NORFOLK ——When Old Dominion center Jeremy Hensley looks to his left and to his right at the line of scrimmage and sees the same compadres with whom he started the season, it's both comfort and blessing.
Blessing that he and his offensive line brethren are healthy, comfort because of the familiarity and consistency they've developed.
ODU's high-powered offense chugs along largely due to the health and development of a line that's remained largely intact for the entire season. That line will be tested again by one of the CAA's best defenses, Saturday at noon at William and Mary in the Monarchs' (8-2, 5-2 CAA) regular season finale.
"Last year there was a lot of inconsistency," tackle Ryan Jensen said. "This year, there's been a consistent group of five or six guys all the way across the line. We've been a real close group of guys since camp, and we've gotten better as the season's gone along."
Hensley and Jensen are the ringleaders of a veteran group. Hensley, a 290-pound senior, makes most of the protection calls at the line of scrimmage. Jensen, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound redshirt senior, plays left tackle and protects the blind side of quarterbacks Taylor Heinicke and Thomas DeMarco.
Neither were on the field at this point a year ago. Jensen sat out the entire season with a shoulder injury. Hensley missed the last five games with an ankle injury. Both have started this season's first 10 games.
Redshirt sophomore Jack Lowney has been a fixture at right tackle, while redshirt juniors Robbie Duncan and Brandon Carr have been a solid tandem at right guard. Left guard David Born, a redshirt sophomore, is the only newcomer, but at 6-8 and 340 pounds he has fit in well.
That group has paved the way for an offense that leads the CAA in scoring (35.9 ppg) and is third in total offense (426.5 ypg), rushing (167.9) and passing (258.6). ODU's quarterbacks have been sacked 18 times, though that's as much a function of their running ability as line play.
"I go back to last year," head coach Bobby Wilder said, "when we were, each week, trying to find different ways to create offense because we had so many injuries up front. Now this year what you can end up doing when you've got the same guys in there each week is you can add certain things to your game plan. You can make adjustments within certain schemes that you run during the game."
Wilder referenced the Monarchs' game against James Madison. The Dukes defended one of ODU's signature running plays very well, but the linemen were able to communicate to the coaching staff what JMU was doing, so that the Monarchs were able to modify their blocking.
"Last year we couldn't even think about doing that," Wilder said. "In-game adjustments were few and far between because they were just trying to learn how to play with each other on the field."
The only other newcomer in the offensive line picture is assistant coach Bill Dee, who began last spring after two seasons at Christopher Newport and a mammoth prep career at Phoebus High.
"I think we're showing steady improvement," Dee said. "We're working hard on the fundamentals every week and we're starting to see the results of that take place in the games. We've been fortunate that we've had this same group together without injuries, knock on wood. I think it's very important for an offensive line, for communication, to keep the same pieces in there week in and week out."
Dee might have had a greater adjustment to ODU's spread offense than some of his players. He is steeped in a more traditional power rushing game than the Monarchs' four-wide receiver, quick-pass, zone-blocking scheme.
"Even though we throw a lot and we're not running a power-I," Dee said, "I still want them to have a physical mentality. You've got to have a physical mentality and hit people, and I think we're doing a better job there."
Said Jensen: "I don't know that we've ever worked this hard as an offensive line. We used to sit there during special-teams periods in practice and we would just kind of graze like cattle. Now, Coach Dee has us out there doing walk-throughs or working on technique. He's the hardest working coach I've ever had."
The Monarchs' O-line also benefits from more hands-on coaching. Dee coaches the centers and left side of the line. Special teams coordinator Michael Zyskowski coaches the right side of the line. Offensive coordinator Brian Scott, a former offensive line coach, routinely steps in and works with individuals and the group — "A big benefit," Jensen said.
The O-line's comfort level extends to the coaching staff, as well.
"Those guys have such a good sense of playing together on the field and when we need to make adjustments, there's now a trust factor with what the players say when they come to the sideline," Wilder said. "I tell the kids all the time, your believability factor increases when you give us the right information. When we watch it on video and you give us the wrong information, your believability factor goes way down. Well, these guys, their believability factor is way up right now because they're doing such a good job."