If the University of Akron offensive coaches were concerned about the right side of the offensive line coming into fall camp, they had every right to be.
They lost the consistency of right guard Mitch Strait and the nastiness of right tackle Adam Bice to graduation. Some younger players, such as Quaison Osborne, received some game experience and a veteran, such as Joe Petrides, was penciled in to start at right guard.
But fate has a way of stepping in.
In this case, that act came in the persons of Zenel Demhasaj and Henry Orelus, who claimed the starting positions of tackle and guard, respectively, on the right side of the line.
They both earned their positions despite challenges. Initially, they both came in playing the same position (tackle), resulting in Orelus’ move to guard.
Demhasaj, a transfer from Pitt, arrived on the UA campus never sure whether he’d even get to play for the Zips after officially having used all of his eligibility.
“Zenel has been through a much different process, probably as much mental as anything because we weren’t 100 percent we were going to get him,” offensive line coach Alan “Tank” Arrington said after Thursday’s morning practice.
The NCAA granted him a clock extension waiver nearly two weeks after camp started, giving him a sixth year of eligibility. It also made for significant ground for him to make up.
“I was thinking about that since January,” Demhasaj said of his situation. “It was on my mind every day. I didn’t know if I was going to get it or not. I finally got it and now I’m just truly blessed to be able to play football.”
But he was there at each practice, his imposing 6-foot-6, 331-pound figure watching every bit of the offense and sucking it all in mentally.
That forced Orelus, a 6-foot-2, 327-pound transfer from Florida State, to the interior of the line, where he apparently didn’t miss a step. The fact that they both claimed starting jobs is a testament to their skill level.
“It’s just coming into a new home, a new spot and coming in and working hard,” Orelus said. “You get what you deserve.”
That Orelus didn’t play football the past year says a lot about that as well. He sat out 2011 with a preseason concussion, playing only against Murray State in last season’s opener, according to FSU’s athletic department website. He didn’t play after that and when considering whether to continue his collegiate football career, the fifth-year senior chose the Zips because he knew some of the staff from their Florida State days.
“Then I talked to Coach Tank and I think me and him had a better relationship,” he said. “It’s very important because offensive line coaches and offensive line players should always have a good relationship.”
Neither player has found the adjustment to playing for the Zips to be particularly difficult. As Demhasaj said: “Football is football.”
“Pass protection has been something [Orelus] had to adjust to. Henry was recruited by Florida State, Georgia — all the big people. The potential was there; he just had to get back into a groove,” Arrington said.
But neither has hit their stride.
“I’ve been out of football for a year, so I’m starting to get back in a groove,” Orelus said. “But the play on the field is nothing different. It’s just hard work.”
Arrington said they both have work to do.
“After the first game, they would get a passing grade. It’s not high enough,” he said, “but our pass protection was really, really good.”
The Zips struggled initially against Central Florida in the running game. Starting tailback Jawon Chisholm never got untracked and neither did that aspect of the offense until the second half. Arrington chalked that up to the Knights throwing a lot of run blitzes at the Zips from the onset.
Those problems can be solved by the line as an entire unit and by those individuals who make up each side. Communication is key and despite a certain newness, Demhasaj and Orelus continue to work on that.
“We communicate a lot, but we’re kind of in tune right now,” Demhasaj said. “We both came in and we knew we were the same position, so we came in and worked together.”
“Zenel is very easy to talk to and very understanding, so it’s not hard at all,” he said.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.