Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Building Blocks

I've been taught since I was 13 years old that you build a football team first by putting together a good offensive line. And the 30+ years I've been watching Columbia football have done nothing to contradict that teaching.

When I think of the best Lion teams of the last 30 years, I know it's no coincidence that they all enjoyed having the best offensive lines Columbia could put together in that era. The 1994 and 1996 teams were led by great front fives that included all-time great Lions like Craig Valentine and Randy Murff. The '96 line was so good that Columbia's mediocre offense was able to hide its weaknesses long enough to put up an 8-2 final record. The '94 line was big and strong enough to support a slower, power fullback-centered running game and a great speedy running QB at the same time. The 2009 Lions did not have a winning record in the end, but the offensive line was the best of the last 15 years at least as it was led by future NFL'er Jeff Adams.  

We'll have to wait a while before we know just how good this current Columbia offensive line is. But we already know it has more experience and possibly talent than any line since at least 2009. And with any luck, this could be a line that rivals those all-time great front fives like we saw in '94 and '96.

It all starts with the "old man" of the O-line, senior LT Kendall Pace. I joke with that "old man" line because while he is a four-year starter, he's still only 19 years old. Pace has grown into the kind of blindside linemen the NFL scouts are looking for, and he was one reason why scouts from the Denver Broncos visited Lions camp last week. Pace now goes at 6-5 and 305 lbs.

Next comes three-year starter junior Bewley Wales. Wales filled in as the emergency center when Charlie Flores was lost for the entire season to injury last year. It would be an understatement to say he played well last season. He's now at 295 pounds, and will probably play another position up front this year.

Third is senior Nathan Gibbs, often overlooked but still an important starter who developed nicely last season.

Fourth we have the returning sophomore Flores, who now goes at 300 lbs. and was honored by Head Coach Al Bagnoli when he called him Columbia's "best" offensive lineman during the preseason Ivy coaches teleconference.  Flores started some games as a freshman in 2014 and he is the brother of recent Dartmouth grad Jacob Flores, who attended an NFL training camp this summer.

But wait, there's more! Junior Markham Paukune has extensive playing experience along with fellow junior and biggest man on the team William McGrath who goes at 315 pounds. 6-8 junior Benjamin Robbins is coming on nicely in camp and is likely to contribute. And sophomore Tyler Schoenwolf, one of the first two players the late-hired Bagnoli staff brought to the team last year, could easily get into the starting lineup based on his improving abilities.

Finally, freshman Joseph Scowden, a 300-pound state high school champion player from Tennessee, could jump the cue and crack the two deep this year. That's how good he is.

Is this the best offensive line in the Ivies? I'll answer that simply be saying it could be one of the best for sure. And it's just plain unfamiliar territory to see a Lion O-line like this going into a season. I mean, I can remember a few times over the last 20 years when Columbia would be returning no more than one offensive lineman who had any game experience for an entire season! And it's almost as exciting to know that only two of these key linemen will be lost to graduation next year. Bagnoli and offensive line coach Jon McLaughlin always seemed to have great or at least good offensive lines when they were at Penn. It certainly seems like they've put together something special now too right here in NYC.

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