Valdosta Daily Times

January 1, 2014

In a different league

Valdosta State’s success on Sundays to blame for struggles on Saturdays

Derrick Davis
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Former Valdosta State football's Edmund Kugbila and Ryan Schraeder's bright future on Sundays help explain the Blazers' 2013 struggles on Saturdays.

Valdosta State's season ended early this year after a Nov. 16 victory over Texas A&M-Kingsville. Coming off of a National Championship in 2012, the Blazers failed to make the playoffs, partly because of the loss of two players, whose new teams were playing football in late December.

Kugbila and Schraeder were two members of the dominant offensive line that Valdosta State rode en route to a 12-2 record and the school's third National Championship.

The 2012 Blazers' offensive line spearheaded a ground game that averaged 218.9 yards per game on the ground at 5.4 yards per carry, and scored 40 rushing touchdowns, while allowing just 23 sacks in 14 games.

All five members of the offensive line graduated from Valdosta State, which would hurt any team, but especially so when two of those players are playing on Sundays the following season.

Kugbila is a 6-foot-4, 325-pound, Ghana-born guard that moved to the United States with his family at the age of 10. Kugbila attended high school in Lawerenceville before deciding to become a Blazer in 2009.

Four years and a National Championship later, Kugbila would be drafted in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers, on April 27, becoming the first VSU player drafted since linebacker Artie Ulmer in 1997; however, Schraeder would soon follow.

Schraeder signed a day later as an undrafted free agent with the Atlanta Falcons.

While Kugbila was the higher drafted of the pair of lineman from Valdosta State, Schraeder would see the most extensive play time during the 2013 NFL season.

Kugbila was drafted with the expectation of learning behind veteran Geoff Hangartner and potentially becoming the starting right guard of the future, but he missed all of the Panthers' spring workouts with a sore knee, which compounded with a severely strained hamstring to land Kugbila on the injured reserve list.

In an interview with Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer this preseason, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera spoke about Kugbila's injury, "the hard part is the young man has worked so hard. He’s flashed so much for us and you get excited about the young man but this last little situation — the tweak with the knee and all that stuff — in the long term, with our medical staff, they feel this is the best thing for him."

Despite Kugbila's setback, the Panthers, which at 12-4 are the NFC's second seed in the NFL playoffs, still see him in their future plans.

"It’s a long-term thing in terms of getting him ready to go and really looking toward the future with him," said Rivera.

In Atlanta, while Schraeder wasn't in the Falcons' immediate plans like Kugbila in North Carolina, the unexpected downfall of the team gave Schraeder a chance to show the Falcons his worth late in the season.

A season ago, Atlanta was among the class of the NFC after accumulating a 14-2 record and the first seed in the 2012 playoffs. After defeating the Seahwaks in the divisional round, the Falcons met 49ers in NFC Championship game, but fell 10 yards short of a game-winning touchdown and a trip to Super Bowl XLVI. But this season, injuries derailed the Falcons before they even began, as Atlanta stumbled to a 4-12 record.

Injuries to starting players Julio Jones and Sean Weatherspoon made the headlines, but blows along the line could be felt throughout the entire offense.

The offensive line's injury woes began in the preseason when expected starting right tackle Mike Johnson suffered from a dislocated ankle and a broken fibula, moving Lamar Holmes to starter and Schraeder to the primary back-up.

Throughout the season due to multiple injuries and ineffective play from Holmes, Sam Baker, and newcomer Jeremy Trueblood, Schraeder was listed as active for 13 of Atlanta's 16 games.

With the Falcons' season essentially over for them at 2-9, Atlanta head coach Mike Smith decided to insert more rookies into the starting line-up against the Buffalo Bills week 12 in Toronto.

Schraeder got his first NFL regular-season start in the 34-31 overtime victory — the Falcons ran for 151 yards in the game compared to their season average of 77.9.

Schraeder would also play in 71 percent of Atlanta's snaps the following week in Green Bay.

"We felt like there were a number of guys we wanted to see some significant playing time. We felt like they’ve earned it," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith. "Instead of playing them in spot playing and getting them 15 or 20 snaps, we wanted to get Ryan some significant playing time to see how he handled the situation. I thought that he did a good job for his first time under some difficult circumstances. He stood in there for the most part and did a nice job.  Again, that evaluation process is going to continue through these last three weeks of the season.”

Schraeder would start the final three games of the season for the Falcons.

Ultimately, Atlanta wasn't satisfied with the production from their offensive line, evident from the firing of their offensive line coach on Monday, meaning Schraeder will most likely see more competition for a starting job in 2014.

Even though Schraeder has a lot of work to do if he is to breakthrough to the starting five for the Falcons next year, this is one man that is not deterred by long odds.

Schraeder did not even play football in high school, instead focusing on baseball and basketball until his junior year. Schraeder was only 5-foot-7 until hitting a late growth spurt, growing nine inches in his final two years.

After graduating high school, Schraeder worked full-time at the Indian Hills Meat and Poultry packaging plant, delivering steaks to shops all around his hometown of Witchita, Kan. Schraeder took classes at Butler Community College for a year and a half before saving to attend Kansas State University.

It was at KSU that Schraeder's interest for football was piqued. In an interview with Frank Kleha at AtlantaFalcons.com, Schraeder said, "While I was at Kansas State that was what sparked the whole football thing. I was 6-7 and about 260 pounds and was playing pick-up basketball and jumping out of the gym. The tight ends coach saw me playing and said, ‘Hey, we have to try to get you out for the team.’ I was happy just being a student. I talked to them at the football offices, but because of the way I started out at Butler — I didn't take my ACTs — they said I couldn’t be on the team due to the strict Big 12 rules."

Schraeder spoke to his father and decided to pursue football at Butler Community College, redshirting for a season before winning the NJCAA National Championship in an All-American season at left tackle.

With connections at Valdosta State, Schraeder made his way down to Valdosta for another All-American season in 2011, and the rest is history.

This season, scouts from both the New York Giants and the Seattle Seahawks were seen at Blazer games looking for the next big thing from Valdosta State.

With both Kugbila and Schraeder, along with Blazers legend Larry Dean at linebacker with the Minnesota Vikings, seeing bright futures at the pro level, Valdosta State's reputation among personnel at the pro level looks bright as well.