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Offensive line getting chance to be battle tested

For the USF football team, the offensive line has been a microcosm of the offense as a whole in dealing with injuries that have forced younger or inexperienced players into the starting lineup.

Through 11 games, the Bulls have had eight different starting lineups on the offensive line, and only one player, sophomore center Austin Reiter, has started in every game.

Injuries to veterans like senior offensive tackle Mark Popek and senior offensive guard Danous Estenor have ushered in players like freshman offensive linemen Thor Jozwiak and junior Lawrence Martin, who is in his first year with the Bulls, into the spotlight, preparing them for future seasons.

The word used for our young players is battle tested, coach Skip Holtz said. A lot of times, when a freshman is redshirted, hell kind of sit back and wait for his chance next year. But for a lot of our guys, they are getting their chance this year.

Even Reiter, the most consistent face on the offensive line, is an underclassman.

The Bradenton product has played every snap this season, snapping the ball to three different quarterbacks in B.J. Daniels, junior Bobby Eveld and current starter freshman Matt Floyd.

I take a lot of pride in it, Reiter said. Im one of those people that likes to finish what they start, and Im glad I havent had any injuries that have affected my playing time I havent missed a single snap. I enjoy it. You always want to be Mr. Reliable , you dont want to be someone that the coaches look at and arent sure if you can play, so I take pride in doing that.

While sophomores like Reiter and offensive lineman Quinterrius Eatmon have played a majority of the season, Popeks lingering injury forced another new player into the lineup over the weekend. Martin, who came to USF after two years at Merced College in California, made his first career start against Cincinnati.

I got a little nervous as the game got closer, Martin said. I felt like I did okay during the week, enough to where I was competing, and the coaches made sure that I was ready to go in case Mark couldnt. I feel good about how I played in that game.

The 6-foot-3 Daytona Beach native has the ability to play both tackle and guard, and will battle for a starting spot on the offensive line next season.

Ill play whatever they want to put me on, he said. Whatever will help the team win, Im down for. I feel more comfortable at tackle than at guard because Ive played it all my life, but if they need me to play punter, Ill even go out there and try to kick.

Martin also said he appreciates the value of his in-game experience this season for his preparations moving forward.

It helps me a lot, he said. Because in practice you go against a lot of the same guys and know all their moves, but in a game time situation you go up against different people, and it helps me a lot for next season.

With Popek and Estenor both celebrating their senior days on Saturday against Pittsburgh, the Bulls will likely have quite a bit of change on the offensive line for 2013.

When you make a bowl game, a lot of those seniors that you play are walking out the door so you use those 15 practices to get the younger guys ready for the next season, Holtz said. These weeks are like our 15 practices, but better because not only are our younger guys practicing, but theyre getting game reps.

Injuries over the second half of the season have forced younger and inexperienced players into larger roles along the offensive line. Though the team may have sacrificed some productivity, it will get experienced players stepping up for the future.

When youre young, you just want to play. Once you play then you want to start, and then once you start, you start thinking about what it will take to win, Holtz said. A lot of our younger guys started playing early. Now theyre having a chance to start, so I think were taking a huge wave of emotion into the offseason.