With a new quarterback named Jordan Lynch and a wide-eyed group of offensive linemen in 2012, Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey wondered how they would come together.
Lynch became a Heisman Trophy finalist who now plays in the NFL for the Chicago Bears. In DeKalb, the linemen are considered nearly as much of a success story.
"To be honest, 2012 they all were too young and too immature yet to really be out there, but they didn't have a choice," said Carey, who entered that season as offensive coordinator. "We knew they were good, just a little too green. They probably exceeded my expectations."
And raised them.
Four starting linemen are back from last season's team that paved the way for two 1,000-yard rushers in Lynch and running back Cameron Stingily. Junior guard Aidan Conlon, junior center Andrew Ness and senior tackles Ryan Brown and Tyler Loos have a combined 103 starts and have been together since the 2012 opener against Iowa.
"I don't think I've ever been a part of anything like that in my coaching career," Carey said. "Three straight years? I haven't even heard of that before."
In addition to the Fab Four, senior Tyler Pitt was in the rotation at guard last season and saw action in all 14 games.
That stability on the line should help ease the transition when Carey anoints a starting quarterback from the competition among dual threat Anthony Maddie, pro-style passer Drew Hare and running threat Matt McIntosh.
"Jordan did a lot to help this O-line," Carey said. "They need to pay it forward."
Brown said they intend to do just that.
"We feel a lot of pressure that we have to carry the load," he said. "We want to take a lot of pressure off the quarterback."
The line's chemistry is undeniable, he said.
"You know you have a good one when you have a group [and] they don't talk and just grunt, and you know what the grunt means," Carey said. "On the offensive line, they're good grunters."
They can grunt a return greeting to Loos.
A fifth-year senior, he is eager to record a full, healthy season after a string of injuries. He missed 2011 with torn knee ligaments suffered in the preseason. He broke his right leg late in the 2012 season and missed the last three games. Last season he started nine games before breaking his left leg and missing the rest of the season.
The linemen's standard has not changed despite some personnel changes. They hope to make up for some missteps last season, including losing the conference championship game.
"We expect success every year," Brown said. "Even without Jordan, it's the next guy in. We want to go back to the MAC championship and win it this year."