WEST LONG BRANCH – If you read any of Monmouth University's preseason previews, you would've noticed that they were all unanimous in their thinking. The Hawks' biggest concern entering this season was the loss of five starters along the offensive line.
It was assumed that Monmouth's lack of experience on the line would put them in a precarious position as they navigated their way through their inaugural season in the rugged Colonial Athletic Association.
On the surface, that would realistically be cause for alarm for most teams. However, the Hawks, traditionally ironclad up front, were quietly confident with the personnel they had and felt they were ready to step in and prove the naysayers wrong.
"Obviously that was something we had to address," said longtime offensive line coach/run game coordinator Brian Gabriel. "But the beauty of our program is that we bring in guys and develop them. There are guys in the program that hadn't really played a ton for us but are guys who have been in our system and have been in the two deep. So, I was much more confident than maybe the outsiders were looking at it because I knew what we had. Quite frankly, in some ways it could've been a more talented group, but they just weren't as game seasoned as the guys we played the last couple of years."
Senior offensive tackle/guard Oliver Jervis (6-foot-5, 300-pounds) has been around the program since 2018 and played in all 11 games a year ago with ten starts. He's part of a three-man rotation on the left side of the line with seniors Will Argo (6-foot-4, 325-pounds) and Jordan Hall (6-for-4, 310-pounds).
"Oliver is a guy we recruited who was a 240-pound guy with a long body playing defensive end," said 'Gabriel. "He's really developed into a solid player for us and another guy who's been in the program for a while and has just really developed nicely.
"Same thing with Argos. He's a fourth-year guy with a ton of experience, not in games per se, but the same thing in the two-deep a couple of years now. He's really picked his game up from last year to this year, huge improvement. And Jordan has really developed in his fourth year. He came in extremely raw and has really developed into a good player.
Jervis admits the negative press surrounding the offensive line before the season didn't sit well with him or his linemates.
"That put a little chip on our shoulders," admitted Jervis. "I think the one thing is that we have three guys that have had significant playing time over the last couple of years. So, the people looking down on the O-line was definitely some motivation and we're going to prove that we're going to be the best position group on the team. So, we definitely took it as motivation, but there's no hard feelings or anything it was just like okay, let's go. If that's how people view us let's prove them wrong."
Tyler "Tank" Williams (6-foot-3, 300-pounds) had the difficult task of taking over at center for All-American and two-time Rimington Trophy winner A.J. Farris this season but has acquitted himself quite well.
"Tank is a guy we always said was going to be a really good player," said Gabriel. "You could tell the minute he got here he was going to be a good player. He just had the misfortune of being behind a two-time Rimington Trophy winner (Farris). Some injuries have held him back, but he's a guy who has really developed and is really solid. You don't see a noticeable drop off, which is amazing."
"Right guard Greg Anderson (6-foot-5,320-pounds) is a guy who had some starts for us last year at right tackle and is a really solid player. Guard is a more natural fit for him, and you could argue that him and the center have been the best players this year and obviously Justin Szuba at right tackle. Justin has an NFL body and is a real student of the game and has really become a good football player."
Szuba (6-foot-8, 310-pounds) was a first-team All-Big South selection in the spring of 2021, but a lower-body injury kept him on the sidelines all last season. He reaggravated the injury in the third game this season, but Gabriel said he's had a good week of practice and will be a game-time decision on Saturday.
In his place, junior J.T. Cornelius (6-foot-6, 285-pounds) made his first start of his career last week and did a phenomenal job.
"He played great last week and is another system guy," added Gabriel. "He's worked day-in-and-day-out to become a really good football player and when he got his opportunity he took it and ran with it. You would never know on the field that last week was his first time playing significant action but he was ready to go."
The newly formed line had a tough assignment on opening night when Monmouth traveled to perennial CAA power New Hampshire and went through some growing pains allowing two sacks and three quarterback hits.
"I think in the first game of the year the amount of youth we did have on the line in terms of game experience stood out," said Gabriel. "We made a lot of mistakes that maybe an older team wouldn't have made. So, I think it was a huge opportunity for growth and use it as an opportunity to get better. And I would argue we made huge strides between the first game and the second game."
Jervis feels the New Hampshire game was an outlier, and the proof has been on the field following Monmouth's loss to the Wildcats.
"New Hampshire had a really good defensive line for sure but the big thing for us was we just needed to finish," added Jervis. "We were so close to so many big plays when it was just one guy falling off; but it was on all of us. So, our mentality now is to finish and finish people into the ground. That's what we've done the last three weeks by coming out with an edge to us and not letting up."
In three games since opening night, the Hawks' offensive line has allowed just two sacks and three QB hits, but more importantly, the offense has been unstoppable.
Monmouth leads the CAA in total offensive yardage per game (501.0 yards) and scoring (41.0 points per game) and are third in rushing yardage per game (243.8 yards) and fourth in passing yardage per game (257.3). Sophomore running back Jaden Shriden leads the FCS in rushing yards (453) and rushing yards per carry (12.58), while running back Owen Wright leads the FCS with nine rushing touchdowns.
"It's always great being an OL coach when you have great running backs," joked Gabriel. "We have a deep stable of running backs and our star running back right now is leading the country in rushing and one of our other running backs is leading the country in touchdowns. So, it's obviously a huge factor with the offensive line being good."
Monmouth football has a long tradition of marching out elite offensive lines year in and year out. This season's line appears to be following in the footsteps of so many of the great ones.
"We talk about the standard of what we've set here all the time and we're never going to dip below that standard," Gabriel said proudly. "We recruit and develop. We don't bring in transfers or guys for the short term or quick fix. The guys come in our program as freshman and develop, they come in as sophomores and develop so then you just have continuity and you're never really rebuilding. You always have that group of next guys up and their ready to go."
"We know the legacy of the O-line," Jervis added. "But we want to set our own standard and just bring the O-line to the next level this year."
Gabriel's method has withstood the test of time for sure, while the continuity promotes long-lasting relationships among the players.
"We've definitely built a bond the last couple of years that's unbreakable," said Jervis. "We're just really psyched to be able to play together. I would like to say we're the closest group on the field. We're all brothers, we live together in the same house, and we just love each other and have each other's back. If someone makes a mistake we're there to pick each other up and encourage each other. We like to thing we're the foundation of the team."
For the first time this season, Monmouth (2-2, 1-1 CAA) received votes in the STATS Perform FCS Top 25 Poll and the AFCA Coaches FCS Top 25 Poll. The Hawks travel to Bethlehem, Pa. this Saturday to face Patriot League foe Lehigh (1-3).
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