December 12, 2012

UST aims to be known as OL U

More news about: St. Thomas
Luke Marks, backup tight end Matt Allen, Curtis Hames, Jason Flesher, David Simmet and fullback Willie Schneider all get on their assignments in the Tommies' ground game.
Photo by Scott Pierson, d3photography.com 

By Jason Bailey
D3sports.com

The undefeated Tommies owned a two-touchdown lead. They possessed the ball in enemy territory. They were 152 seconds away from reaching the first Stagg Bowl in school history.

And St. Thomas head coach Glenn Caruso grimaced.

The directions were clear. Caruso wanted to drain as much hope from the UW-Oshkosh sideline as possible, pointing to the play clock while telling the line judge to call timeout just before it expired. “One second. No more.” But when the official blew his whistle, two seconds remained.

It was a minor misstep, but every detail is important when you’re rebuilding a program.

Since Caruso took the reins of a 2-8 team before the 2008 season, the Tommies are 57-7 with two NCAA quarterfinal appearances, a trip to the semifinals, and now a national championship berth. The next challenge St. Thomas (14-0, 8-0 MIAC) faces is Mount Union (14-0, 9-0 OAC), a perennial power that has won 10 national titles while playing in 15 of the past 19 Stagg Bowls.

That’s a dynasty by any definition, and St. Thomas has potential to create its own because of a demanding and meticulous coach whose attitude trickles down to his players. Although they’re not a flashy team loaded with superstars, it’s impossible to ignore the growing pile of victories.

“A lot of people thought I was crazy,” said Caruso, a former center at Ithaca. “I told anyone who was willing to listen that we were going to build this program around the offensive line. I think a lot of people wondered why. You have a lot of places that are Quarterback U or Linebacker U.”

There are the obvious physical benefits to building a solid offensive line. St. Thomas uses about 1,500 pounds of synchronized smashes — sophomore left tackle T.J. Woodrow, sophomore left guard Ulice Payne III, senior center Curtis James, junior right guard Jason Flesher and freshman right tackle Luke Marks — to fuel a run-oriented offense that relies on sophomore quarterback Matt O’Connell’s mobility and freshman running back Brenton Braddock’s vision.

But the group that has allowed only 15 sacks also brings stability in another way.

St. Thomas upholds the offensive line as a symbol of the attitude – fulfill your role without regard for outside recognition — it demands from every player. The offensive line sits in the front row during offensive meetings, starters filling the five seats to the left of Caruso. Their lockers are in the middle of the locker room, they eat first at team meals, and they lead the Tommies onto the field before games. It’s a unique experience for the sport’s least glamorous position.

“(When) they walk across campus, everybody probably waves and shakes hands with the tailback and the quarterback and the outside linebacker,” Caruso said. “But they probably don’t jump up and down when they see the left guard walking into the union.”

Prioritizing the offensive line is already paying dividends. James and Marks joined the program after redshirt seasons at Minnesota and South Dakota State while Flesher played at Division II Minnesota State-Moorhead for two years. They follow in the footsteps of all-American center Josh Ostrue (2008, 2009, 2010) and tackle Dan Chapman (2011).

St. Thomas takes pride in wearing down opposing defenses, as it did last week in a 16-play first-quarter drive against UW-Oshkosh.
d3photography.com file photo by Ryan Coleman 

Offensive line coach Joe Lepsche said that fielding big, athletic players along the offensive line helps St. Thomas wear down opponents during a game. The Tommies had 58 rushing attempts in their 28-14 semifinal win over UW-Oshkosh, continuing to chip away even though their longest run was only 17 yards. It marked the fifth time they reached 50 carries this season.

“Yardage that we pick up is great. Touchdowns we score are fantastic,” James said. “But what we take the most pride is in the fourth quarter when the other team is huffing and puffing.

“You can just see the look in their eyes. They definitely know what’s coming. We can feel that as an offensive line, and we take advantage of it like a pack of hungry dogs.”

That ferocity originates from James and tight end Logan Marks, the only senior starters on an extraordinarily young offense. Marks is an extension of the offensive line who enjoys blocking and is usually the top target on play-action passes, ranking second in receptions (45), receiving yards (506) and total touchdowns (seven) for St. Thomas. James must be intelligent enough to quickly identify defensive fronts while brutish enough to push defenders around seconds later.

The Jekyll-and-Hyde act can be seen in neighboring photos on Caruso’s desk: James reveals a nasty scowl while burying an opposing nose guard in one; he holds two of Caruso’s children in the other. James harnessed the former while motivating the offense with a staccato rally before the UW-Oshkosh game. The latter spills out in interviews, where his passion is equally evident.

“They follow that energy and attitude I’m able to portray,” James said. “If I come off as fearless against a team we play like Mount Union, it starts to infiltrate their psyche as well.”

Confidence is shared by the entire St. Thomas program, which has finished undefeated in the MIAC for three consecutive seasons. Despite showing flashes of excellence during this regular season, James and Marks said the offense didn’t truly hit its stride until the playoffs began.

Against talented playoff teams, St. Thomas has adopted the goal of picking up first downs. By chaining together those small victories, the offense will inevitably score touchdowns with the outside zone plays where running lanes are created by tight ends in motion or pulling guards.

“It’s just ‘will’ and ‘want,’ ” Lepsche said. “It comes down to being selfless and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to throw our body in there. A lot of it has to do with timing. Keeping your chest up, eyes up, getting a good punch and running through the defender.”

Effort is important because perfection is impossible. Even James struggled against Oshkosh by fumbling one snap and forcing O’Connell to snag several others. It wasn’t a case of nerves, James said, but rather the defense keeping him preoccupied by disguising their pre-snap looks. Fixing those mistakes has been a top priority this week considering the national title is at stake.

St. Thomas has taken a surprising squad to this year’s Stagg Bowl while avoiding the traditional Division III powers. But the seeds for beating St. Norbert, Elmhurst, Hobart and UW-Oshkosh this postseason were planted long ago. St. Thomas isn’t afraid of the dirty work needed to grow.

“It’s been there since the second I stepped on campus freshman year,” Marks said. “This year has been a testament. We’ve had so many guys step up when we need them. It’s everybody having the backs of the person next to them. It’s definitely been instilled from Day One.”

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