In more than two decades on the sidelines, Towson offensive line coach John Donatelli had never seen anything like it.
After a recent practice, the Tigers' offensive linemen didn't join their teammates in walking to the locker room, getting showered, and going home.
Instead, the linemen removed their pads and voluntarily ran sprints from one end zone to the other and back. They ran three laps before junior right tackle Jake Schunke and sophomore right guard Sam Evans signaled the end.
The reason for the extra work? They players knew they had just completed a sub-par practice.
"You saw them running out here? I didn't do that," Donatelli said. "That was the first time in 23 years of coaching football that I've ever had a group of linemen do that. I said, 'It wasn't good enough. You got worse today, not better.' ... And then I turned around, and there they were.
"I said, 'OK, we've got something.' I've known that since Day 2 with these guys. They're buying into everything that I try to teach them."
Towson's ability to mature on the offensive line will be a key storyline this season. The Tigers bade farewell to all five linemen who started in the Football Championship Subdivision title game loss to North Dakota State in January, and how they reload on that front could determine how the team fares in a tough Colonial Athletic Association and beyond.
As a whole, Towson must replace eight offensive starters and five on defense, a main reason the team has been picked to finish fifth in the conference a year after going 13-3.
The offensive line — which helped Towson rank 12th in the FCS last season in total offense (466.4 yards per game) and 11th in rushing (240.0) — graduated two All-CAA first-team selections in left tackle Eric Pike (also a first-team All American) and right tackle Randall Harris, and a third-team member in center Doug Shaw.
Left guard Anthony Davis and right guard Charles Johnson are also gone from the group that paved holes for record-breaking running back Terrance West, who is now with the Cleveland Browns.
But the offensive line coach doesn't sound too worried. In fact, Donatelli, who has been with the Tigers for the past 18 years, said he likes what he has seen out of a group that includes just one senior.
"I walk into the room and this group looks at me like [former Towson guard] Joe Ripple used to," Donatelli said. "I tell everybody that I would walk into the room and Joe would look at me like, 'Teach me or I'll kill you.' That's how these kids look at me. They don't want jokes, there's no jocularity going around. They're on the edge of their seats, saying, 'Teach me.'"
Evans and Schunke are the most experienced members of what appears to be the starting front five. Last season, Evans started 11 games at right guard before eventually giving way to Johnson in the postseason. Schunke made three starts, but this season will be his first as a starting tackle.
Evans, a Fallston native and Loyola Blakefield graduate, said he and Schunke have tried to provide leadership for their younger teammates.
"It helps out a lot, because I was fortunate enough to play with those guys," Evans said, referring to last season. "They taught me a lot, and I'm just trying to teach the younger guys. I'm only a sophomore. … I'm just trying to step up and do what I can to help everybody else."
Sophomore Shayne Sullivan, a Crofton native and Archbishop Spalding graduate, will likely start at left tackle. Sophomore Amos Campbell has overtaken sophomore Brady Stup for the right to man the center position. And redshirt freshman Antonio Harris is the leading candidate to start at left guard.
The left side of the line may be the most critical as it is tasked with protecting the blind side of junior quarterback Connor Frazier, who is mobile but also transitioning into a starting role after spending most of last season as a reserve.
While he misses the members of last year's offensive line, Donatelli said the current group has room to grow and be even better.
"This group as a whole is more talented," he said. "They have much greater discipline. They have a greater ability to push themselves aside and be selfless. So I'm very excited about the potential of this group. They can get to the place that the older group got to much, much earlier in the growth process. That has to do with selflessness and them having a great understanding that they're really here for the man next to them and not themselves."
The importance of the offensive line's play is not lost on the members of that group. Schunke said the front five must perform well to give the rest of the offense a chance to gain yards and score points.
"We need to play well," he said. "We have good guys around us, but if the line's not solid, we're not going to be able to make the plays that we should or move the ball the way we want to move the ball."
Changing their stripes
Beyond having to replace its entire starting offensive line, Towson has lost a significant percentage of its 2013 production at other positions. Here's a look at what percentage the Tigers have lost in a number of key statistical categories.
Rushing yards: 73.6 percent (2,817 of 3,830 yards)
Passing yards: 96.1 percent (3,481 of 3,622 yards)
Receiving yards: 36.1 percent (1,309 of 3,622 yards)
Touchdowns: 66.7 percent (54 of 81)
Field goals: 100 percent (7 of 7)
Tackles: 39.3 percent (452 of 1,150)
Sacks: 23.2 percent (9.5 of 41)
Interceptions: 37.5 percent (6 of 16)