The Colorado State-Pueblo offensive line is the anchor of the nation’s No. 1 Division II football team, but they don’t talk about it – in team meetings or with their quarterback or with the media. They just suit up and play the game.
Offensive line coach Chris Symington — “Coach Symo” – likes it that way. His group doesn’t care about recognition or statistics or rewards, they go about their business of leading the ThunderWolves to victory.
“If you don’t have offensive linemen as your leaders, you’re going to have a very selfish team – that’s mentality I wanted to develop,” Symington said.
When head coach John Wristen hired Symington four years ago, there was no real culture to speak of at Colorado-State Pueblo. The program had just finished its’ first season in 2008 since being reinstated (the school did not play football between 1985-2007), and was building a foundation after 22-year dormancy.
“I had to get a guy in here who was going to teach and coach them how to get better in all aspects of their lives,” Wristen said.
Wristen and Symington were graduate assistants together at Colorado when the Buffs won the 1990 national championship before each moving on to become assistant coaches at a handful of Division I universities.
“John told me when I got here, ‘this could be the toughest coaching job you’ve ever done in your life,’” Symington said.
Symington was up to the task. As a player at Colorado in the mid-1980s, he played for a team that went 1-10 in 1985 and turned it around with a 7-4 record the next year. In the early 1990s, he served as the offensive line coach for Gerry DiNardo’s Vanderbilt squad that markedly improved after going 1-10 in 1990. There was a similar theme at many of his other coaching stops.
“I like to take situations that are not very good and make them good,” Symington said. “I enjoy that. There’s a lot more reward for me seeing guys accomplish things they didn’t think they could do.”
When he joined Wristen’s staff in 2009, they basically just started from scratch.
“We basically just blew up the playbook,” Symington said. “The first year they were just trying to keep their heads above water.”
Symington simplified everything and worked on building the confidence of a group he dubbed the “Land of Misfit Toys” because they had a little bit of everything – skinny, fat, short and bald. It didn’t matter what they looked like … he just wanted them to be physical on the field.
Halfway through the season with five starting freshmen the ThunderWolves were 3-4, and then something started to click.
“We went up to Chadron State who was ranked No. 13 in the country and we shocked the football world at their place,” Symington said. “They hadn’t lost a game at home in God knows how long.”
The 2009 team finished the season with four straight wins and a 7-4 record, and the program hasn’t looked back. In 2010, the ThunderWolves improved again with a 9-2 record, and last year they posted an 11-1 mark, won the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference title and earned the top seed in the NCAA playoffs before falling to Minnesota-Duluth 24-21 in the first round.
The squad matched last year’s feat, winning the league championship and claiming the top seed in the playoffs. The ThunderWolves (12-0) downed Indianapolis in first round action last week, and host West Texas A&M on Saturday for a rematch of their season opener in August.
Colorado State-Pueblo ranks 21st in the nation with 219.75 rushing yards per game, but is also averaging 242.0 yards passing for a balanced offense. They have had two different players run for over 100 yards this season, including sophomore J.B. Mathews, who ranks 16th in Division II with 122.33 yards per game. In addition, the unit has surrendered just 1.17 sacks per game.
“Without a doubt, they’ve been probably the biggest key to our success this year,” senior quarterback Ross Dausin said. “They have been so cohesive and do a great job of being physical and setting the tone for the offense and the rest of the team. Offensive lines go unnoticed by a lot of people, but I know me and the running backs very much appreciate them.”
“They don’t care about egos or recognition … they just go out there and do their job,” Wristen said. “(Our success) is tied to what our offensive line is doing.”
All-America senior tackle Ryan Jensen is the leader of the group. Symington describes Jensen as a guy who is mean, angry and doesn’t like to get beat. On the other end is senior tackle Bryce Givens – a transfer from Colorado who has fit in nicely with Symington’s group of former misfits. Junior guards Taylor Kelly and Ben Jackson flank two-time All-RMAC center Jonathan Jones, who stands just five-foot-eight, but is pound-for-pound one of the best in the country. Symington likens his O-line’s profile a stock market chart.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense if you’re on the outside looking in, but as soon as you look at the film of the guy playing you see that he is tenacious, a great technician and a really explosive athlete,” Wristen said.
“(Jones is) unbelievably strong and extremely physical,” Dausin said. “It plays in his favor and makes it work.”
Symington is impressed with the group’s marked improvement over the last four years, and how they have grown into leaders for the program. Even in the classroom, the unit’s grade point average is the highest of all position groups.
“They got bigger and stronger and fast,” Symington said. “They’ve had a lot of starts. It is just amazing. We just kept doing the same things over and over, and they got good at it.”
And, the experience does not stop with the starting five. Symington said he has at least 10 players he can count on if needed as the ThunderWolves look to continue their run through the playoffs.
While the ThunderWolves’ offensive line sets the tone for the team, they choose to remain quiet about it with the media with a self-imposed “Code of Silence” reminiscent of the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl offensive lines of the 1990s.
“They don’t want to be rewarded for doing their job,” Symington said. “They don’t want to be pointed out for doing their job. They’re very unselfish people.”
Colorado State-Pueblo plays host to West Texas A&M at 2 p.m. ET Saturday in the second round of the Division II playoffs.
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