else's fault and you have to deal with that."
That thick skin comes with experience playing at the college level, and this season the Bears are fortunate that all of the offensive starters on offense had experience starting at the college level. Entering conference play, this experience will be even more of an advantage as the players have a familiarity with the defensive strategies they face since they encountered them last year as well.
"We have seen most of the teams we go against in our conference," Cheadle said. "You know what to expect, you see the same guys over and over, and you played them last year so they are probably going to do something along the same scheme."
The familiarity with the Pac-12 defenses is not the only area that an offensive line's experience helps. Individually, each player is better equipped to deal with the pressures and craziness surrounding the game because they have been in those situations before.
"Even when it gets really loud, being able to stay calm and talk really helps keep things comfortable," Schwenke said. "If you go out there and get emotional, then you lose your technique and get sloppy, and that is when you really struggle."
While having experience helps each individual player perform better, playing together in the past has helped improve the chemistry within the group.
"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."
Their trust and confidence in each other has also grown after countless hours of practice and games. They can rely on each other to come through no matter what the situation. Coach Michalczik, who rejoined the Bears this season after spending the past two seasons 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. When they work together enough, they are a little like a husband and wife that have been married for a while," Michalczik said with a laugh. "They kind of know what the other one is thinking before it even happens."
The line -- and offense as a whole - hopes to fare better Saturday against the Huskies than in last year's season finale when the Washington defense held them to only 13 points and the Bears lost on a last second touchdown run. The Huskies came away victorious each of the past two meetings, including last year's win that ended the Bears' postseason hopes and snapped a school-record string of seven consecutive bowl appearances.
"They beat us on that last play, that power play. I still remember that game like it was yesterday and how much it hurt," Summers-Gavin somberly stated. "I'm definitely going to use that as motivation, not really as a revenge game or anything like that, but just that added motivation that they took that bowl game away from us."
The last time the Bears bested the Huskies occurred three years ago in the final game of the 2008 regular season. Cal ran all over Washington in that game as they piled up 431 rushing yards en-route to a 48-7 win that also ended Washington's first winless season in program history. Schwartz is the Bears' only offensive or defensive starter from that game that is still with the team, but the Bears hope that the other four linemen can add a win over the Huskies to their collegiate resumes.
"We are getting better every game and that is the key in football. You keep improving every week and by the end of the year, you are pretty darn good," Michalczik said. "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."
If the offensive success continues for the Bears and they put up big numbers this year, you can be sure that a great deal of the credit belongs to the offensive linemen, even though they would tell you otherwise.