Sumner Houston sees his offensive line unit as the “soul of the team” and hard workers who should set the example.
The Oregon State senior says his group failed in those areas last fall as the Beavers finished with a 1-11 record and without a Pac-12 football win.
This spring, the group is learning from a new offensive line coach in Jim Michalczik, who is credited with keeping the linemen more on task this time around.
“One thing we didn’t do last year is pace and keeping everybody in line and doing things at the speed we need to,” Houston said. “We let that slip a lot last year, and we need to work to keep that going.”
Getting back to a quicker tempo means getting in better shape.
Junior lineman Gus Lavaka, at 6-foot-4 and listed at 370 pounds, says that’s definitely on his to-do list. A few weeks deep into spring practices, his body is feeling the result of the exertion.
“I know I need to get my butt in shape,” Lavaka said. “That’s one thing I need to do, I need to get these sea legs off me, put on that muscle. It’s hard.”
Lavaka says the addition of Michalczik is an upgrade for the program. The new coach is more disciplined, provides more one-on-one instruction and coaches technique differently.
“He’s getting us better looks. He’s helping us with our technique,” Lavaka said. “He’s definitely a player’s coach.”
The line, along with the rest of the team after a coaching regime change, is learning a new scheme and new expectations. Lavaka says blocking is not much different than it was in the past, though Michalczik added that linemen will be used in varying ways.
“We’re trying to run some stuff to use a little more athletic ability to it and get guys moving a little bit,” Michalczik said, “and be able to attack the defense in different ways and still carry some stuff over from the past that were done well.”
Players and coach alike say they have talent within their depth that push everyone within the unit to get better.
Houston (36 career games, 11 offensive starts), Blake Brandel (24/24), Lavaka (22/19) and Trent Moore (18/11) have the most playing experience of the 16 offensive lineman listed on the spring roster.
Houston (center), Lavaka (left guard), Moore (right tackle), Brandel (left tackle) and Yanni Demogerontas (right guard) have spent a lot of time with the first team. But several spots have been interchangeable.
Demogerantas (six career games, three starts) has moved from center to right guard and Moore from right guard to right tackle. Demogerontas was a reserve center last year. Moore moves to fill the spot left by graduate Fred Lauina.
Kammy Delp (24 career games, three starts), Nous Keobounnam and Hawaii transfer Brandon Kipper also have playing experience. Keobounnam played in 12 games at Oregon State last fall, primarily on special teams. Kipper played in 11 games at Hawaii in 2017.
“We’re deep this year, which is a positive,” said Houston, whose goal is to be a starter again. “We just need to keep on moving forward. Everybody has a chance to play and nothing is set in stone for any position. We’re just working and we’ll see what happens in the end.”
Lavaka said building chemistry within the unit is a significant goal for the spring. That will help the offense gel, and then the team as a whole, he said.
Michalczik said he is still learning his new players and what they can do while “experimenting” with some position changes on the line in the spring.
He said it’s his job to get the best five linemen on the field in order to give the team its best chance for success. He isn’t so much concerned in the spring about who is in which position or first or second string as he is about evaluation and making progress every day.
“I think there are some guys who have played a little bit in the past that are starting to pick some things up,” the coach said. “Being asked to do some new things, especially in pass protection, sometimes you’ve got to take a step back. Whenever you’ve got to try a new fundamental in anything — you change your golf swing — it’s a little hard at first but you know it’s going to pay off in the long run.”