Sacramento State seniors John Wallace and Derek Nielsen have the battle scars to show just how nasty trench warfare can be for college offensive linemen.
Wallace, a 6-foot-4, 285-pound center, played the final four football games last season with a broken right elbow before having Tommy John surgery during the offseason.
Nielsen, a 6-4, 280-pound left guard, missed the last four games of 2013 with a left ankle injury that required surgery to repair.
How physical is life in what some linemen call “The Box” and others “The Danger Zone?”
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“A story in ESPN Magazine said it’s like getting in a car accident every snap – and that’s pretty much what it is,” Nielsen said. “Every play is a pounding on the body.”
So why play such a physically taxing and unsung position where roll-ups can snap a player’s leg like kindling and the only on-field recognition comes when a referee barks out his jersey number for a penalty?
“We’re all naturally competitive people,” Wallace said. “While we don’t get to throw the touchdown passes, we have an important job to do.”
Nielsen then interjects: “And we like to hit people.”
Wallace and Nielsen, both with higher-level experience at previous college stops, are the leaders of a veteran Sac State offensive line that rates as one of the best in the Big Sky Conference.
Wallace, Nielsen, sophomore guard Casey Dakin and junior tackles Lars Hanson and Aleksandar Milanovic are a big reason why Sac State quarterback Garrett Safron is putting up school record-breaking numbers and the Hornets are ranked among the top offensive teams in the Football Championship Subdivision entering tonight’s homecoming game against Cal Poly at Hornet Stadium.
“That’s the engine behind Garrett’s success and, our offense’s success,” said Sac State coach Jody Sears. “It all starts up front with us being able to run the football, and at the same time protect the quarterback so he can do what he does best. I’m extremely pleased.”
Helping to orchestrate the Hornets’ harmonious blocking is assistant coach Bill Laveroni.
He has more than 40 years of coaching experience, including six seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.
“My job is to create the chemistry from a group of players who come from different backgrounds,” said Laveroni, in his second season with the Hornets. “I’ve got to make sure they are all pulling for each other, that they respect each other, that they all play as one.”
That chemistry has been good between players barely out of their teens and their old-school coach – old enough at 66 to be their grandfather though he has a teenage son of his own.
“You really need to be in the meeting room to see the atmosphere he creates and how much he helps us,” Wallace said. “When it comes to offensive-line play, he knows it all.”
It helps that despite their distinctive and colorful personalities, they like to have some fun between the tedious hours of film sessions, playbook study, practice and weight training.
“You got to have laughs,” Laveroni said. “I’ll make them listen to some of my music. They’ll roll their eyes when I mention the Four Tops or the Temptations.”
He’ll poke fun at the good-natured Wallace’s thick Boston accent – “What in the heck did you just say? Everything is ‘Hahvahd Yahd’ with him” – and kids the outdoorsy Nielsen about his love of the cool climate of his native Oregon during Sacramento’s searing heat.
He calls the 6-4, 275-pound Dakin “an unmade bed” who “looks like he is in total pain” for his disheveled appearance and lack of enthusiasm for some drills during the team’s early morning practices.
He’ll sometimes call the 6-7, 300-pound Milanovic, who is Serbian and lives in Austria, “Arnold” instead of Alek.
“He’s our Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Laveroni said. “He’s very intelligent, and the filibuster is right up his alley. I think he’ll one day go back to Europe and become a politician.”
He enjoys the fact 6-8, 300-pound Hanson likes to think of himself as a ladies’ man. “He thinks every girl on campus loves him,” Laveroni said. “I have to tell him he’s not quite as good looking as he thinks he is.”
The jokes sometimes carry over to the sideline during games.
“Inside the lines, the play is very gritty,” Nielsen said. “You are basically punching or hitting something on every play. So you have to have a sense of humor and not get overwhelmed by all the ferocity. The humor gets everyone relaxed.”
Wallace and Nielsen came to Sac State last season as junior transfers from Football Bowl Subdivision schools where both saw playing time.
Wallace was looking for a fresh start and a more competitive program after suffering through a 1-11 season at Massachusetts in 2012. Nielsen, a walk-on at Oregon State, left Corvallis after not being extended a scholarship, despite playing in eight games in 2012 and starting against Cal and Oregon.
“I played my first collegiate snap against Sac State the year they beat us,” Nielsen said of the Hornets’ 29-28 overtime upset in 2011. “I saw they had a lot of talent.”
Both said the moves have worked out for the best. They are leaders trying to help the Hornets – 4-3 overall, 1-2 in conference – reach the playoffs for the first time since 1988.
“We don’t have much margin for error with three losses under our belt,” Wallace said. “But there is no doubt in my mind that when we play our game, we can beat every team we play.”
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