Bloomington – While most of his teammates were in full pads Wednesday, left tackle Rodger Saffold…
Hoosiers In Line For Improved Play Up Front
When the fourth-year Hoosier offensive line coach came to Bloomington alongside Terry Hoeppner 3 ½ years ago, he talked about recruiting a different type of lineman than was on the roster. Instead of wide bodied pluggers, Johnson wanted rangy, athletic linemen who would fill out physically and then be able to get move side to side as well as straight ahead.
It's taken some time in the weight room for some of the youngsters and some makeshift groupings up front in the meantime, but Johnson heads into 2008 with his vision fulfilled. In projected starters Rodger Saffold, Pete Saxon, Alex Perry, Cody Faulkner and Mike Stark, the Hoosiers have five players who all stand at least 6'5" and weigh at least 300 pounds. They combine that size with the type of athleticism that allows them to play the position the way Johnson had envisioned.
"There have been (NFL) scouts in our training camp, and they're saying we're starting to look like a Big Ten offensive line," Johnson said. "I'm excited because now we have the tools to work with."
Two parts of the front five return from last year, as the Saffold and Saxon return to man the left side of the offensive line. Saxon appears back at 100 percent after missing spring practice following shoulder surgery. Saffold has missed some time in camp due to his back, but it's nothing that is expected to linger into the season.
Saffold heads into his third season as a starter nearly 50 pounds bigger than he was when he first got on the field as a true freshmen. Saffold's athleticism allowed Johnson to play him when was a 255-pound freshman, but now that he's 6'5" and 306 pounds he's able to do a lot more than just get by at left tackle.
"From a talent standpoint, Rodger is as good as I've ever had," Johnson said. "He played as a true freshman at 255 pounds and now he's 300 and looks quicker because he's gotten stronger. The sky is the limit for him."
While Johnson is excited to have Saffold and Saxon back, he's equally excited to be able to see what right tackle Mike Stark, right guard Cody Faulkner and center Alex Perry will do as starters this fall. Stark saw significant action a year ago while splitting time with Charlie Emerson at right tackle, while Faulkner and Perry will be getting their first shot at extended playing time this fall.
"The new guys are living up to my expectations," Johnson said. "That's a tribute to them because they've done a great job in the off-season preparing both physically and mentally. I'm pleased with their development."
The biggest change in the group has been for Perry, a 6'7", 300-pounder who started off his IU career at tackle before moving to center last fall. He managed to climb to the top of the depth chart at the position in the spring, and he's solidified his position as a starter this fall.
"He started in a lead role because he put himself there in the spring," Johnson said. "He's worked his tail off this summer to be a good center. I also think he's developed a good chemistry with both quarterbacks I think they trust him."
Another luxury that Johnson has this season that has been missing is year's past is quality depth. While he prefers to settle on five starters and give them most of the snaps during a game as opposed to rotating linemen, Johnson is comforted by the fact that if a player goes down with an injury or is struggling he has other options.
Two of those other options are hard to miss at the IU practice fields – tackle James Brewer and guard Dennis Zeigler. This duo mans the right side of Johnson's second string offensive line, and they're easily the team's two biggest players. Brewer is 6'8" and 340 pounds, while Zeigler is 6'7" and 360.
"The right side tilts the field," Johnson said.
But all joking aside, both are prospects that Johnson is excited about. Both have unusual athleticism for their size, evidenced by the fact both played high school basketball as well. Brewer is back on the field after missing the better part of the last two seasons with a foot injury, while Zeigler has climbed to the No. 2 unit after impressing the staff with his play at tackle in the spring.
"I'm probably harder on those two than anyone because they have unbelievable ability for guys their size," Johnson said. "But they're kids. The good thing is I have five guys ahead of them that I think are pretty good, so I don't have to throw them out before they're ready. Maybe they get some reps here and there during the season, and if they catch on, contribute in a bigger role."
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