The Big Sky Conference was the single most prolific offensive league in college football last season. Five of the top 11 scoring teams in the Football Championship Subdivision and six of the top 12 offenses in terms of total yards resided in the Big Sky.
Quarterbacks like Eastern Washington’s Vernon Adams and Justin Arias found themselves in Philadelphia as finalists for the Walter Payton Award. Wide receivers like EWU’s Cooper Kupp and Sacramento State’s DeAndre Carter earned first-team All-America designation. Idaho State’s offense was so dynamic, the Bengals led the nation in passing yards and tailback Xavier Finney still led the league in rushing yards. The offenses were so prolific that Sac State quarterback Garrett Safron led the nation in total yards and still was a second-team All-Big Sky selection.
While the quarterbacks and the skill position players may grab all the headlines, there’s no mistaking where it all starts offensively in the Big Sky. A great deal of eye-popping offensive production can be attributed to the hogs sweating it out in the trenches along the offensive line.
“My best teams have always been the teams with returning offensive linemen,” said Cal Poly seventh-year head coach Tim Walsh, who’s coached in the Big Sky for 14 seasons all told dating back to his 11-year stint at Portland State. “We are one of those teams this year along with a lot of teams in this league. As good as (senior quarterback) Chris Brown is, as good as those other guys are and as good as our offense is in giving us the opportunity to perform, it still all starts up front.”
Cal Poly’s offensive line play is as important for its offense as any team in the league. The Mustangs run the triple option as well as anyone in college football. With senior quarterback Chris Brown at the helm, the Mustangs rushed for a Big Sky-record 4,221 yards (FCS-leading 352 per game). Center Stephen Sippel and tackle Weston Walker return for their senior years after All-Big Sky seasons last fall. Guard Nick Enriquez is back after earning All-Big Sky honors as a sophomore. Guard Billy Shipman started all 12 games at guard last fall as a sophomore. And tackle Matt Fisher, a 2013 All-Big Sky selection, returns after missing last fall with an injury. Saga Tuitele, Cal Poly’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, called the unit the best he’s coached. Brown, who set a Big Sky quarterback record with 1,265 yards while scoring 17 touchdowns, agrees.
“You have nothing but your offensive line as a quarterback,” Brown said. “Without them, the receiver doesn’t get the ball. Without the center, I don’t get the snap. They are the most important part of an offense.”
When Mike Kramer took over Idaho State before the 2011 season, the No. 1 weakness he identified was along the offensive trenches. He began recruiting talent and playing it early. His first three seasons at ISU produced just six wins, including a 2-22 mark against the rest of the Big Sky. Last year, the line came of age. With then-juniors Terrence Carey, Christian Diehm and Wesley Wingrove starting together for the second consecutive year, then-sophomore phenom Skyler Phillips cracking the rotation, and senior Jim Bagley locking down left tackle for the fourth straight year, the Bengals thrived. ISU averaged 40 points and an FCS-best 562 yards per game.
“Our success is entirely due to our improved offensive front play. Period,” said Kramer, who’s been a head coach in the Big Sky since 1991, earning league Coach of the Year honors four times at three different stops (ISU, EWU, Montana State). “We’ve played well at quarterback for four consecutive seasons. We’ve led the conference in passing. We’ve had the best passer in the conference four years in a row. What’s gotten better? Our offensive front.
“Our offensive front is very, very good and I don’t want to compare them to anyone else in the league but I will say that they are the best front I’ve ever had. Ever, ever, ever.”
That’s quite the statement for a coach who saw All-Americas like Brent Swaggert, Jeff Bolton and Jeff Hansen go through his program at Montana State. And this year, despite the loss of Jason McEndoo — an outstanding coach who Kramer originally hired that mentored the aforementioned trio — the Bobcats are expected to have one of the best fronts in the league.
Offensive guard J.P. Flynn returns for his junior year as a preseason first-team All-America, the only non-senior offensive lineman on the list. The bruiser will be flanked by All-Big Sky center Joel Horn and All-Big Sky left tackle John Weidenaar. On the right side, senior guard Kyle Godecke and senior right tackle Alex Eekhoff are projected to fill out the unit. Weidenaar, Godecke and Eekhoff all broke into the lineup as redshirt freshmen in 2012. Flynn broke the lineup as a redshirt freshman in 2013 and Horn joined the quartet last season.
“I know we have the best offensive line in the league and it’s backed by the best offensive line coach in the league,” MSU junior quarterback Dakota Prukop, the Big Sky’s preseason all-league quarterback, said at the Big Sky Kickoff media conference in Park City, Utah in July. “(First-year offensive line) Coach (Jason) Eck (who took over for McEndoo) is an outstanding coach. I keep harping on it but I’m the luckiest quarterback alive right now.”
Sacramento State senior middle linebacker Darnell Sankey will once again be one of the most feared defenders in the league. When asked who has the best offensive front in the league, he agreed with Prukop.
“Montana State has got to be it,” Sankey said. “No doubt. They are pretty damn big. They are physical specimens. I’d say that’s the best offensive line in the league.”
Prukop’s vote of confidence is certainly not unfounded. But Montana State certainly has some competition for the top line in the Big Sky.
Cal Poly returns experience and athleticism within its intricate offense. UC Davis, Portland State and Weber State can all rely on veterans who have played multiple positions during decorated, durable careers. Weber State senior center Joe Hawkins will enter his fourth year as a starter at his third position for the Wildcats. Davis senior Parker Smith, a three-year starter, will move back to left tackle this season after earning All-Big Sky honors at center last season. And Portland State left tackle Kyle Smith enters his junior season as perhaps the league’s top non-senior NFL prospect with 24 straight starts under his belt.
Montana has traditionally had among the strongest offensive fronts in the league. From Scott Gragg to Scott Curry, Dylan McFarland to Cory Proctor, Levi Horn to Danny Kistler and William Poehls, Montana has put 17 offensive linemen in NFL camps since 1995. This season, the Grizzlies return four starters: senior left tackle John Schmaing and sophomore right tackle David Reese, former junior tackle Devon Dietrich at right guard and former junior guard Ben Weyer at center. Weyer is out indefinitely with a knee injury and Schmaing is nursing a shoulder injury. The other two were part of a line that produced mixed results in 2014 for the 9-5 Griz.
North Dakota should have one of the biggest and nastiest lines in the league — average of 6-foot-5, 305 pounds — anchored by 6-foot-6, 310-pound senior captain left tackle Brandon Anderson and bolstered by 6-foot-5, 300-pound right tackle Sean Meahan and 6-foot-1, 315-pound center Colton Boas. It’s just what North Dakota needs in its ball control offense.
“Our offensive line is tough and now they know what they are doing,” said UND senior middle linebacker Will Ratelle said. “Those guys are mean and they will do it for us this year.”
But Montana State’s biggest competition up front might also be the Bobcats’ biggest competition in the league title race. Eastern Washington, the team picked by the media to win the Big Sky, has five senior offensive linemen, including All-America candidates in left tackle Clay DeBord and left guard Aaron Neary.
“They are going to appreciate this because they wanted a shout out really bad,” Kupp said with a laugh at the Big Sky Kickoff. “Their coach (Aaron Best) doesn’t like when they get their name written down so make sure to have their names in there. No, but all those guys, Clay, (center) T.J. Boatwright, Aaron Neary, we’ve got some guys who can play. (Right tackle) Cassidy Curtis and (right guard) Thomas Gomez too. They can move some bodies around.”
Last season, EWU scored a Big Sky-record 84 touchdowns. The line that led the Eagles loses 7th round draft pick offensive tackle Jake Rodgers and center Jace Butorac. The group’s offensive production was certainly aided by Adams, the two-time reigning Big Sky Offensive MVP. But Adams transferred to Oregon during the off-season after back-to-back runner-up finishes in the Payton Race and a Big Sky record 110 touchdown passes.
Jordan West, a 6-foot-4 junior who started four games in 2014 with Adams on the shelf with an ankle injury, will replace Adams. The veteran, dominant group in front of him should ease West’s transition under center.
“They will dominate up front. That will be huge for me,” West said. “I absolutely believe they are the best in the league. I don’t see how it can get any better.”
In a league in which six teams averaged at least 30 points per game in 2014, gunslingers and pass catchers will always garner the headlines. But the battle for the Big Sky’s best offensive line might be the fiercest competition in the conference in 2015.
Photos from represented Athletic Department. Header and MSU photos by Brooks Nuanez.