Quarterback Alex Ross admits now that he had some initial uneasiness last year as Coastal Carolina replaced two starters on the offensive line. He didn’t let on at the time, of course, but after being protected so well by a veteran-laden unit the season before, the thought of losing key cogs up front naturally worried him a bit.
Well, this year the Chanticleers have three starting spots to fill on the line, but after seeing how seamlessly the transition came together last season, Ross says he doesn’t have those same doubts this time around.
“I’m extremely comfortable,” he said. “Going through this same exact transition last year when we got Voghens [Larrieux] and Sam [Ekwonike], I wasn’t so comfortable last year; I was kind of skeptical about what was going to happen. But those guys stepped in and we didn’t skip a beat. And now that I’m a little older and have a little bit more wisdom, I understand the process. I understand that we have a bunch of good guys competing for those spots, and I’m going to feel comfortable with whoever is in there, regardless of who it is.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys, we’ve got a lot of good guys who have really been getting after it. They’ve been working hard and they have the capability of taking this team to where it needs to be.”
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Ross’s assurances aside, that remains the lone question for this Coastal Carolina offense entering preseason camp this week.
Former left tackle Chad Hamilton made 45 career starts and finished as an FCS All-American last season, left guard Mo Ashley totaled 42 starts and was a second-team All-Big South selection and center Kevin Hart made 35 starts and garnered first-team all-conference honors for one of the more productive offensive lines at the FCS level the last couple years.
The Chants ranked 15th among all FCS teams in fewest sacks allowed last season (1.14 per game) and that protection up front helped the team average 37.3 points (13th nationally), 215.5 rushing yards (20th) and 463.4 total offensive yards per game (18th) in 2014.
Now, they have to regroup up front with juniors Larrieux, who is moving from right tackle to left tackle, and Ekwonike as the proven veterans and a cast of contenders vying for those other spots.
“It’ll be a little bit of a process over the next couple weeks until we break camp and get into more of a game week look,” Chants offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said. “There will be six or seven of those guys that will be trying to make their way in and we’ll sort through it. We had the same questions last year at wide receiver when Matt [Hazel] and DeMario [Bennett] graduated. We’ll have the same question next year when Alex graduates. That’s college football.
“This just happens to be a year where we lost three really good players and you just hope that you did a good job recruiting and did a good job of bringing guys along in the program with weight training and an understanding of what they’re doing, and now it’s time for them to step up and get a truer opportunity.”
While the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Larrieux started in the spring with the transition to left tackle, Ekwonike (6-2, 350) is still considered an option to work on either side of the line and remains listed at right guard atop the preseason depth chart.
In the meantime, junior William Walker (6-1, 300) is a favorite at the other guard spot, junior Dom Gigalbo (6-2, 265) is considered the favorite to take over at center and junior Chase Tidwell (6-5, 275) is listed atop the early depth chart at right tackle.
Sophomore Rodney Mitchell (6-2, 315) is also in the mix at both center and guard, senior UAB transfer Daniel Anousheh (6-2, 295) is competing at tackle or guard and redshirt-freshmen Brock Merritt (6-5, 270) and Jack Flood (6-4, 300) are also showing promise.
“I think we have at least eight. The depth is probably better; it’s just unproven,” Patenaude said. “… There’s enough pieces there. We just have to figure out where they all fit together.”
Walker, a former walk-on, and DiGalbo have the most experience in the system as both guys were among the Chants’ trusted reserves last season. Coastal Carolina offensive line coach Patrick Covington estimates they both probably played about 10-15 snaps a game down the stretch of the season with Walker serving as the team’s third guard and DiGalbo getting work at center and guard.
But compared to the body of work the unit’s three departed veteran starters accumulated over three years together, all of the contenders for these spots are relatively unproven.
“I guess the best way to describe it is it’s not as clear-cut as it was in the past,” Covington said. “… I think there’s going to be a good mix of eight. There will be a solid five when we get into that game week, but I think there’s going to be another three guys that we feel like, hey, we’re not taking a step back or a dropoff if they get 30-40 percent of the snaps at their spot.”
As for the two returning starters, Larrieux said the transition from right tackle to left tackle has not been a challenge for him as that was his natural position coming in and where he served as a backup his redshirt-freshman year behind Hamilton. The move the other way was trickier, he said.
Calling Hamilton a mentor to him, he said he’s “ready to answer the call” as the leader on the line.
And the most important thing this camp, he said, is developing the communication with the rest of the linemen.
“We run a very complicated offense and our o-line is based on communication, so the things that the older guys had last year was they communicated well and they knew what they were doing,” Larrieux said. “So to replace that is going to take some time.”
The Chants only have so much time with their Sept. 5 season opener less than a month away, but Covington says that overall, he is encouraged by the situation.
“We’ve been really pleased with our guys just the first couple days how far ahead they are assignment-wise,” he said. “Now it’s just everybody making more plays, making their block, learning the nuances for the new guys. But it’s definitely different.”
The mainstay in that area for Coastal Carolina year after year, though, has been Covington – the team’s longest-tenured assistant coach entering his sixth season with the program – and his track record of developing steady reliability and consistent production from the offensive line is maybe the most encouraging part of the process.
Perhaps Larrieux put it best when asked what he had to do to impart to the younger players the standard the unit has strived to maintain in recent years.
“The message has been [delivered] by Coach Cov,” Larrieux said. “The way he coaches he [doesn’t] let you get away with anything. … He sets the standards and we pick up from there.”
FCS Coaches Preseason Poll
The first major FCS preseason poll was released Wednesday with Coastal Carolina slotted in the same No. 5 spot where it finished last season.
Team (first-place votes)
Total points in voting
1. North Dakota State (24)
2. Illinois State
4. Sam Houston State
5. Coastal Carolina
6. Eastern Washington
7. New Hampshire
9. Jacksonville State
10. Northern Iowa
11. Montana State
13. James Madison
15. South Dakota State
16. Youngstown State
17. Eastern Kentucky
19. Southeastern Louisiana
20. Indiana State
23. McNeese State
24. Idaho State
25. Eastern Illinois