Northwestern State’s veteran offensive line comfortable in second season of system

PHOTO CREDIT: Gary Hardamon/NSU Photographic Services

NSU– Light years ahead.

That’s how Northwestern State offensive line coach J Pond described his unit Wednesday as the Demons opened fall practice.

The hogmollies in the trenches bring back four starters and a bevy of returners as NSU seeks to set more records in the second season under offensive coordinator Brad Smiley’s scheme.

“The biggest advantage is having relationships developed with these guys so we can fix things as a group and one on one,” said Pond, who spent eight seasons with Smiley at Trinity Valley Community College. “It makes a lot of things easier when these guys are willing to learn and want to work to be the best they can.

“This is an awesome veteran group, and it’s a blessing to have a group of guys that are dedicated to their craft and get better every day.”

Fifth-year seniors Dustin Burns, Jonathan Hubbard and Chris Zirkle anchor a group that also returns sophomore starter Kenny Sheldon with three other linemen that have extensive playing time.

All three seniors have started double-digit games in their careers led by Zirkle’s 27 starts.

Zirkle took advantage of the NCAA’s new redshirt rule as he appeared in the final four games this past season after missing the spring and most of the regular season with a shoulder injury.

“Shout out to the NCAA for changing that rule, it’s pretty awesome,” Zirkle joked. “It’s huge to have played those last four games and still have eligibility, but it’s still been more than a year since I’ve been through a camp, so I was a little hot today (Wednesday).

“It’s great to have the consistency along the offensive line and consistency on the coaching staff as well. We have a full year under our belt in the offensive system, and we’ve had a great offseason working with (Pond).”

Hubbard said the first season in the new offensive system felt like there were “bullets flying,” but he added that a full year to learn the scheme with a veteran bunch will make this season much smoother.

“We had to learn the offense fast and take it to the game – it was a tough transition,” Hubbard said. “Now we know what we’re doing, know how to handle things and what we need to do.

“We feel like we already have the chemistry with each other, and we already know each other as brothers. We’ll be fine going through the adversity we’ll face this season.”

All four returning starters have played multiple positions along the line, factoring into an offense whose 2018 team records include passing yards (3,530).

Burns is tabbed as the starting center entering camp with Zirkle and Sheldon manning guard positions and Hubbard working at a tackle slot.

“That kind of versatility makes us dangerous, and it not only makes them able to play multiple positions, but it makes them better at playing their home position as well,” Pond said. “They have a real grasp of the scheme in the run and pass game, and they are able to play faster and more physical because they have a lot higher knowledge quotient of what’s going on.”

That leaves the tackle position opposite of Hubbard open, which is currently filled by converted tight end Brody Griffin.

Griffin, who added weight this spring to increase to 6-foot-5, 272 pounds, has impressed staff in his transition.

“He’s done a helluva job so far, and he looks phenomenal and is playing even better,” Pond said. “He has a thirst for knowledge about the position, and he’s really owning it and getting better at his craft.”

Other linemen with experience include senior Tyler Rapp and sophomore Jake Gore along with redshirt sophomore Khalil Corbett-Canada, who missed last season but was a starter at Trinity Valley Community College under Pond.

“We feel like 10-12 guys can develop into starters for us,” Pond said. “Rapp communicates really well and has a great standing in our group. The whole redshirt freshman/sophomore class with guys like Gore and Parker Fink have made a lot of strides.

“(Corbett-Canada) hds a great summer, and we’re looking forward to his progression. We have the potential to be a really special unit.”

NSU opens its 12-game schedule Aug. 29 at UT Martin.

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