WLAESKA - It is no secret the running game has powered no. 7 Reinhardt’s emergence as a national contender in the NAIA in recent years, but the group powering that run game might still be overlooked.
Coming in at an average of just 6-foot-1, 267 pounds, the Eagles offensive line may not look like one of the most dominant groups in the nation, and an aggressive mindset has allowed them to lead the way for the NAIA’s most productive running game in each of the last two years.
“With what we do offensively, you have to have a different mentality,” coach James Miller said. “We really want to be physical. That’s what we all preach. If you’re going to be soft, you’re not going to be in there. We want guys who want to be aggressive. You have to have a nasty streak to you and play on the edge. We don’t always have to have the biggest.”
After ranking in the top five in rushing offense every year in the program’s history, just two players have been around since Reinhardt made the jump into the top two with 348.2 yards per game in 2015 – guard Scooter Williams and tackle Ian Schumacher.
Since then, the Eagles have led the nation in rushing with 360 yards per game in 2016 and 342.2 yards per game last season, and while many of the accolades fall on the running backs who post that yardage, the big guys up front know the role they have played.
“Being able to move another person from where they were, displacing somebody and being able to help other people do well is nice,” Schumacher said. “It’s a big sacrifice position. We don’t really have that glory, but if the running back is scoring, we’re scoring. If we win the game because off that, we did our part.”
And the Reinhardt line has done plenty of moving people in recent seasons.
They may not always be as big as the players lining up across from them, but they do have a physical advantage when it comes to their stamina playing in the heat with the Eagles’ fast pace.
“A lot of teams don’t realize how hot and humid it is here all the time,” Williams said. “Even last week at Warner, they were in front of fans before the game. We were surprised. We know we can out-tempo everybody. When defensive linemen tell you during the game how fast you go and how tired they are, it’s a great feeling.”
Schumacher and Williams both said they were attracted to Reinhardt in large part because of its old-school, run-first offensive style.
That fit was threatened before last season when coach Drew Cronic left, but after Miller was promoted from offensive line coach, the pair knew they would fit in even better than before.
“I was happy when he got the job,” Schumacher said. “I knew we were going to get the big room. We didn’t have to make a lot of changes. That consistency is big, especially with his knowledge of the game. It makes me want to play hard for him. I want to get better every day.”
While the continuity has been there in terms of play-calling and coaching, the Eagles did have to deal with some turnover on the line.
Lost to graduation were two-time all-American center Xavier Carter and Jesse Dyer, who Miller said was the best example of the work ethic he wants from linemen.
Jake Brock and Sterling Sykes have filled in well at center and guard respectively, but Schumacher and Williams said they have taken it upon themselves to ensure the tradition they have helped build is upheld.
“We try to bring more leadership to the guys,” Williams said. “It’s trying to teach them the proper steps and try to correct them. You want to help them with the small things, so they can pass it down when we leave.”
It did not take long for that tradition to take a hit in a shocking Week 1 loss to Bethel.
In the loss, Reinhardt rushed for just 292 yards on just 4.3 yards per carry, and while the Eagles have risen back up to third in the nation with 312.3 rushing yards per game, Schumacher said that game – just the fourth loss of his career and second to a team other than Saint Francis – is still motivating him to complete the quest for a national title.
“No one wanted to lose, but I took it as a positive,” he said. “If we’re going to lose, I would rather it happen then than later. We got it out of the way and learned from it. It might as well be playoffs at this point, because we can’t do that again.”