Anchoring Down: Offensive line ready to take on Vanderbilt

Western Kentucky University offensive lineman Max Halpin (70) fights with a University of Miami (Ohio) during their 31-24 win on Saturday, September 17th, 2016 in Oxford, Ohio.

Evan Heichelbech

WKU football fans have had little reason to worry about offensive production for the past two years.

Since Jeff Brohm took over as head coach before the 2014 season, the offense has thrived, averaging 44 point per game in each season.

Since 2014, WKU has used only four offensive line combinations to start a game. The starting combination of redshirt senior Forrest Lamp at left tackle, redshirt junior Brandon Ray at left guard, redshirt senior Max Halpin at center, redshirt sophomore Dennis Edwards at right guard and redshirt senior Darrell Williams at right tackle have started 16 of the last 17 games together.

The Hilltopper offensive line has been a key cog in Brohm’s offense and the success boils down to a few fundamental concepts: continuity, experience and chemistry.

One of the few things that can alter a continuity like WKU’s offensive line is injuries.

After being knocked out of last week’s game at Miami (Ohio) with a lower left leg injury, Lamp will not play for the first time in his career. He had started 42 of a possible 42 games since his first year of eligibility on the Hill in 2013.

“He’s been the rock of our team,” Brohm said at a press conference on Monday. “Up to this point he was very durable. I hate it for him because he’s been very healthy, he works hard and he’s in great shape. It’ll hurt our football team not having his leadership and his expertise out there on the field.”

Saturday’s showdown with Vanderbilt will mark the first time since week two of last season that group will not take the field together when the ball is lined up for the Toppers’ first offensive possession –– but they’re not too worried about it.

“It’s always a problem when somebody goes down, but we have a lot of depth and a lot of experience on our O-line so to have somebody like Jimmie Sims step up and move Diesel [Williams] over, I don’t think it’ll be that much of a problem,” Halpin said.

While the continuity for the starting unit has been strong over the past two years, change is not a foreign concept to this veteran group.

This is offensive line coach Dale Williams’ first season with the Toppers after former offensive line coach Neil Callaway took the same position at USC this offseason.

Williams spent six seasons as the line coach at Florida Atlantic University, pairing up with Brohm for the one season he served as offensive coordinator there in 2009.

Before this season, Callaway was the only offensive line coach for all the current starters, but Williams hasn’t skipped a beat since making the transition from high school head coach back to the collegiate ranks.

“Coach Williams came in the spring and we just gave him respect. He’s been a great coach since he came through the door,” redshirt junior lineman Jimmie Sims said.

With Lamp out, coach Williams will move Darrell Williams over to left tackle and Sims will slide into the right tackle spot. Even with the void in Lamp’s absence, Sims’ teammates are confident he can step up and deliver against a solid front like Vanderbilt’s.

“I’m really confident because this year and last year Jimmie’s been that sixth man rotating in,” Edwards said. “It’s not his first time out there. He’s played a lot of snaps and played a lot in the conference championship game and he played a lot in the bowl game, so I’m pretty confident that whoever we put out there is going to do pretty well.”

The Commodores’ defensive front is no joke. Every down lineman is at least 6’4” with three or more years of playing experience in the SEC under their belts.

One thing Brohm has been complimentary of Lamp up to this point is the level of physicality he plays with. But according to Halpin, the drop-off in physicality between the first unit and rotation players is not an issue.

“He’s very physical, pretty quick and he’s very strong,” Halpin said of Sims. “The thing I like about Jimmie is that when he gets the chance to take a shot at somebody he’ll take it. He’s good at that.”

Sims’ and the rest of the offensive line’s experience will also be important for WKU’s offensive attack on Saturday, especially since the Toppers were only able to muster 246 yards of total offense against Vanderbilt in Nashville last season.

“They have really good team speed on defense,” coach Williams said. “They’ve got big guys … they can run, they’re bigger and they’re very sound and well-coached. The kids are smart that play there so they know everything an opponent can do to them. They know where they belong on defense and where they fit.”

The challenge of facing an SEC team is one Sims says he should always be prepared for.

“Our coaches prepare every single one of us to be game ready, to step in,” Sims said. “Whenever it’s your turn and your number is called you have to be ready to step in. We’ve got to prepare and execute and do what we would do any other week.”

While size, schemes and repetition play a major role in their preparation each week, it takes time for a group as interconnected as the offensive line to jell properly, and that’s something coach Williams said his guys have.

“That’s the thing I first noticed when I took the job,” Williams said. “I noticed that these kids like to be around each other. They like talking football so they’ve developed relationships that start here for football and then they go to the classrooms and on campus … it’s a good atmosphere for these guys.”

Even though Lamp will be watching Saturday’s game from the sidelines, his impact will still be felt in the way he’s helped develop the chemistry between each member of the offensive line.

“I’ve been around these guys for years,” Sims said. “They’re great guys, great teammates with great chemistry. On the field it’s the same thing; great chemistry when we play together.”

Reporter Evan Heichelbech can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @evanheich.