Bearcats offensive line flips from question mark to strength -- again

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BearcatsOLine.jpgReplacing three starters and without a senior the past two weeks, the Bearcats offensive line plowed through inexperience to fuel the UC offense. This isn't the first time it's happened.

CINCINNATI -- Following individual statistics doesn't typically fly in college football. Multiply that by three around the team-first, family environment cultivated by Butch Jones.

Yet, Cincinnati starting left guard Austen Bujnoch won't deny he's closely following one individual statistic. And he's been doing so for weeks.

Now four games into the season, RB George Winn rushed for 446 yards. More than that, he's averaging 6.6 yards per carry.

The 446 yards are better than Isaiah Pead held through four games last year. The 6.6 exceeds Pead's season average of 5.3. Pead totaled 424 yards on the ground in the first four games last season.

That's right, Pead, drafted in the second round by the St. Louis Rams and one of the great running backs ever to come through the University of Cincinnati couldn't keep up with the pace of Winn and this offensive line.

"George isn't focused on the stats, but for an offensive line we look at that," Bujnoch said. "I've been tracking it. I like tracking it."

What's not to like? The numbers in themselves are impressive, but placed in a broader context they tell a remarkable story. One fueling the Bearcats undefeated start.

Thus, where the pride enters for Bujnoch. This group heard the questions before the season started. How will they replace the loss of three starters while blocking for a first-year QB and relative unknown backfield? Will the line fold under the pressure of inexperience?

Those questions would have rung louder had the injury keeping starting RT Sean Hooey out of the lineup the two weeks occurred before the season. Against Virginia Tech and Miami, the five starting offensive linemen comprised of three juniors, a sophomore and one redshirt freshman. Combined starts prior to the season for the right side of the line: Zero.

Junior center Dan Sprague, junior right guard Sam Longo and freshman right tackle Parker Ehigner comprised about the most inexperienced group as possible to the right side of Munchie Legaux. Toss in Bujnoch's 13 starts last season and seven from sophomore left tackle Eric Lefeld and even the most experienced starters don't scream grizzled vet.

No matter. Experience meant little.

Oline2.jpgAn offense packed with as much unknown as potential, now averages more yards per play (6.6) than any in Jones' six years as a head coach. At the head of this ascension stands this group of five who never proved they could handle the college football pressure-cooker before.

"It's crazy to think the starting five right now is all juniors (or younger)," Bujnoch said. "It's amazing how well we've done this year."

Chemistry is often overused in sports, particularly football. On the offensive line, however, where five must work in unison as one on every play, where one mistake exposes the whole, it's as important as bench reps and squat press.

"Sounds kind of cheesy, but we are all good friends so communicating and stuff on the line is really easy for us," said Sprague, the chief communicator. "I trust Austen and Sam, those guys, with pretty much anything. The fact we can rely on each other and smooth the transition since we didn't have many combined starts coming in ... it's definitely made the transition easier."

Nearly seamless, especially in the running game. UC ranks 23rd in the country in rushing yards per game (223) and 15th in rushing yards per play (5.5). They've topped 425 yards of total offense through each of the first four games.

Jones looks for more success maintaining blocks on the second level and a decrease in holding penalties, but admits the quick comprehension of this offensive line made a difference in stabilizing the offense. No person owns more responsibility than Bujnoch.

"Austen provides the stability to that group," Jones said. "The leadership, he takes great pride in their development."

Thus the intriguing element to this offensive line story. Last year, Bujnoch looked up to the leadership of a few among another group of untested linemen. That group lost Jason Kelce to the NFL and replaced three starters.

For the second year in a row now, the offensive line flipped from preseason question mark to midseason strength. The common thread weaves within the words of offensive line coach Don Mahoney, but more embeds in expectations of the position.

"It also goes along with the tradition we built as an offensive line," Bujnoch said. "The young guys look up to the older guys. Like last year, when you play like me and Sean played, we didn't want to let the older guys down. That is what the new guys motivation is here, they don't want to let the older guys down."

And, of course, they don't want to let Winn or his stat sheet down, either. Much like chasing Pead on the field, chasing him on the stat sheet only grows more difficult as the game goes along. Such will be the case the rest of the year - but they'll be watching.

"If we can keep him on pace or above Isaiah," Sprague said, "we'll be happy."

They won't be alone.

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