College Sports

Size, power and smart-alecks: Scholars and linemen brawlers fuel Sac State

The thing about offensive linemen is they’re a different lot.

They come in all shapes and sizes. They can be a mixture of cerebral, jovial and snarling fierce. They have to work hand-in-hand, like fingers in a glove, understanding that one bad digit can spiral the entire unit down.

And linemen are good guys to know if you need some muscle to move a couch or deep freezer.

At Sacramento State, the trenchmen cut up film during group meetings with position coach Kris Richardson in an endless quest to learn and improve, and then they joyously cut into each other. And this: No one else is allowed to rib the big guys, except the big guys themselves.

“When we go over film,” Richardson said, “all topics are on the table. We have some great discussions in those meetings, funny stuff. It could be cartoons, food, making fun of each other’s bellies – anything.”

Mostly, the lineman soak in the team’s glistening body of work.

Sac State has allowed no sacks in its four victories this season, a paramount reason the Hornets (4-2) are ranked for the first time in eight seasons at No. 15 in the STATS FCS polls. And why they are 3-0 at home and are coming off their highest-ranked win since moving up from Division II to FCS in 1992, a 34-21 triumph at then No. 6 Montana State last Saturday.

No. 5 Montana (5-1) visits Hornet Stadium on Saturday night for a piece of first place in the Big Sky Conference.

Comedic duo anchors Hornets

After Tuesday’s practice, senior line anchors Nick Bianco and Wyatt Ming talked more about their faces and futures than lineman technique. Both have earned their degrees, Bianco in kinisiology and Ming in geography, and they balance their weeks by pursuing extra degrees.

Smart guys? Big time. Smart alecks? Also true.

“Yeah, it’s not even close – I’ve got a much better beard,” Bianco said, rubbing his hand across his considerable facial growth while eying Ming’s meek whiskers.

Ming leaned into it: “I’m still waiting to hit puberty.”

One more from Bianco: “This is Wyatt’s 10th season here. He’s been a starter for six years, or something like that.”

Said Ming, “It’s my sixth year. I feel it. I wake up every morning feeling old, creaking.”

Bianco and Wing grew up in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, in Tulare and Acampo, respectively – big dudes from small towns. The 6-foot-4, 290-pound Bianco aspires to coach college football, linemen, naturally.

“It’s what I know,” he said. “If I coached receivers, I’d just say, ‘run and catch it!’”

The 6-2, 315-pound Ming is considered the “policeman” of the team, an enforcer of doing what’s right. And there’s irony in that. He comes from a family of cops, but he wants to be a firefighter.

Thinking man’s game

It can be simple in this complex game of football: keep the quarterback upright and reap the rewards.

Quarterback Kevin Thomson has dazzled this season because he has been afforded the luxury of time to create, and he quickly gets rid of the ball or to take off and run.

Thomson is the team star, with 1,735 yards passing and 19 touchdowns to go with 246 rushing and five more scores, and he is quick to heap praise to his guards, tackles and center.

“Those guys have been great,” Thomson said. “They’re playing big-time football. Linemen don’t always get the credit but they get credit from me.”

Said Hornets head coach Troy Taylor, “It’s a great group. The offensive line is often the most intelligent group. Some think that linemen are just big guys who like to hit others. You have to be smart and have to be ready for what’s coming. And all championships go through the line.”

A year after injuries set the tone of a 2-8 Hornets season, including Ming going down with a broken leg in the season opener, Sac State has largely been healthy across the board.

The Hornets have started the same five linemen in each game – Troy Stiefel at left tackle next to Bianco, the left guard, Ming at center, Thomas Parker at right guard and Brandon Weldon at right tackle.

The loud one of the lot is Ming.

“Everyone respects him,” Thomson said. “He’ll crack on anyone, even me: ‘Your (play-calling) cadence isn’t loud enough!’ Ok! He’s a big personality.”

“Wyatt gets a little grouchy,” the line coach, Richardson, said with a laugh. “He’s a great leader, the grizzled veteran. He sets the tempo. It’s a fantastic group, coachable and hard working. I came here (along with Taylor) and I’m the new guy. They welcomed me.”

Richardson casts quite a shadow himself at 6-foot-6. He often towered over his lineman while coaching Folsom High School to championships. Now he blends right in.

“All of a sudden, when I do punch drills to the chest, there’s major-man strength I’m hitting,” Richardson said. “I’m the old guy now. It’s not just shoving high school kids around. These are grown men.”