Jake Trost has an interesting description for his fellow Whitworth offensive linemen.
“We’re almost like a band of misfits,” Trost said. “We all have a crazy story of how we got here.”
“Misfit” probably isn’t the best word, but it is endearing nonetheless.
“It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced in 30 years of coaching,” Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg said. “Where they’ve come from and where they’re at today is amazing. It’s a tribute to their character and who they are as young men. … And what an incredible job our offensive line coaches have done. It’s a great story and a huge blessing to our team and part of the reason for the success we’re having.”
Of the five juniors who start, only one, Patton Miller, had previous college experience. He started at left guard a year ago and had two starts as a freshman.
Each lineman has a story that, collated with the others, makes the development of the line nothing short of spectacular.
“Our right tackle (Dillon Helle) didn’t start in high school,” Sandberg said. “Our two guards (Jake McCabe and Trost) were fullbacks and tight ends the last two years.”
Starting left tackle Kiefer Furness, a three-year starter in high school, lost 60 pounds during his junior year when it was discovered he had Type 1 diabetes.
McCabe was a 190-pound left guard starting next to Furness at Tahoma High in Maple Valley, Washington. Trost, also from Tahoma, was a standout running back who overcame ACL injuries on both knees.
Helle was on the depth chart at Seattle-area 4A power Graham-Kapowsin High but never started. He was stuck behind future Division I players.
Just Miller, who hails from Vacaville, California, had a spot locked up going into spring ball.
Coaches had an idea that Furness, Trost, McCabe and Helle could be starters this fall, but they had to secure their spots.
“It’s kind of funny how it’s all come together,” offensive line coach Alex Land said. “We had some turnover and graduates and guys who didn’t return. So we brought in a big freshman class but we needed more of a veteran presence. We had our eye on them. Jake and Jake are studs. They’ve worked their tails off.”
The Maple Valley grads and Helle live together off campus. Miller lives with defensive linemen but spends a lot of time with his linemates.
They have a natural brotherhood.
“They all make each other better,” Land said. “The way they communicate with each other is very natural. Some things are hard to teach, but it has come very natural.”
The proof is in the statistics. The line has allowed just eight sacks in seven games.
Whitworth (7-0 overall, 5-0 in Northwest Conference) had its best offensive game to date last Saturday in a 63-21 win at Lewis & Clark.
“No negative plays, no sacks, no turnovers, no punts,” Sandberg said. “That’s a pretty incredible day and a lot of fun.”
Pirates quarterback Austin Ewing said all the sacks are on him. Furness disagrees but understands Ewing’s sentiment.
“I want to say they haven’t given up a sack since Week 1 of conference, maybe Week 2,” Ewing said. “Definitely, to start off the season, it was me being a little nervous back there. But those guys have stepped up in a big way. It’s been a great journey so far.”
Furness said the linemen knew they were the team’s chief question mark going into the season.
“We heard those rumors,” Furness said. “We’ve had a little saying in our group – prove it.”
And they have.
“Coach Land told us we were the biggest question mark,” Miller said. “That put a chip on our shoulders and we wanted to prove ourselves. We knew we could do it and play how we’ve been playing.”
McCabe praises the job Land has done coaching up the line.
“It’s all a credit to him,” McCabe said. “You can tell how good of a coach he is by the fact that he’s taken two guys who haven’t played any O-line in college and put us in starting spots. And one had never played a lick of O-line.”
Land is in his second year at Whitworth. The linemen said there was a culture of negativity among many of the linemen Land inherited last year.
It was flushed out last spring for one reason or another, leaving the Pirates with five linemen before Trost and McCabe were added.
Seniors Sam Teft and Nate Vasiloff are valued backups.
Land declined to talk about the culture he inherited.
“Going through the grind of the offseason brought us close together,” Miller said.
Helle is proud of how the linemen have meshed. Especially the converted guards.
“It’s a big testimony to those guys,” Helle said. “They bring big morale to the room. We’re a group that’s really close. We just work really hard. We’re going to put our heads down and keep doing what we’re doing. (Land) has developed our games greatly.”
Sandberg said it would be easy to excuse poor play by the piecemeal line if the team wasn’t successful.
“It’s not like they’re playing on a bad team and we didn’t have better guys so they got the starting job,” he said. “They’re on a successful team and playing at a high level.”