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August 18, 2009

Offensive line continues push to improve

Senior Shawn Lauvao checks in at 6-3, 300 pounds and will probably be playing in an NFL training camp by this time next year. So it's funny to see someone of his stature check over his shoulder in fear of a white-haired, 62-year-old man.

Well, that's what happened after Tuesday's practice.

When asked about offensive line coach Gregg Smith, Lauvao said, "As old as he is…" before his voice trailed off.

He took a second to survey his surroundings. No Smith. The coast was clear.

"As old as he is," Lauvao continued, "he knows his stuff. Coach Smith is a grinder. He's yelling, he wants everything on point. The biggest thing is we're starting to adapt his attitude. It's work, but it's cool because he wants perfection."

Smith has been a longtime staple of Dennis Erickson's college coaching staffs over the decades, dating back to Idaho in the early '80s. In all, Smith and Erickson and Smith have worked together for 26 years.

"I've got the best offensive line coach in the country," Erickson said on Aug. 8. "He's proven it over and over and over again."

This year, Smith's task is to teach a young group of players, some of whom are returning from serious injury.

Tuesday offered encouragement, as sophomores Zach Schlink (knee) and Mike Marcisz (shoulder) took reps at full speed during the short-yardage situation scrimmage to end practice. Sophomore Matt Hustad hasn't had any setbacks so far in camp and took some reps with the No. 1s at right tackle on Tuesday.

"Pretty much everybody is a freshman or a sophomore," Lauvao said. "But the biggest thing is they realize that the offensive line is a big question mark. They're starting to realize that and they're starting to step into that role. The coaches expect a lot, but we as ourselves expect a lot."

Lauvao is undoubtedly the leader of the offensive line, both with his play and words, but said senior center Thomas Altieri has also taken up a bit of a leadership role lately.

"It feels like were back in '07 again," Lauvao said. "We've got seven or eight guys who can ball out, and that's pretty much all we need man, honestly. I mean, we have four or five guys who play three or four positions. We've got a bunch of utility guys and that's a cool thing."

One of the biggest reasons behind the 2008 offensive line struggles was the mass exodus of seniors and graduate students that left after the 2007 season. Untested freshmen were forced into action, players were continuously shuffled around and it showed.

Now, Lauvao is locked in at left tackle, something Erickson said he should have done long before this season. Lauvao is a guard by trade, but said he wouldn't be surprised if he played center at the next level.

"Shawn's obviously a big-time football player," Erickson said.

The offensive line looked sharp on Tuesday afternoon, especially in the one-on-one drills. At one point, the offense chalked up nine straight victories, in a drill that's usually dominated by the defense. Altieri held off freshman defensive tackle William Sutton, who has looked very impressive consistently through camp, three times in a row.

After Tuesday's practice, Erickson said he thinks about five true freshmen will get on the field this season. Erickson specifically named running back Cameron Marshall, tight end Max Smith, linebacker Vontaze Burfict and defensive tackles William Sutton and Corey Adams as guys who will probably play. Wide receiver Jamal Miles, quarterback Brock Osweiler and safety Matthew Tucker also stand a chance.


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