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They’re Running a Protection Racket : Aztecs: If they’re going to get the job done right, the ornery bunch up front will be a key.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

OK, so San Diego State quarterback Dan McGwire is a consensus choice as one of the best quarterbacks in the land.

He is going to pass for thousands of yards and pass for dozens of touchdowns. He hopes to lead the Aztecs to a bowl game, a return to glory and an Academy Award. Or something like that.

Dan McGwire, Dan McGwire, Dan McGwire.

So who’s going to protect him?

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The short answer to that is, a group of guys whose numbers are better known than their names. Guys who wear the numbers of offensive linemen.

Numbers such as 60 (Nick Subis), 65 (Derek Sang), 64 (Kevin Macon), 63 (Jim Jennings), 73 (Tony Nichols).

You hear about McGwire and the vaunted SDSU offense. You hear about the Aztecs’ dangerous wide receivers and talented running backs. Well, these are the guys in the trenches, the guys who admittedly laugh at weird things during film sessions and have developed a fierce loyalty to one another.

“This is a unique group,” SDSU Coach Al Luginbill said. “Their athletic ability is much improved. I like offensive lines with an ornery temperament. I don’t like offensive lines to be passive.

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“We play smash-mouth football, and you can’t do that and be passive. We’re getting close to what a good Division I offensive line is all about. Good leg strength, good arm strength, and we’re going to average pretty good size.”

THE GUYS

Three starters--Subis, Sang and Nichols--return from last year’s offensive line, but none of them are in the same positions they played then. But that goes along with Luginbill’s attitude that he wants athletes, not just big guys, up front on offense.

“We want the best 11 athletes on the field at all times, for whatever situation we’re in,” Luginbill said. “The offensive line is a skill position, it’s just a different type of skill.”

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In his search for athletes, Luginbill has two former fullbacks--Macon and Jennings--playing on the offensive line.

“Those two fullbacks have proved to be pretty good,” said Dave Lay, offensive line coach. “Maybe we need a bunch of fullbacks.”

If the season were starting tomorrow, the players lining up in front of McGwire would be:

--Tackle, Subis (6-feet-6, 285 pounds, senior): He has now played every position on the line. Two years ago he started every game at guard, last year he started every game at center.

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“Probably the best athlete on the offensive line,” Luginbill said. “He has a real chance to play football beyond this level if he has the type of year he’s capable of.”

Subis missed most of spring practice with a broken foot.

--Guard, Sang (6-5, 270, senior): He’s being pushed by redshirt freshman Carlson Leomiti (6-4, 330), having been moved to strong guard last spring after playing weak guard last season.

“Derek is a guy who keeps scrapping and scrapping and finds ways to block you,” Luginbill said. “Carlson is probably the better athlete, but Derek has the edge.”

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--Center, Macon (6-3, 260, junior): He played fullback his first two seasons here but was moved to center last spring, and impressed the coaches as one of the most improved players during spring practice. He’s being pushed by Bonner Montler (6-2, 250).

--Guard, Jennings (6-4, 270, junior): Like Macon, he came to SDSU as a fullback but was moved to the line when Luginbill installed the one-back offense, eliminating the fullback position. He played quite a bit as a reserve guard last season.

“Getting better with experience,” Luginbill said.

--Tackle, Nichols (6-5, 275, sophomore): He started the first nine games at tackle last season as a redshirt freshman before missing the final three games with an ankle injury.

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Judd Rachow (6-6, 265, junior), meanwhile, will swing between strong- and weak-side tackle. Redshirt freshman Chris Rodahoffer (6-5, 235) had nearly earned some playing time, too, but he fractured an ankle in practice Tuesday and will be out at least four to six weeks. That means sophomore Joe Heinz (6-3, 285) and redshirt freshman Bob Shults (6-4, 240) may also get more looks.

“I think we have a chance to be a really good offensive line,” Lay said. “We have good athletes, pretty good size and strength and good movement.”

WHAT THEY THINK OF THEIR JOBS

The two who have converted from fullback--Macon and Jennings--both say they are still adjusting.

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“It’s a lot more difficult than fullback, dealing with different schemes,” Macon said. “Especially at center, calling what schemes the defense is in.”

Jennings said the most difficult part of the transition has been learning to pass-block.

“It’s still my biggest fault,” he said. “I feel more confident as a player, but I still will have mental breakdowns. Physically, I know I can get the job done, but if I you do one thing wrong, you can get beat.”

Still, Jennings doesn’t have any illusions of returning to fullback.

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“I consider myself an offensive lineman now,” he said. “I’m about 40 pounds away from playing fullback.”

Because of SDSU’s quick-passing game, Aztec offensive linemen have to be equally adept at both pass and run blocking. They need to be able to fire off the line of scrimmage during a run or back off a little bit and form a pocket when McGwire passes. This is why SDSU coaches want “athletes” up front.

“They all pull, they all trap, they all pass block,” Lay said. “They don’t just line up and drive back or pass block the whole game. They’ve got to have mobility.

“We’re not into the stereotype where linemen are passive. We want aggressive, maybe defensive-minded guys.”

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WHAT IT TAKES TO BE AN OFFENSIVE LINEMAN

The ability to be different. On offense, the quarterback, running backs and receivers all get to play with the football. On defense, everyone gets a chance to tackle the person with the football.

Offensive linemen rarely get to see the football.

“Offensive linemen have to have the ability to take suffering and make something good out of it,” Luginbill said. “Our offensive linemen are ornery--they don’t like getting stuffed. I like our mentality. We’ve got a toughness.”

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Why do they have to make something good out of suffering?

“Because they get their heads beat in constantly,” Luginbill said. “They’ve got to come off the ball and smack somebody right in the mouth. That’s the only way they get to enjoy football. Pass protection is not the fun part. They like to lay their ears back, come off the ball and smack somebody.”

SO WHAT EXACTLY DO OFFENSIVE LINEMEN ENJOY?

“All of the interesting people you meet,” Subis said.

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No, really.

“Flatbacks,” Rachow said.

Flatbacks?

“The offensive line takes pride in flatbacks--knocking the other guy over,” Rachow said. “And stoning people on the line--stopping their penetration.”

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Those are the kinds of things offensive linemen get a kick out of, and some of this amuses them during film sessions. When someone misses a block on film, that person can usually expect to see the other linemen looking over at him, eyes piercing the darkness, smirking.

This group’s most memorable moment in a film session, so far, came last year after the Hawaii game.

“Hawaii runs a different kind of defense--there doesn’t seem to be any kind of logic to it,” Sang said. “We changed some blocking schemes, and Nick was asked to block two guys at one time.”

So during the film session, after one play during which Subis didn’t carry out his assignment to former offensive line coach Steve Devine’s satisfaction, Devine got after Subis.

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Finally, frustrated, Subis said: “What the hell do you want me to do, jump up and do a backflip?”

They still use that one on each other.

ANYTHING ELSE?

“I’ve been playing this sport for 13 years,” Subis said. “I get joy out of not getting beat. If I get beat once or twice in practice, I feel the day is shot.”

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Said Sang: “I enjoy frustrating the hell out of people. If there is any joy, it is that the one guy in front of you wants to go somewhere, and you stop him.

“If a guy beats you two out of 80 plays, he’s the hero and you’re the goat. Your goal is to make sure he doesn’t make it onto the front pages. You’re usually going against a headliner, and you have to keep the big names off the front page.”

And, on the other hand, Sang and his teammates want to keep at least a couple of their own headliners on the front page.

Said Sang: “I want to see Dan McGwire in the paper 10 times this year throwing for 500 yards.”

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If that happens, maybe Sang will jump up and do a backflip.

Aztec Notes

Linebacker Steve Matuszewicz, who sprained an ankle in SDSU’s scrimmage Wednesday, will miss the season opener Sept. 8 in Oregon. He is expected to be out seven to 10 days. . . . Running backs T.C. Wright (shoulder) and Curtis Butts (hip) were held out of practice Thursday. . . . SDSU Coach Al Luginbill said he hopes linebacker Lou Foster (hamstring) and defensive back Zac Stokes (shoulder) will return Monday. . . . Linebacker Tyrone Morrison and defensive back Darrell Lewis, who transferred to SDSU after quitting the Ohio State team last week, practiced for the first time with the Aztecs. Both were used on the Oregon “look” team. Neither is eligible to play for SDSU until next season.


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