FSU's O-line grows as a unit
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Every year before summer camp starts, Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett hosts a cookout at his home for his players. Usually, they come, they eat, and they leave.
Not this group.
These Noles stayed for four hours.
"About 10 of 'em jumped in the pool at one time, and I bet 55 gallons of water came out of that that thing," Trickett said, laughing. "It was like 10 rhinos going into a pond."
Trickett, who is entering his third season at FSU, sat back that afternoon and watched the show with Clint Purvis, who is entering his 20th year as team chaplain.
"He said in all the years he's been here, he's never seen anything like it, where they enjoy just being around each other all the time," Trickett said. "I couldn't get rid of them. Not because of me. I think they hung around because they were having a blast with each other. I think they hold each other together.
"It's the tightest group I've ever had," he said. "They do everything together."
On one hot, sticky afternoon this summer, between their two practice sessions, the burly linemen sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the first two rows of a small meeting room, staring ahead at themselves on film. They all wore the same garnet T-shirts and silver mesh shorts with their numbers on them. It's the same group that was sitting there together a year ago; the main differences are that they're more experienced, they're closer and they're much better.
What was the youngest offensive line in the FBS in 2008 could be one of the best in the country in 2009. They're eight bulletproof guys who eat together, live together and are the first on the field and the last to leave.
Meet the Noles: Center Ryan McMahon and left guard Rodney Hudson are the leaders of the group, and both are candidates for All-American honors. Left tackle Andrew Datko -- a sophomore who has completely rebuilt himself in the weight room and improved dramatically from going against defensive ends Everette Brown and Markus White in practice -- has earned a reputation as the brain of the bunch. (The business major was named to the 2008 ACC All-Academic team.)
It's the tightest group I've ever had. They do everything together.
--FSU offensive line coach Rick Trickett
Zebrie Sanders is the undisputed front-runner at right tackle since the recent knee injury to Antwane Greenlee, who was being given a true shot to earn that job. And Brandon Davis is the lone survivor of the pre-Trickett era who has been pushing David Spurlock, who was set back by two shoulder surgeries, for the starting job at right guard. The five projected starters for 2009 can all bench at least 400 pounds.
McMahon lives with Datko, A.J. Ganguzza and Spurlock. Hudson and Greenlee also live together. They all voted McMahon the sloppiest of the group, and Ganguzza, with his obvious Italian heritage, is the cook. In the rare moments they're not in football mode, they're playing "Call of Duty" together or eating breakfast at Savannah's.
"We're around each other all the time," Greenlee said. "We do everything together. We look at ourselves as the hardest-working group on the football team. Everything we do, we do together. We try to push each other."
Trickett, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran who guessed he's on his third Harley-Davidson motorcycle now ("I've had a bunch of 'em," he said) is the one doing most of the pushing, and he's gained a reputation for it. Whether you agree or disagree with his teaching methods, whatever he did last year worked. Despite starting three true freshmen in 2008, the Seminoles had their best year running the football since 2000. FSU ranked 33rd nationally in rushing offense with nearly 180 yards per game. That was an improvement of more than 40 rushing yards per game from 2007.
"I think the Marine Corps has helped me understand how you take a player and tear him down and then rebuild him back," Trickett said. "That's kind of been my method, my mode, whether that's right, wrong or indifferent. But I like to take the whole unit, get 'em all where they don't think they're a unit, get 'em all helter-skelter, you might say.
"You whittle it down until you've got it the way you want it," he said. "I whittled it down so much in the first year that we had to play freshmen. I'm sitting there looking at it, saying 'We're winning seven games here with seniors. And I'm really cocky enough to think I can win seven games with five freshmen?' Well, we won nine. I've never done anything I didn't think was right for the team. I can't stand the thought of having a player out on the field playing that I know sometime, somewhere along the line, he's going to take a break and not give his best effort. If I can help it, I'm not ever going to do that."
With this group, he doesn't have to.
And still, there's not one senior in the starting lineup, and only three juniors in the entire bunch. There are four sophomores on the two-deep preseason depth chart.
Age, though, is only a number to this group.
"Trickett says we are the hardest-working group in the nation," said Datko, who turned 19 on Aug. 15. "We take a lot of pride in that. After we get done lifting or practice, we're coming off the field tired, but in your mind you're saying 'We're working harder than everyone else, so it's going to put us above them.'"
Not everyone, though, can handle Trickett's demands. Will Furlong has transferred, lambasting Trickett in the process. Aubrey Phillips has transferred to Auburn, but Davis, according to those within the program, has proved to be a better player anyway.
"I'm glad I stuck it out," Davis said. "When it's all said and done, I can be like, 'I didn't quit. I stayed here and fought.'"
"All of us have seen a lot of guys come and go," Greenlee said. "Not everybody can be a Trickett lineman. Everybody can't go through what we go through. I don't think any offensive line can run like we run, can go through some of the things we go through, but that makes us close. It brings us together and makes you respect the person next to you, because you know he has gone through it, too."
And what, exactly, does it mean to be a "Trickett lineman"?
"It means work," Greenlee said. "At the end of the day, like Datko said, you outworked your competition. You know you worked as hard as you can, mentally and physically. You've got a guy who's going to push you to your limits, and sometimes past your limits."
And together, they've reached new ones.
Heather Dinich is ESPN.com's ACC football blogger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the ACC blog.