The Valdosta Daily Times
Valdosta State running backs Cedric O’Neal and Austin Scott have combined to rush for 1,889 yards this season on 295 carries. That is an average of 6.4 yards per rushing attempt.
But, neither back will take credit for all the rushing success they’ve enjoyed this season. Instead, the two freshmen backs will give all the credit to their big, tough, physical, veteran offensive line that is working hard in the trenches.
“My offensive linemen do a great job blocking for me,” said O’Neal, following VSU’s 48-26 win over Carson-Newman last weekend in the national quarterfinals.
The success of the two running backs and the entire Blazer offense starts up front with the offensive line, which is comprised of five seniors that have an average grade of 94.72 this season.
The offensive line is the catalyst that has made the Valdosta State offense function so well this season. The Blazers rank 12th in the nation in total offense, averaging 479.8 yards per game.
“We put a lot on them,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “We knew we were going to be able to run the football if we had some guys back there. And you look back there, and there are two freshmen running behind them, one that is right out of high school and is having an outstanding year. The reason is because those five guys are up there.”
Valdosta State has rushed for 2,638 yards (a school-record 219.8 yards per game) and a school-record 34 rushing touchdowns this season.
Featuring three pre-season All-Americans — left tackle Ryan Schraeder, right guard Edmund Kugbila and right tackle Mesh Wokomaty — and four-year players Cam Short (the team’s captain) and Jake Thomas, the Blazer offensive line has cleared the way for the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2007.
O’Neal, the Gulf South Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year, eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark last weekend when he finished with 194 yards rushing in the win over Carson-Newman. O’Neal now has 1,055 yards rushing this season, the seventh-most in a single season at Valdosta State.
“If you put an average line in front of him, although Cedric O’Neal is a good football player, he is not going to have the numbers he has,” Dean said. “So we put a lot on those guys because they are seniors and that four of them have played together for four years in a row. We knew we were going to hang our hat on them.”
Along with O’Neal, Scott also has a chance to finish this season with more than 1,000 yards rushing. The redshirt freshman needs just 166 yards to eclipse the century mark this year.
If Scott can get those yards either Saturday at Minnesota State-Mankato — or next weekend in the national championship game, if the Blazers are lucky enough to advance — the young freshmen duo would become the first pair of running backs at Valdosta State to both rush for 1,000-plus yards in a single season.
“We love it when a guy is running good behind us,” said Schraeder, the 6-foot-7, 300-pound senior. “So we are just going to keep doing what we are doing and keep giving those guys the ball and keep fighting our butts off. Hopefully good things will continue to happen.”
While the offensive line has cleared the way for the Blazers’ impressive running game, it has also helped keep quarterback Cayden Cochran upright in the pocket, allowing him to distribute the football to his plethora of receiving targets, which includes Gulf South Conference Player of the Year Gerald Ford (60 receptions for 942 yards, 12 touchdowns).
Cochran has thrown for 2,323 yards and 23 touchdowns this season, the most by a Blazer quarterback since 2007. He has also been able to rush for 296 yards and seven touchdowns.
“It is a great feeling. You put all the faith in the world in them,” said Cochran of his offensive line. “I’ve never been worried about being sacked all year, and that is a good feeling.
“We’ve been able to run the football pretty well and that opens up things on the outside. So that definitely takes some pressure off the passing game.”
One large reason for the offensive line’s success this season is due to the players’ ability to bond together and understand each other’s placing styles, says Wokomaty.
“Being able to bond together, it helps us on the field, it helps us with our chemistry,” said Wokomaty, a 6-foot-7 senior from East Paulding High School that has started all 22 games since the start of his junior season. “When you are out there and you don’t know what the other person is going to do, it makes it harder because you think you are doing it by yourself. But when you have been around these guys — I’ve been around these guys since I’ve been here — you understand what they do.”
Added Schraeder: “Every time you come out to practice, you know guys are going to pick you up. There is a lot of senior leadership and a lot of guys working together. It seems like when we are working well together, everything else is working well for us.”
Saturday, the Blazer offensive line will face one of its toughest tests this season when Valdosta State visits Minnesota State-Mankato in the NCAA Division II national semifinals.
The Mavericks are one of the best run defenses the Blazers have faced this season, allowing just 83.7 yards rushing this season.
“They are a really good defense,” Schraeder said. “They are a solid group of guys. We just have to match that and come out and be ready to play. We are looking forward to the battle against another great group of guys.”