MANHATTAN — When can fishing, camping and staying up until dawn be considered excellent ways for football players to prepare for an upcoming season?
When the players involved are offensive linemen.
That's the answer Kansas State is hoping for, anyway.
During slow nights this summer, Wade Weibert, Zach Kendall, Clyde Aufner and Kenneth Mayfield often met at Manhattan-area campgrounds to spend hour after hour sleeping in tents and eating whatever they could grill. They even went trapshooting a time or two.
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Together, they make up an experienced offensive line that helped Daniel Thomas lead the Big 12 in rushing a year ago. This season, they are expected to accomplish greater goals. All four were starters a year ago and know what it takes to be successful.
Clearly, the formula begins in the wilderness.
"Offensive line is a different breed," said Kendall, a 6-foot-2, 312-pound senior. "So we're pretty close. We go fishing and camping all the time. We do it a lot in the summer ... we just all go out. Most of the O-line comes out with us. We stay up until 5 in the morning on a Saturday night just hanging out."
All that time together gave them the chance to bond. Kendall considers Weibert his best friend, and Weibert says he knows Mayfield's blocking techniques better than Mayfield does. Aufner labels all four as leaders.
Not only do they bring size, talent and experience to the front of K-State's offense, they now offer cohesiveness. It's a combination they enjoy.
"We're very familiar with each other," said Weibert, a 6-foot-4, 303-pound senior. "I'm very confident with the people I'm playing between. I feel like with all of us five, we're really able to play as one unit. We're able to play as a single entity instead of five individuals."
While the line helped bolster rushing averages for Thomas (5.1 yards) and Keithen Valentine (6.5), it struggled protecting the quarterback.
The Wildcats gave up 26 sacks, two under the Big 12 average, but the stat is deceiving. K-State threw a league-low 298 times — more than 150 below the Big 12 average. By comparison, Missouri threw 467 times and gave up 20 sacks.
Still, Thomas refers to the offensive line as "the strength of the team."
Wildcat coach Bill Snyder, who rarely gives in to the idea of high expectations and is hesitant to compliment his players, also has no problem praising the unit.
"They epitomize what people who are involved in football understand about offensive linemen," Snyder said at Big 12 media days. "They always have a tendency to really bond together. This group does that especially well. I think they gained a lot from the experience of last year. They have a vastly improved understanding of the big picture of our offensive schemes. They work well together. I like them. I like their passion for the game and for each other."
That bond won't help the unit make a seamless transition into 2010, though. Aufner, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior, Mayfield, a 6-foot-4, 338-pound senior, Weibert and Kendall struggled at times against the pass rush last year. And they will be without their best pass blocker this time around.
The graduation of Nick Stringer, a four-year starter who anchored the offensive line a year ago and stood up strong to top-rate defenders at Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas A&M, leaves a giant hole to fill.
Colten Freeze, Zach Hanson and Trevor Viers made trips to the great outdoors with the rest of the offensive line and have all seen playing time at K-State. But there almost certainly will be a drop off from Stringer's production.
"He was a great player," Aufner said of Stringer. "That is hard to replace, but we have a bunch of guys that I think can be as good."
The plan is to replace talent with teamwork. Even with Stringer around, the unit wasn't always together like it is now. Before Snyder came out of retirement to coach the Wildcats, Kendall said K-State's offensive line rarely spent time together away from the football field.
Snyder encouraged them to become best buds. So to the outdoors they went.
"There wasn't a lot of mingling going on before," Kendall said. "Now, there's a lot of cohesiveness. We're best friends. We weren't really together as a family. Now we are. We're brothers."