Dec. 18, 2013
Reese Dismukes (50) and Alex Kozan (63_ have helped anchor Auburn's offensive line (Anthony Hall photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - The work is hard and the burden is heavy. There are no gaudy personal statistics to show friends back home. That's the plight of those who block, who clear the way for those who run. For Auburn's Southeastern Conference champions, they welcome their role.
So says junior Auburn center Reese Dismukes, the anchor of the offense line that has helped Tre Mason become the Southeastern Conference's leading rusher, helped quarterback Nick Marshall break 1,000 yards and helped the Tigers lead the nation in rushing.
"We do what we do," Dismukes aid. "We know every game they are going to put the saddles on our backs and ride us, and we like it."
First-year head coach Gus Malzahn made it clear from the time he arrived that playing fast would not replace being physical. And it hasn't.
Mason has rushed for 1,621 yards and a record 22 touchdowns. Marshall has run for 1,023 yards and 11 touchdowns. Corey Grant has 650 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 10 yards per carry. Cameron Artis-Payne has rushed for 609 yards and another six touchdowns. As a team, Auburn averages a gaudy 335.7 yards per game, almost 100 yards more than any other SEC team.
They've done all that behind an offensive line that has grown more dominant with each week. They've followed powerhouse fullback Jay Prosch. Receivers have grown increasingly efficient blocking on the perimeter.
The Tigers rushed for 326 yards against a Georgia team that entered the game No. 2 in the SEC in rushing defense. They rushed for 297 on Alabama, which led the league in rushing defense. In the SEC Championship Game, they had a record-shattering 545 yards on the ground against Missouri, which had moved into the No. 2 spot in rushing defense.
On Jan. 6, the No. 2 Tigers, 12-1, will try to run on No. 1 Florida State, 13-0, in the BCS Championship Game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
"You feel kind of a connection and a bond," Prosch said. "It's awesome. You can establish a good running game when your offense works as one. That's what we've accomplished. I personally feel like I'm part of the offensive line in a way. We are all very close and work together very well."
Redshirt freshman Alex Kozan has started every game at left guard, between Dismukes at center and future first-rounder Greg Robinson at left tackle. He's grown throughout the season.
"At the beginning, I definitely relied on Greg and Reese's help," Kozan said. "Now I feel like I'm helping them out, too. I think you've seen that in what we've been able to do. As I've gotten better and the rest of the team has gotten better, we've been able to really put it on other teams."
The defensive line is the strength of Florida State's defense, which has given up fewer points than any in the nation. It will be a challenge, Kozan says, that might be even tougher than blocking Alabama's defensive front.
"They are very athletic," Kozan said. "Big and strong. They are all elite D-1 players. They have several guys that are going to be NFL players. It's going to take a lot of preparation for us to be able to execute. It's going to come down to who is going to win the line of scrimmage. We are going to do our best to try to win that battle, and they are going to do their best.
"It's definitely going to be strength on strength. I'm excited to go up against a lot of quality guys like they have."
How did an offensive line that was decidedly average, if that, during Auburn's 3-9 season in 2012 become the driving force in the nation's best running game?
It started, players say, in the weight room, where strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell has made an indelible impression.
"It's been a get after it type attitude," Prosch said. "If you don't feel like doing it today, he's going to push you to the max and help you get through it. We've been grinding all season. Even though we've played hard games, he's continued to push us. Guys have been getting stronger during the season. He's an outstanding strength coach."
It is, Prosch and others say, unheard of for players to get stronger during the season.
"I'd say extremely rare," Prosch said. "I've never seen that before or heard of that before, but that's what has happened with Coach Russell."
And then there is offensive line coach J.B. Grimes, a player favorite off the field and a tough and demanding coach on it.
"He made it pretty clear that what we were doing before wasn't good enough," Kozan said. "There was an adjustment period. We had to get used to what he wanted and what he expected from us. That wasn't easy."
Auburn's offensive linemen made the transition. Robinson, Kozan, Dismukes, right guard Chad Slade and right tackle Avery Young have locked down starting jobs. But Pat Miller, Tunde Fariyike, Shon Coleman, Jordan Diamond and Devonte Danzey have not stopped pushing.
Grimes salutes his players for not backing off, for not letting the success of Auburn's running game change their approach to practicing or playing.
"These guys have worked really hard," Grimes said. "They've tried to do everything I've asked them to do. They've tried to get better every practice and every game, and for the most part, they've done it."
A veteran offensive line helped Auburn win the BCS Championship Game in 2010, when Malzahn was offensive coordinator. Three years later, there isn't as much experience but there has been even more production.
"Any time you get to this game, you're going to be pretty good up front with your offensive line," Malzahn said. "In 2010, we had a veteran group that was one of the strengths of our team. This year is no different. The offensive line is one of our strengths, if not our strength, and they've helped us get here."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: