Auburn offensive line has size, talent, Greek inspiration

The five men have been guided by Greek mythology, though the closest they’ve been to Athens is the Georgia version.

They sit and listen as their position coach reads them passages from “Gates of Fire,” a book about 300 Spartans who took on thousands of Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. They wear T-shirts with a blood-colored “5” emblem, a takeoff on the advertising image created for the film “300.” They receive similarly decorated rugs as weekly awards for courage.

No wonder Auburn’s offensive line thinks it can take on all comers.

“Three hundred men changed the course of the world,” offensive line coach Jeff Grimes told his players. “If we do this right we have a chance to change the course of this program, change the course of our team.”

It’s a mentality Tigers offensive guard Byron Isom demonstrated in the Iron Bowl, when he knocked an Alabama player to the ground and, when his opponent tried to get back on his feet, knocked him down again.

“It’s being physical,” Isom said, basking in his violent role. “It’s kinda what we do.”

Entering Saturday’s SEC championship game against South Carolina at the Georgia Dome, the offensive linemen have provided an able escort for Auburn’s record-setting offense and its Heisman Trophy candidate and elusive quarterback, Cam Newton.

Four seniors and a junior are the starters, which is a significant advantage considering that most quality SEC linemen are snapped up for the NFL draft after three seasons. Two are Georgians.

They line up as follows: Lee Ziemba, a 6-foot-8, 319-pound senior, at left tackle; Mike Berry, a 6-3, 316-pound senior, at right guard; Ryan Pugh, a 6-4, 297-pound senior, at center; Isom, a 6-3, 291-pound senior from Jonesboro, at right guard; and Brandon Mosley, a 6-6, 299-pound junior from Jefferson, at right tackle.

“They are as physical as any team in the SEC,” said Todd Grantham, Georgia defensive coordinator. “They are right up there with South Carolina and Florida. They are an older group that plays well together. There is a play where you know where the ball is going, the tackle over, but it is still successful. They get movement at the point of attack with their double-team and create a seam in the defense. They are very efficient blockers.”

With these five guys leading the way, the 12-0 and No. 1-ranked Tigers have set school records for points (499) and total offense (5,881), and rushed for 300 yards against six SEC opponents.

They detest the finesse tag, though their precision pulling and blocking would suggest it. They want to be known as inelegant and raw. Isom makes it clear the power play is their preference.

“We pull a lot, tackles, guards, everybody,” Isom said. “We enjoy it as offensive linemen being out in space to show our athletic ability. But power and counter is what our offense is based out of. We’re not finesse.”

Grimes, 42, is the motivator behind this outfit with the Greek aspersions. He learned the inner workings of the offensive line when he played at Texas-El Paso from 1987-1990. One of his line coaches was Andy Reid, now the Philadelphia Eagles coach. Grimes’ coaching experience includes stops at Arizona State, Boise State, BYU and Colorado.

At Arizona State, Grimes worked for Dirk Koetter, now the offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Koetter described Grimes as a technician and also a football evangelist capable of giving his players inspirational messages in practice and the meeting room.

“He’s not a screamer,” Koetter said. “He talks to his guys; he has a very calm voice. You are talking about an excellent recruiter, a good leader, someone a parent would let their son go play for.”

Ziemba said he and rest of the Auburn offensive linemen connected with the tales of the Greek battle, making it part of their identity.

“I tell them it is our responsibility to make it happen every Saturday,” Grimes said. “If we do our part, we are going run the ball, we’re going to throw the ball, we are going to make our defense better. We put it all on our shoulders.”

When Newton turns up inside on his runs, he frequently sees only green grass, not a wall of defenders. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound quarterback can usually deal with a stray defender. The Tigers offensive line takes care of the rest.