HOUGHTON - With uncertainty and youth at the skill positions, Michigan Tech football coach Tom Kearly's life has been made easier this spring with a bedrock of experience and five returning starters on the offensive line.
Kearly was decidedly pleased with the way sophomore left tackle Frank Vruwink, junior left guard Bruce Tebelman, senior center Aaron Brandt, senior right guard Chris Mullen and senior right tackle Buddy Poljan performed last season, helping anchor the fourth-highest scoring offense in the league at 37.7 points per game and limiting quarterback Tyler Scarlett's hits to just 10 sacks on 311 pass attempts (a lowly 3 percent sack rate).
As it stands now - with Kearly stressing the caveat that no starting job is sewn up yet -all five of those men should return as starters, barring injury, in the fall.
Michigan Tech’s Frank Vruwink is engaged with a Hillsdale player during their game in October. Vruwink, now a redshirt sophomore, is expected to take further strides at offensive tackle. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
"In all my time as a football coach, I spend a lot of time working on the offensive line, and the staff spends a lot of time working with them," Kearly said. "You need that position to be solid to work on everything else. We are very pleased with that group. Real solid across the line."
Better yet, Kearly believes the offensive line is the one position that should get better with age each year.
Where some wide receivers or running backs may plateau at a certain point, he believes there is large room for improvement from season to season on the offensive line, just in terms of weight room improvement, much less skill.
"If you are fast in eighth grade, you will probably be fast in high school, fast in college and fast as a 10-year NFL veteran," Kearly said. "Speed is pretty constant wherever you go. But being strong in high school does not mean you are going to be strong in college - which you need to succeed here, that power and strength. I have had kids come in a 230 pounds and leave their senior year at 290 and an all-conference guy. it is the one position where you can put on weight and improve yourself each season."
Kearly points to left tackle and sophomore Vruwink as a prime example for someone he believes should improve incrementally next season.
Vruwink locked down the all-important blind-side job as a freshman last year due to his light feet and mobility, but an added year of strength could take him from good left tackle to dominant force, Kearly believes.
Vruwink weighed 275 pounds at 6-foot-3 last season.
"He is one guy we expect good things from, no question about it," Kearly said. "He is someone we think could really be special by the time he leaves."
And while it is a boon to have five reliable starters penciled in, Kearly believes a team needs at least seven, and preferably eight, capable offensive linemen heading into a season.
This spring has been the first step in discovering who the all-important backups are. There are five juniors and seniors - with long snapper Spencer Firlick and Bryan Haslinger seeing game action last season - who figure into the mix as well as a host of freshmen and sophomores looking to prove themselves.
Kearly stressed that those competitions are still wide open.
"With the physical demands of the position, you are always going to need at least six, and usually seven by the time a season is done," Kearly said. "I think the most we have ever used in a year is nine. Generally we want one tackle and one inside guy, and then we shuffle around when things happen."
Editor's note: This offensive line feature is the seventh in an eight-part series breaking down the Michigan Tech football team position by position leading to Saturday's annual spring game at Sherman Field. Last week the defensive line, linebackers, secondary and special teams were broken down, with receivers left for this week.