John Weidenaar’s trial by fire internally may have been even more vexing than trials externally when he first broke into Montana State’s starting lineup. The first time he saw Clay DeBord, he understood the Eastern Washington rookie’s struggles.
Back in October of 2012, both Weidenaar and DeBord were redshirt freshmen midway through their first seasons as starters. Weidenaar, at the time a 6-foot-7, 272-pounder, faced off with elite defensive ends like Willie Jefferson of Stephen F. Austin, James Cowser of Southern Utah and Nick King of UC Davis. During No. 2 MSU’s key matchup against Eastern Washington in Bozeman, Weidenaar had his hands full with EWU stud Jerry Ceja.
But Weidenaar’s toughest matchups most days came in practice. The Manhattan product was put through the ringer often by future Buck Buchanan Award winning defensive ends Caleb Schreibeis and Brad Daly. On that October afternoon, Weidenaar watched as DeBord and right tackle Will Post struggled to keep the two pass rushing demons at bay. Eastern emerged a 27-24 victor that day due to a blocked punt return for a touchdown and an interception return for a touchdown, but Daly and Schreibeis thrived, notching two sacks a piece.
Four years and more than 90 combined starts later; the two most durable left tackles in the Big Sky will be on opposite sidelines one last time. No. 11 Montana State travels to No. 14 Eastern Washington on Saturday for a non-conference showdown with big time implications.
“I remember my first time playing Eastern, it was right here on this field and watching Clay go against the two Buck Buchanan Award winners, he had the same struggles as I did,” Weidenaar said as he sheltered himself from the rain following Tuesday’s practice at Bobcat Stadium. “I knew that he was legit because he held his own.”
On Saturday, Weidenaar, now a 6-foot-9, 292-pound pro prospect, will make his 40th straight start. DeBord’s Eagles have made a few deeper runs into the playoffs so Saturday will mark his 44th career start. He missed one start each in 2012 and 2013.
“I think it is very impressive, the fact that he’s been able to stay healthy,” said Weidenaar, who knew DeBord’s name . “I think Clay and I know of each other even though we’ve never had any conversation with each other. I think there’s a mutual respect between offensive linemen in the conference.”
The 6-foot-6 DeBord came to Eastern Washington as a 250-pounder out of Asotin, Washington, a town of 1,200 just outside Lewiston, Idaho. He redshirted and added nearly 40 pounds of weight to his frame before being thrown to the wolves in 2012. Now he’s a 6-foot-6, 305-pounder who was an All-Big Sky Conference selection the past two seasons and entered his senior year as a preseason All-America.
“It takes a lot of both physical work in terms of getting your body ready for every season and continuing to build physically because he came in as a 230 pound kid,” EWU head coach Beau Baldwin said in July. “So it took a lot of work to get his body ready to play that. But it also takes mental strength. There is a lot of mentality that goes into being able to play left tackle and to understand that I am that blindside for that right-handed quarterback. You’re on an island similar to being a cornerback.
“What Clay has done physically and mentally to handle the longevity of that to grow into a four-year starter, we’ve been lucky to have him.”
DeBord echoes Weidenaar remembering back to his first season as a starter. He remembers his head swimming with his first two starts coming against FBS Washington State and Idaho. He remembers leaning heavily for advice from older Eagles like Steven Forgette, Ashton Miller and Jace Butorac. He remembers the corner he turned as a young player and the experience he’s gained to this point that helps him compete at a high level.
“My first year, I had no idea what I was doing,” DeBord said. “My second year, I started to hit my stride a little bit. Now the third and fourth years, it’s been about honing in mentally.
“It’s obviously a lot of hard work but it’s also that the coaches trust me enough to throw me in there early, which looking back, I don’t know if I would’ve (laughs). It was definitely trial by fire that first year.”
Weidenaar and DeBord have each had significant help in anchoring the left sides of their respective offensive lines. For Weidenaar, he has four classmates who have started at various times next to him over the last four years, including senior Kyle Godecke, a starter for nine games in 2012 and 12 games in 2013 at left guard. Last August, Godecke broke his foot, an injury that cost him most of the 2014 season and all of spring drills this year. In his place, J.P. Flynn moved to left guard. He’s started the last 13 games next to Weidenaar.
DeBord has had a more consistent running mate in the form of fellow senior Aaron Neary. The Richland, Washington native roomed with DeBord in the dorms and the teammates have lived together the last five years. Neary broke into the starting lineup at right guard in 2013 and moved to the left side for all 13 games last season. The 2014 first-team All-Big Sky and second-team All-America selection is a captain for the Eagles and one of the best players in the league.
“You go through being humbled as a freshman, all the tough experiences we’ve had, the winter conditioning, getting beat up and that creates a brotherhood,” Neary said. “And we’ve had reps and reps and reps and reps next to each other. We’ve played next to each other going on five years now and that alone makes us brothers.”
DeBord provides consistency and a stalwart presence at one of football’s most important positions. Neary provides leadership and the ability to set the tone with his physical play, DeBord said.
“He’s a little buzz saw out there,” DeBord said. “He’s got the mentality for playing offensive line. He’s always finishing blocks and playing through the whistle. The kid has a great work ethic, strong hands.
“Every accolades Neary gets he deserves. He’s a great team leader. He’s a little bit of a prick when he’s on the field to be honest with you. That helps him a ton I think. It’s been fun playing next to him these last few years.”
Neary, a two-sport star at Hanford High in the Tri-Cities during his prep days, was a risky signing for EWU back in 2011. He broke his foot a month his senior football season. But Eastern still took a chance on the then 6-foot-3, 245-pounder who could dunk a basketball with ease. Neary’s now 6-foot-3, 300 pounds and is one of the top senior NFL prospects in the country. NFL.com analyst Chad Reuter ranked Neary among his top 120 prospects in America. Neary has done it by combining his elite athleticism with an unrelenting style.
“I try to imagine if I was a coach, what do I want to see in a player,” Neary said. “Effort and grit, those are things you can’t coach. You can technique and schemes and all that kind of stuff. But effort is on you. There’s no reason to walk after a play.”
Next season, Eastern Washington will have to replace seven senior offensive linemen, including its All-America left side. Montana State will also be in search of four new starters to surround Flynn, a 2014 All-America who figures to be one of the FCS’ top players as a senior. The most difficult to replace for each program may be the men who have manned the blindside.
“Left tackle is the toughest position to fill by far and as our league gets better and better, the quality of the pass rushers coming off the edge is really getting daunting,” MSU head coach Rob Ash said. “John relishes those challenges. That’s the best thing about it. He wants to be in that position. He’s not intimidated by it or afraid of it. He’s been that way since he was a freshman. Now with more experience under his belt, we have great confidence that he can handle any situation that is thrown at him. That will be almost impossible to replace.”
EWU photos courtesy of Eastern Washington Athletics. All Rights Reserved.