Clearing a path to the final

Offensive linemen have played an overlooked yet important role in the football team’s Vanier Cup run

Offensive linemen Jonathan Koidis
Image by: Tyler Ball
Offensive linemen Jonathan Koidis

Offensive linemen might play the least-heralded position in football.

Other offensive players get to handle the ball. Defensive linemen have the glory of sacking the quarterback once in awhile and defensive backs have the allure of potentially intercepting the ball.

But an offensive lineman’s job is to protect the quarterback and clear paths for the running back—hardly glamourous tasks. It’s rare, though, for a team to have success without a sound offensive line.

This year’s Queen’s football team is no exception. They play in their first Vanier Cup since 1992 tomorrow afternoon against the University of Calgary Dinos in Quebec City.

Although the team’s offensive linemen don’t show up on the statistics sheet at the game’s end, teammates and coaches agree the team would be next to nowhere without them.

Centre Dan Bederman, who at 6’4” and 327 pounds is the biggest man on the line, said he’s used to not getting outside attention for his play.

“It’s not as bad as everyone says,” he said. “We get the respect that we deserve in-house.”

The interior three on the offensive line—left guard Vince De Civita, Bederman and right guard Jonathan Koidis—have spent the last three years in the same positions after playing other line positions before 2007. All are fifth-year players. The three seniors and the team’s outside tackles—second-year Derek Morris and third-year, 6’11” behemoth Matt O’Donnell—have given quarterback Danny Brannagan all the time he needs this year to unload the ball.

Bederman, who played on both the offensive and defensive lines in high school, started his career as a Gael playing left guard before settling in at centre in his third year. He’s a two-time OUA All-Star and attended the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ training camp last summer.

The graduate of Toronto’s Upper Canada College said it’s important for offensive linemen to think of themselves as one unit, rather than five individuals.

“If you don’t know what the person beside you is doing or what one person over from you is doing, then you’re nothing as a unit,” Bederman said. “You see in so many professional teams that you have so many individual great o-linemen, but once they play as a unit they’re not as good. On the other hand, you have so many basic, average o-linemen and they just perform well as a unit and they’re a way better team because of it.”

Bederman said quarterback Danny Brannagan’s development in the last five seasons has complimented the offensive line’s.

“It’s good to have someone back there that you know that after all your hard work he’ll deliver in his own way,” he said. “This year especially, the guy pretty much should have won the Hec Creighton in our books.” Koidis, who’s 6’3” and 325 pounds, said the past two seasons have been important in developing chemistry with Bederman and De Civita.

“It’s more of a trust issue now,” he said. “Quarterbacks have to be able to trust their o-line and I think this year Danny trusts us. We know that if we give Danny enough time he’s going to make the big throw … and he knows we’re going to make the blocks.”

The interior three’s first year together in 2007 was important, Koitis said.

“Third year was a really crucial year for our o-line because us three in the middle kind of figured it out and learned how to play with each other.”

The statistics demonstrate Koitis’s point. In 2007—the interior three’s first year playing together regularly—Brannagan was sacked 19 times for a total loss of 122 yards.

This season, he was sacked five times, losing only 22 yards. The Gaels held their opponents without a sack in four of their eight regular-season games.

Brannagan was sacked twice in Saturday’s upset of top-ranked Laval. His counterpart—last year’s Canadian MVP Benoit Groulx—sustained seven sacks and scrambled for room for much of the game.

Brannagan said having an offensive line that communicates well makes his job a lot easier.

“It’s been a big difference,” said Brannagan, whose 10,375 career passing yards place an all-time second in CIS passing. “In my first year the offensive line, at points, was a little bit questionable. But as time has gone on they just got better … especially those three. They know when to make their switches and adjustments, and that’s made a huge difference to the team and me personally. … I’ve had a lot of confidence just sitting back in the pocket.”

The team’s running game has benefitted, too. Running backs Marty Gordon and Jimmy Therrien have combined for almost 850 yards this season.

Brannagan and Bederman are particularly close, having shared a house in second year. Bederman said they still live in the same apartment building.

“I like to keep my eye out and protect him off the field too,” he said with a laugh.

Brannagan said it helps being so close with the person hiking you the ball.

“We kind of know what each other is thinking.”

Head coach Pat Sheahan recruited De Civita and Koidis as defensive lineman. De Civita played at Aurora’s St. Andrew’s College and Koidis played at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College School.

On the third day of their first training camp, Sheahan offered them spots on the offensive line where there would be more playing time.

“I didn’t want to see them have to sit like in the bullpen for a year or so,” he said. “They accepted the challenge, they became great players and they’re a big part of what we’ve done.”

The experience on the defensive line helped the three men, Sheahan said.

“They brought that defensive aggressiveness,” he said. “When you have offensive linemen that have a bit of that d-line mentality, that’s a good thing.”

Sheahan was an offensive lineman during his playing career with the Concordia Stingers in the 1970s. For this reason, he said he keeps an especially close eye on the offensive line.

Sheahan said the value of this year’s offensive line lies in their ability to react to any situation.

“The ability to solve problems on the fly really pretty much defines their effectiveness. … Having a guy beside you that you trust … means a lot,” he said. “They’re very tight and they’re almost a society within a society. It’s been interesting to see them grow together. They’ve come together at the right time and the team is profiting from it.”

It’s likely that only the most knowledgeable football fans notice the offensive line’s work. The untrained eye simply sees Brannagan, cool as ever, standing calmly in the pocket before rifling a pass to a receiver, or one of the team’s backs finding a hole in the defence and running through it.

Despite this, DeCivita said Brannagan gives credit where credit is due.

“He’s the first to show his appreciation,” he said. “Every time he gets a touchdown we’re the first guys he thanks.”

De Civita was a Second-Team All-Canadian last year. At 6’2” and 287 pounds, he’s the smallest of the offensive linemen.

He said Brannagan and the offensive line get along well.

“The fact that we like him doesn’t hurt,” he said with a laugh.

O’Donnell has practiced and played alongside the three veteran linemen since his rookie year in 2007.

“It’s been a long time, lots of training camp and a lot of practice hours logged, so they just teach you so much about the game,” he said, adding that playing with linemen that are so in tune with one another makes his job easier.

“You’re on one of the senior-most lines in the league. Those guys have been there starting in the same position for three straight years. They know football, they know the playbook and they know the game very well.”

Coach Sheahan said he hopes all three players will garner CFL consideration this spring. Playing in the Vanier Cup will certainly give them some added exposure.

“They’re all very much under the telescope right now, and they’ve got pro size so people will evaluate their skills and see what they want to do with them,” he said. “They’re great character guys.”

Koidis, though, said he’s treating the Vanier Cup as his last football game.

“I’m thinking this is probably my last game ever. So it’s a big one.”

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