A unit thought to be a major question mark of this year's Bearcats, the offensive line has proven to be a strength through two games.
CINCINNATI - When analyzing the Bearcats offense this offseason, the star power was hard to ignore.
Isaiah Pead. Zach Collaros. DJ Woods.
With three of the premier senior playmakers in the Big East returning, UC's offense should have been the unanimous selection for the most prolific in the conference. It wasn't. Most conversations about UC's attack started with, "Yeah, but..."
What about the offensive line?
UC gave up 33 sacks last year, a number that placed them 7th in the Big East and 96th in the country.
Now, take away the current starting center of the Philadelphia Eagles, Jason Kelce, and remove two other starters as well. Leave behind three players with a combined three starts between them. Move another to a new position.
Would the offensive line allow the playmakers the opportunity to do what they do best? The question was legitimate.
Through two games this season, plenty of concerns arose on the Bearcats roster. Offensive line is not among them.
Have they been perfect? No. There are very few perfect plays in the world of leveraging 300 pounds of mass. But make no mistake, this new composition of offensive line has been quite good.
Pead leads the nation in yards per carry (11.5) and Collaros has only been sacked twice in two games. The two sacks tie West Virginia for best in the conference. Sure, the sample size is small, but don't forget, through four games last year UC had given up 18 sacks for minus-144 yards.
RT Alex Hoffman, RG Randy Martinez, C Evan Davis, RG Austen Bujnoch and RT Sean Hooey aren't the biggest offensive line. None of the three interior lineman tip the scales at more than 290. They aren't the fastest offensive line. None of them were four-star recruits or expect to hear their name called at the NFL Draft like Kelce.
Yet, together, they have handled a significant transition with relative ease.
"We just all have an understanding," said Pead, who admitted he sees himself as part of the line and holds a friendship with the group. "We all know we don't have the most talented group - I'm speaking lineman and running back - we are not the most talented in the nation, but we are going to make it work with what we got. That's just the mentality we have."
The mentality is rooted in accountability. The linemen consider themselves close friends. Tuesday trips to Quaker, Steak & Lube for all-you-can-eat buffet, Wednesday dinners at Bar Louie's dollar burger night and Thursday servings of all-you-can-eat wings at Hooters make for bonding only offensive linemen can truly appreciate or explain.
"We get fat together," Bujnoch said.
While joking about knowing every buffet in town, the results of their relationships produce a very real and tangible chemistry.
"We work well together," Davis said. "This starting five, we hang out a lot, we watch film a lot together. That helps out a lot. We know what each other is thinking."
Against Tennessee, they were doing plenty of it. The Vols threw myriad of looks at the Bearcats line, but the group held off the vaunted SEC speed and power as well as could be expected.
"We ran the ball effectively," Butch Jones said. "We pass protected extremely well. They didn't get very many hits on Zach."
As was the case in the offseason, Jones' comments came with a, "Yeah, but..."
Two missed fourth-and-short conversions at midfield left an ugly welt on an otherwise beautiful performance.
"They hurt bad because it was a small mistake, but it was at a big situation," Pead said. "That's how that game was, one small step this way or take two yards this way and it hit us big in the mouth."
The relentless search for perfection drives this group. Well, that and unlimited wings. But in the midst of the drive for perfection, they believe they can provide the long line of doubters who questioned them with definitive answers.
So far, so good.
"I liked people doubting us because that gives you more motivation to keep going," Bujnoch said. "I definitely think that we are proving to people that we are good this year."
Of course, in the life of an offensive lineman, even the good isn't always great.
"That's a good feeling when you get off your block and you look up and you see the back of Pead's jersey going down the field," Davis said. "But then you got to run 80 yards, so..."