Make no mistake, Cal center Brian Schwenke knows the offensive line isn’t playing well.
“Everybody’s obviously upset that we’re losing,” Schwenke says. “It’s our job to protect the quarterback. I know that he has been getting sacked and that alone can be the problem. We control that, as the offensive line.”
The Bears’ porous unit allows more sacks than any other team in the country. They rank 124th of 124 FCS teams. And yes, that includes Colorado.
Six sacks against Ohio State. Nine against USC. Seven against Arizona State.
Sacks have destroyed Cal’s offensive momentum in each of the past three games. The running backs’ workload has shrunk drastically due to starting so many drives on second or third and long.
Quarterback Zach Maynard’s struggles with accuracy also stem from a lack of pass protection. With no confidence in his line to protect the pass rush, Maynard has the need to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible, leading to errant throws and ignored reads.
Schwenke, as a senior and center, is the de facto leader of this offensive line. Other than right tackle and senior Matt Summers-Gavin, none of the other starting lineman had started a game before this year.
Responsibility for the line’s struggles inevitably points at Schwenke above any other starter.
But Schwenke knows how to deal with adversity. A childhood spent at 11 different schools will do that to a person.
“You know how a lot of those kids, they say they have those childhood friends where it’s like, ‘Back when we grew up together?’” Schwenke says. “I never had that.”
Schwenke’s childhood stretched from the high-stress East Coast to the sun-soaked utopia of San Diego before his freshman year of high school.
Schwenke didn’t play any organized sports until his first year of high school, save for a season of Pop Warner in fourth grade and a year of middle school football.
“I wasn’t great,” Schwenke says. “I didn’t have any toughness at all.”
Schwenke instead spent his early days exploring the outdoors, his sanctuary from the constantly shifting paradigms. He remembers spending “literally all of my time” outside.
During the 10 years he spent in Hawaii from ages 1 to 11, Schwenke never remained at any school for more than a year. Sometimes, it was two schools in one year.
As a white kid at predominantly Hawaiian schools, he often felt like an outsider. He vented his frustrations by provoking fights with other students.
Finally, a summer visit to his father’s home in San Diego brought not only a respite but also an enticing opportunity.
“I would visit my dad all of the time,” Schwenke says. “I was just out there surfing, visiting for the summer. A really good family friend was like, ‘You should move out here to Oceanside; they have a really good football team.’ I probably never would’ve played football if it wasn’t for that.”
Schwenke decided he’d give it a shot. He moved to Oceanside, purchased some cleats and started showing up for summer practice.
The gamble paid off. Schwenke made the freshman team.
Before season’s end, his coach told him that he and another talented freshman lineman, Larry Warford, were the only ones who were going to play Division I football.
“At first, I was like, ‘That’d be awesome,’ but then I wondered how he knew it would be us,” Schwenke says.
Warford and Schwenke became best friends from that point onward. The two guards pushed each other every single day in the offseason after their freshman years. They lifted weights daily, challenging each other to see who could squat or power clean the most.
Finally, Schwenke had a childhood friend and a niche to call his own. He spent so much time with Warford that their peers at school often confused the two offensive linemen.
“He’s black and Samoan, but people would always forget and mess up our names,” Schwenke says.
Warford moved away to Kentucky after his sophomore season, but Schwenke had found comfort in his surroundings for the first time in his life. The lessons of his Oceanside career remained with him as he graduated high school and arrived in Berkeley.
Schwenke has been a solid starter since his sophomore season at Cal. But after shifting from right guard to center for his senior season, the transition hasn’t been so smooth.
Schwenke believes the root of the offensive line’s woes lies in “simple abandonment of technique.”
“Sometimes, you can lose confidence in yourself,” Schwenke says. “I know when I was younger and I gave up a sack, I always thought, ‘Oh no, I have to do something different.’”
The technique taught to offensive linemen requires an unnatural physical position. Linemen are taught to bend their knees and punch at blitzers without leaning their body.
If a linebacker blitzes through a hole to the center’s left, the center should not step his right foot over his left and shove the linebacker. Instead, the center is taught to take one lateral step to the left and fill the hole with his body.
“If you get worried and panic, then you start reverting back to your natural form,” Schwenke says. “It’s a lot of mechanics you train your body to do that aren’t natural.”
Inexperienced linemen, like the ones comprising the majority of the Cal offensive line, are prone to reverting to their physically natural form of standing straight up and shoving after allowing a sack. This causes the lineman to lose balance against a pass rush, exacerbating the problem even further.
Their inexperience, Schwenke explains, leads the younger linemen to believe their form needs correction after making a mistake. The composed veteran understands the best response to maintain trust in his technique, but the rookie often lacks such presence.
Only time on the field and an awareness of specific personal flaws can fix this issue, so the Bears’ offensive line may be doomed to continue being the worst in the country in pass protection.
But Schwenke understands there’s nothing he can do to fix the pieces falling around him.
All he has control over is his domain.
Michael Rosen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]