Ranked No. 7 in the STATS FCS Preseason Poll and tabbed as the favorite to win the Big South, the Buccaneers have a loaded offense, led by senior running back Darius Hammond, who was chosen as the league’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year, along with running backs Mike Holloway and Ben Robinson.
Paving the way for CSU backs is an offensive line that is among the country’s best. The unit, anchored by preseason first-team All-American tackle Erik Austell, is coached by offensive coordinator and former Alabama lineman Gabe Giardina.
Whereas a 1,500-yard running back or 3,500-yard quarterback may have some idea of a pending All-American selection based on a prior season, for an offensive tackle, the choice is less apparent.
“I first heard about it when on our group text some of the guys congratulated me and then Coach G called me to congratulate me. It was pretty cool getting the recognition for a long season of hard work,” said Austell.
Austell missed the last four games of 2015 with an injury and will make his return when CSU opens against five-time defending national champion North Dakota State in the FCS Kickoff game on Aug. 27.
Giardina describes the Bucs’ offense as a “Shotgun option. We look like a normal team in that we’ve got normal two-back formations. But unlike Georgia Tech [a run-heavy option team] we throw it about 18-24 times a game.”
Austell was recruited to CSU as a defensive lineman and converted to the opposite side. It’s there that he provides the Bucs with a football acumen that developed early.
The tackle played for tiny Central Fellowship Christian Academy in Macon, Ga., and a player of his caliber manned many positions. He played quarterback and running back offensively and defensive end and middle linebacker when across scrimmage. His broad knowledge of the game helps him to understand and read defense alignments.
“His first year he struggled. But ever since his redshirt sophomore year, Erik’s been a guy I can go to and say what’s going on out there and he can tell me exactly what happened. So it’s nice to have a bit of a coach on the field,” said Giardina. “He plays offensive line with that defensive-nasty mentality. He runs to the ball and blocks downfield. The guy loves contact. He’s a fun guy to coach from that perspective.”
The intricate offense that CSU runs is assignment-heavy, with less opportunity for the zone blocking that a straight veer offense might feature.
“There’s no doubt it’s hard, hard, hard to play as a freshman. We’re not just [zone blocking] people,” said Giardina. “There’s a high volume of scheme in the run game. Most option teams don’t throw it much. We still try on third down to have intermediate throws; we try to have deep throws; we try to have quick gains.
“We’ll sprint out, have play action and even throw a couple of screens, so it is tough for a young kid to play. Erik probably spoiled us a little bit because he’s been able to learn, but it’s tough.”
Austell and the Bucs’ offense benefits from practicing against its outstanding defensive unit. “The nice thing is defensively they don’t hold back. We want to see a number of different looks [in practice], so I can talk about adjustments and things that happen from week to week,” said Giardina.
The coach points to the Bucs’ 2014 game at Liberty as the point the staff began to see what Austell was capable of at offensive tackle.
“We played Liberty and we won up there. He was just really dominant in that game. Knocking people down, he’s controlling guys in pass [plays].”
As to Austell’s ability to play in the NFL, “There’s no doubt in my mind that Erik is an NFL athlete. He’s got great snap. When he hits people, he knocks them back,” said Giardina, who in addition to playing for Alabama, later served as a graduate assistant under head coach Nick Saban.
“He’s got NFL athleticism, he’s got the strength, and he’s got an NFL brain. He really understands it well. It’s not like this is just a freak athlete that dominates the men in front of him. He gets the whole concept, all of our schemes,” he added.
In their opener against North Dakota State the Bucs’ summer work will immediately be put to the test.
“It’s exciting for us to be able to get on national TV and measure ourselves against the best. I wish we could do it every year; play a big non-conference game — summer workouts have been electric,” said Giardina.
Befitting a senior, Austell keeps his focus steady for the Bison, “I think that the goal as an offensive line unit remains the same no matter how big or small the game is. Protect the ball carriers and get them in the end zone,” said Austell.