After being a weak link last year, new names have fueled a resurgence for the Stony Brook football team’s offensive line.
In 2022, the Seawolves’ offensive woes were well-documented. With injuries plaguing its backfield and poor quarterback play sinking the whole offense, Stony Brook’s offensive line issues only magnified its problems. In their 11 games last year, the unit allowed 32 sacks, which was the second-worst mark in the Colonial — now Coastal — Athletic Association (CAA). Behind that same line, the team finished dead last in rushing yards per game (105.7), rushing touchdowns (six) and yards per carry (3.0).
After losing four of its starting five to graduation or the transfer portal, the Seawolves were forced to make major personnel changes to their offensive line coming into the 2023 campaign. With former right tackle Niko Papic being the team’s only returning starter from last season, the coaching staff moved him inside to right guard and surrounded him with an infusion of youth. Accompanying Papic is left tackle Jace Rodriguez, left guard Collin Tunc, center Hunter Barlow and right tackle Kollin Melendez; all of whom have collectively helped Stony Brook become one of the top offensive lines in the CAA.
Although it is lacking substantial playing experience, the new-look offensive line has fostered major improvements. Through two games, the unit has surrendered just two sacks in 73 total dropbacks.
Head coach Chuck Priore is thrilled with the results in the early goings of the season and is already excited for the future.
“We’ve concentrated on the things that we needed to do, specifically, in the pass protection part,” Priore said during a press conference on Monday. “We spent a lot of time … on honing our skill level. We’ve got a group of five or six guys that have really matured and got a little bit better. Every kid that we have playing on the offensive line will be back for two, three or four years more, so the future’s bright there.”
Along with better pass protection, the run game has experienced an improvement in production, as well. Not including sack yards, the Seawolves are averaging 146.5 rushing yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry this season, which is an increase from last season of 40.8 and 2.0, respectively.
Rodriguez attributed the unit’s newfound success to greater dedication from each lineman.
“I think everyone has just bought in as a whole,” Rodriguez said in an interview with The Statesman on Tuesday. “The entire offensive line from left to right, and even guys who aren’t getting as much playing time, we’ve all been taking individual periods more seriously than last season.”
The group is very inexperienced at the NCAA level. Rodriguez is a redshirt freshman who did not play in 2022, while Melendez is a redshirt sophomore who did not see any action last year or in 2021. Tunc is a redshirt junior who did not play in 2020-21, came off the bench for two games in 2021 and had an injury-shortened 2022 that saw him make six appearances. Barlow is a junior college transfer from Hutchinson Community College who is in his first year in the NCAA. Papic is a graduate student in his fifth year, but he did not play his first two years and only saw the field twice in 2021 before starting 10 games last year.
Despite this lack of experience, Rodriguez believes that learning and developing with others in the same boat as him has been instrumental to the unit’s evolution.
“It’s always better learning-wise when you have people that are doing it with you,” Rodriguez said. “You can grow and mold each other’s games off of each other. I think that’s really important and I think we’ve done a pretty good job with it so far.”
With the influx of young talent, Papic has acted as a mentor to the new group. Rodriguez praised Papic for his positive presence both on and off the field.
“He has helped tremendously,” Rodriguez said. “Niko, not only as an athlete, but just as an older presence in the locker room, has definitely shown us the way to do it and shown us how to be successful. I look at him everyday and know that what he’s doing is the right way to do it and I try to emulate his game in mine.”
Tunc reiterated Rodriguez’s glowing remarks about Stony Brook’s offensive line leader.
“Niko’s great,” Tunc said in an interview with The Statesman on Thursday. “He comes in with the right mindset and energy everyday. That becomes contagious to the room.”
Though Papic brings veteran leadership through his past experiences to the group, Rodriguez is learning on the fly as Stony Brook’s left tackle, earning the spot through a path that was far from conventional. Before being entrusted with the job of protecting quarterback Casey Case’s blindside, he was recruited by the Seawolves as a tight end.
Rodriguez credited his success at a new position to his hard work from the offseason and his coaching staff.
“One of my biggest things was getting stronger and learning the offense,” Rodriguez said. “It was definitely a new position, but I got with my [offensive] line coach both here and back home in California, and they showed me how to play the position and play it well. I’ve just tried to take those specific aspects and translate them into the game everyday.”
Along with Rodriguez on the left side, Tunc has also breathed new life into a revitalized offensive line. Priore has been impressed with what he has seen from his big left guard up to this point.
“I think Collin Tunc … has really played very, very well,” Priore said. “He was slated to be a starter last year, but was hurt. I think he’s really stepped up to the plate.”
Tunc is relishing his chance to contribute to the team this season. However, he acknowledged that his time spent on the mend last season was beneficial to his development as a player and vital to his success to start the year.
“Starting’s been great,” Tunc said. “Last year was definitely great for me developmentally just being in the room with the guys that I was around. But now, being put in a position as a starter, it’s my turn to take charge.”
Tunc said the group’s shared expectations have helped it gel.
“The [offensive] line is a unit that can only be successful when five guys are functioning as one,” Tunc said. “We hold high standards for each other and place a great emphasis on communication when we’re on the field. I feel like that is what has allowed us to play cohesively.”
On top of playing together as one on the gridiron, Stony Brook’s offensive line has become a tight-knit group off the field. Becoming closer as friends and doing team bonding activities have motivated the starting five to flourish on gameday.
“Relationships are very important to line play and we’ve built great ones this season,” Tunc said. “The strong friendships we’ve developed have brought a mindset of playing for the man next to you and that’s something that will continue to elevate our play.”
It remains to be seen how the Seawolves’ revamped offensive line will hold up through the final nine games of the season, but the fairly green unit is looking forward to the challenge.