If there is one group the Sam Houston State football team knows it can rely on by now, it’s the interchangeable offensive line.
The Bearkats have All-Southland Conference performers all over the field, up to 21 honorees. But the sustainability on the O-line, which includes four of those all-conference selections, was highlighted in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinal round against Eastern Washington, when the Bearkats punched their ticket to Saturday’s championship game against defending champion North Dakota State.
Most coaches go into games with contingency plans, but hope they don’t have to resort to them. That was the case against Eastern Washington and it will be the same on Saturday. Sam Houston went to Cheney, Wash. with no intention of playing backup tackle Dan Jenkins, though he was prepared to step in at any moment.
The moment came almost right away, since All-American right tackle Kaleb Hopson went down on the first offensive play of the game for the Bearkats. Jenkins went in for Hopson, but in the second quarter, left tackle Riley Smith was injured and Jenkins had to switch over to the other side to fill in for Smith.
That meant true freshman Donald Jackson had to move from guard to tackle on the fly with a trip to the FCS title game hanging in the balance.
“When Kaleb went down, I was hoping he would get up because I look up to Kaleb. He’s such a senior leader,” Jackson said. “I knew the guy was an All-American and all. I wasn’t too nervous but I just knew I would have to step up to that next level to take over for him once Riley went down. We do a lot with the guards and tackles, making sure we do a lot of work in practice switching sides, getting a little taste of both sides just in case of something like that.”
Part of the team’s philosophy is not to pigeon-hole linemen into specific positions, despite what they play regularly or most often.
“We try to groom linemen,” offensive line coach Bart Tatum said. “It’s a craft and a trade that you develop and very candidly, there’s some small differences between the positions but playing O-line is playing O-line. So we bred in our guys the confidence that linemen are interchangeable parts.
“It always pays off because through the course of a season, particularly a 15-game season when you go all the way, you’re going to have some games when guys aren’t going to be available, especially at that position.”
As it ought to be, Jackson’s first year of college football has been a true learning experience. Just a year ago, he’d barely finished playing ball as a senior at Kilgore High School, where his squad lost in the fourth round of the playoffs to Corsicana, the same team that had beaten them the first game of the season.
Jackson said he notices the strengthening of his mental toughness more than anything. Learning from veterans like Smith and Hopson has been important for him as far as developing into a standout player in his own right.
“I’m real happy to get to learn from these guys,” Jackson said. “These are the best guys I’ve ever played. I got to come in and play right away and learn from them, pick right on up and just learn with the bunch. I really like that.”
Inside the team’s locker room at the Ron Mafrige Fieldhouse, there are signs posted that make more of a statement than ask as a question:
Have YOU done all that YOU could do to beat NDSU.
There’s no question mark because it is rhetorical, as every Bearkat player, coach and trainer understands their shared responsibility in the quest for a FCS title.
“It’s a contact sport,” Riley Smith said. “Everybody knows that everybody is going to get hurt at some point in time. But you deal with it week to week and you have to play with some of the pain. You had me and Kaleb Hopson go down last game and we had two guys that didn’t even skip a beat.
“Everybody knows they have to be ready at any second in case something like that happens. It was a freak deal that both tackles went down. Those guys are prepared all week to know they’ve got to suck it up if we go down.”
Jackson played some tackle in two-a-days before the season started, so he had some time. He also practiced at the position occasionally during the season. Despite his nerves, having just turned 18 last August and easily the youngest player on the field for the Kats, Jackson was still prepared.
“There were a couple of times out there, having not been out there, they might bring another guy up and it’s hard to know what call to make,” Jackson said. “But the practice I did have before that helped me out. With our offense, you have a lot of double-team combos. But for instance, in passing plays you get a lot of one-on-one with the quicker guys, the guys who are much faster. That’s a lot more difficult than having to deal with a 290-pound guy that’s heavy and not going to move as fast.”
The Bearkats’ offensive line has a tall task against the Bison defensive front. Sam Houston is well-known for its rush attack led by Timothy Flanders, Richard Sincere and quarterback Brian Bell. Still, North Dakota State is stingy when it comes to the run.
In last year’s game the Bearkats gained 95 yards on the ground and this season the Bison allowed over 100 rushing yards just four times through 14 games. Bison defensive end Cole Jirik has five sacks over the last two games and recorded four tackles in last year’s championship game.
But this is exactly what the Kats have been waiting for since January 7, 2012.
“We’re excited about getting to play them again. They’re a big, strong, sound defense and very disciplined in what they do,” Smith said. “They’ve been shutting a lot of teams down. We have a better pass game this year. That’s definitely going to help us out.
“They’re in the national championship for a reason just like we are, so it will be pretty interesting.”
As an offensive line coach, Tatum isn’t a big stats guy. But he gets excited talking about how this line has protected Bell this season, having gone eight straight games without allowing a sack before the Eastern Washington game and giving up just two in the last 10 games.
“We have a wildly successful total offense, scoring offense. We’re top 10 in every major offensive category,” Tatum said. “To me, that stat with the sacks is more impressive than any of our other stats offensively. It comes from a primarily run first philosophy. We’re a run first team. And for us to have that stat, giving up however many sacks that is, I think it’s very impressive for our guys.”