If it's really what's up front that counts, the outcome of Towson's third football season in the Atlantic 10 Conference could hinge on the speed at which a retooled offensive line matures.
In every other area of the team, the Tigers appear well equipped to battle the rigors of probably the toughest Division I-AA league in the land, so if the blockers develop quickly, they could again pull some major surprises despite a preseason forecast that picks them to finish last in their division.
The unit, which paved the way for the team to rank fourth in the A-10 with 406.1 offensive yards a game, suffered crucial losses after Towson finished with a 3-5 conference record to compile a winning season overall (6-5).
Missing now are tackle Marc Destra, center Konstantinos Kosmakos and guard Joe Ripple. Only two starters remain, right guard Jeff Tyler and left tackle Jermon Bushrod, a co-captain who is the only senior in the group.
"We definitely know the spotlight's on us and we have something to prove to the school, the fans and our teammates," said Bushrod, a 6-foot-5, 325-pound player from King George, Va. "Everybody knows we're young and the coaches have to go over more things. We've been making progress. It's just a matter of trying to get everything done before the first game."
The losses have been softened somewhat by the emergence of redshirt freshman Dan Bridges (Francis Scott Key), who won the right tackle job in the spring.
"You have to be concerned about it being his first start," said coach Gordy Combs. "I think we're accelerating him a little bit, but we felt he is an excellent player."
Nick Bradway, a junior, is the likely starter at center after starting the first two games in 2005 before breaking an ankle and missing the remainder of the season. At the left guard spot, the leader is Austin Weibley, who started the final three games.
"We think we're on track with those guys," Combs said. "We believe we have enough to compensate for the inexperience."
The only freshman quarterback in the league to start every game, Sean Schaefer prospered behind last autumn's line, setting a Towson record with a .619 completion percentage and ranking fourth or higher in the A-10 in virtually every passing category.
"I definitely had great protection with a line that had three senior leaders," Schaefer said. "This group is young, but I feel like we won't take a step back. The line will definitely be a big factor for us; they just have to have game experience. Overall, I think our offense will be just as balanced, although we might run a little more."
Said Bushrod: "Even with the older guys like me, there is pressure on them. I have to perform at my best all the time and lead by example."
There are plenty of veterans elsewhere on the offense, with Schaefer backed by 2004 starter Andrew Goldbeck. The running back corps headed by two-sport star Nick Williams is deep and reliable. Capable receivers abound, although preseason all-A-10 pick Andrae Brown (Milford Mill) will be missed for a while because of a fractured finger.
Combs expects the defense - under the guidance of former Georgetown head coach Bob Benson - to be much improved over a corps that ranked last in the conference in points allowed and hopes the punting can be more effective with freshman Bill Shears.
"We had a punting average of only 34 yards last year and some of the points we gave up can be attributed to the kicking game," Combs said. "And we had a lot of turnovers early in the season that didn't help."
The players are dreaming of doubling the number of league wins and making postseason play.
Combs thinks a "realistic goal is a winning season in the A-10."
If any of that happens, the offensive line will have aged in a hurry.
Tomorrow: Anthony Triplin, a standout wide receiver for Johns Hopkins, makes education his priority.
Tigers at a glance
Coach: Gordy Combs (15th season)
Last year: 6-5
Conference: Division I-AA Atlantic 10
Radio: 89.7 FM
Stadium: Johnny Unitas Stadium (11,198)
Tickets: $12 for adults, $6 for children under 18 and seniors
Outlook: With 39 scholarships in a 63-scholarship league, Towson did some shocking last season, beating powerhouse Delaware, Rhode Island and Villanova in the A-10. Now with 51 grants and headed toward the maximum, the Tigers are getting closer to a level playing field and could be one of the surprise teams again. Combs is fitted with a new three-year contract, so coaching stability has returned. The addition of coordinator Bob Benson, a former head coach, to lead a defense that was porous will help. Eight starters return on both major units, including safety Tony Lumpkin, who sat out 2005 with a knee injury. If an offensive line that is relatively inexperienced comes together, the attack guided by quarterback Sean Schaefer should be efficient. Depth is more abundant on the defensive side. If the improvement carries over, the Tigers have a shot at a winning record.