JACKSONVILLE – Head coach Jack Crowe has said numerous times how important his offensive line will be in the success of the Jacksonville State football team in 2012, and the Gamecocks' two seniors up front are the keys to that crucial unit.
Odie Rush and Tori Mobley anchor a JSU offensive line that returns four starters from a year ago and that doesn't include Rush, who missed what was supposed to be his senior season after suffering a broken leg in the preseason. The 2011 Preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference lineman is back for 2012, teaming up with Mobley, a preseason all-conference pick this year, to lead the group the Crowe says holds the key to the upcoming season.
"On offense, we have two out of the five guys in Tori and Odie that, as long as they keep the poise and confidence level up, they have the ability to impact that whole unit of 11 people," Crowe said. "They both have that. They both have played enough, they're talented guys, they're big physical guys and they are smart guys. If there is a place to start it's on offense and on the offensive line, and if there's a place to start there it is with Odie and Tori."
The other starters back up front are sophomores Max Holcombe, Tarik Milner and Blake Burks, but all three were at the top of the depth chart before season's end last year. The experience and camaraderie that has developed over the past two seasons is something Rush and Mobley hope will be a key this season.
"We have a family atmosphere on our offensive line," Mobley said. "Going through Two-A-Days, and they put us in the dorms so they we can get to know each other. We have a lot of other young guys, so that helps us get to know them."
"It feels great to be back playing with my teammates," Rush added. "Those guys that were young now know how to do everything. We have great teamwork and great communication, so I think we are a lot better. Everybody has a great understanding. We know the plays and aren't coming up asking what to do on each play. We all know what to do, so we are focused and will get after it."
Crowe knows how important running the football will be if the Gamecocks want to be as productive as possible this season, and he is excited to have his line in front of a talented corps of running backs that is headlined by senior Preseason All-American Washaun Ealey.
"If you run the ball, you protect your defense and your quarterback, and if you run the ball, you control field position," Crowe added. "If you have an offensive line, the next thing you have to have is runners and we've never had the quality of runners than we have here right now. You can start with Washaun at the top, but all the way through the ranks there are a bunch of quality players here."
Ealey, who transferred from Georgia before last season and then earned All-OVC honors after becoming JSU's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006, is expected to get the bulk of the carries this season. However, the Gamecocks must replace Ealey's counterpart from a year ago in Calvin Middleton, who was signed by the St. Louis Rams after leading JSU with 10 touchdowns in his senior campaign.
So far in camp, sophomore DaMarcus James has impressed and moved himself into that role. After breaking big plays in Wednesday night's scrimmage, he leads that group of young running backs at about the halfway point of preseason camp.
"People talk about Washaun all of the time, but a lot of times they forget about DaMarcus James, and I though he was the feature guy in our contact work," Crowe said. "He just consistently gets yards. He is going to make yardage whether you block for him or not. He is really a quality back. He is the B-back back there with Washaun and behind them you have Troymaine Pope and Miles Jones, who are really quality football players."
The running backs have definitely been a bright spot in what Crowe considers a productive first 10 days of practice. He still knows there is work to be done before taking the field at Arkansas for the Sept. 1 season opener.
"We appear to be making progress," Crowe said. "With so far to go, that doesn't necessarily mean a lot, other than it's moving in the right direction. It doesn't mean a lot when you put it into perspective as far as being ready to play in Fayetteville in a matter of days, but from where we started to where we are now, you can say these have all been productive days."