NATCHITOCHES — The depth Northwestern State has worked hard to build on the offensive line over the past two years largely evaporated in a matter of weeks because of injuries.
Seven offensive linemen have missed playing time this season because of injuries, with the most crucial injury downing senior center Zach Case, who is expected to miss five games after injuring his knee early in the game against LSU.
“I have loved their perseverance. I’ve loved their work ethic,” Northwestern State coach Bradley Dale Peveto said. “They have hung together and fought together. I’m proud of them. They have had to play musical chairs out there. It’s a real credit to the guys on the line that they have been able to play different positions. It’s not easy to do.”
The problems started in training camp when guard Josh Cunningham, a second-teamer who was expected to play a lot this season, was lost for the season with a knee injury. Redshirt freshmen Sasha Erler (arm), Bingo Henderson (knee) and true freshman Xavier Jefferson (wrist) also were lost for the season.
Then senior tackle Jesse Hernandez, a former starter expected to play a lot as a second-teamer was lost for the year with a knee injury against LSU. In addition, starting right guard Larry Calcote suffered a concussion against LSU and had to miss last week’s game against SMU. Calcote returned to practice this week and is expected to play Saturday in the Southland Conference opener at Nicholls State.
“I think the offensive line has kept a great attitude, despite everything that has happened,” quarterback Brad Henderson said. “They came out here every day working to get better. Guys are willing to move around. They are willing to do whatever needs to be done. I think it’s great.”
Injuries are just a part of life on the offensive line, said Tchissakid Player, a sophomore starter at right tackle.
“We play physical all the time, and people get hurt,” Player said. “That’s just the way it goes. When someone falls down, we always have someone to come in for them.”
The starting unit this week is expected to feature junior Destry Heskew and Calcote at guards, Player and sophomore Blayne Cole at tackles and sophomore John McClendon at center.
“I thought we played extremely well against Delta State,” Offutt said of the Demons’ 28-27 victory in the season opener. “We had great steps and great pad level. Everything was on point.”
A lot of attention is focused on McClendon, who is replacing Case, a preseason all-conference selection. McClendon, an undersized center at 260 pounds, struggled with the snap against both LSU and Southern Methodist.
“He has played pretty well the last two weeks,” offensive line coach Jeremy Offutt said. “Yes, he had some trouble snapping the ball, but he’s getting those corrected in practice. It’s a lot of pressure to put a 260-pound center out there against LSU. He’s going against 300-pounders who get off the rock faster than you do. That’s a different deal.”
To provide additional depth, true freshmen Damon Medcafe (6-0, 290) and Deon Simon (6-4, 310) have been switched from the defensive line to the offensive line. Both received reps in practice this week, although the coaches prefer not to rush them into action.