Cal's massive linemen form Great Wall of Berkeley
By Dave Newhouse
BERKELEY — There's a Great Wall in China, but there's a brick wall in Berkeley: Cal's offensive line, one of college football's finest fronts.
This line is why J.J. Arrington became a 2,000-yard rusher and an All-American last year, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers an NFL first-round draft pick. And why Cal was ranked fifth in total offense (492.4 ypg), sixth in rushing (256.8 ypg), and seventh in scoring (36.8 ppg) nationally.
This line punishes and protects, which bodes well for new starting tailback Marshawn Lynch and dueling quarterbacks Nate Longshore and Joe Ayoob.
Four of the five O-line starters return: All-America center Marvin Philip, guard Aaron Merz, and tackles Ryan O'Callaghan and Andrew Cameron. Erik Robertson replaces the departed Jonathan Giesel at the other guard spot.
"The players pride themselves on being cohesive, a unit," offensive line coach Jim Michalczik said. "Take a bunch of guys from different places, different backgrounds, then coming in and bonding as tightly as these guys have. In a lot of ways, they play for each other. And it's a neat deal."
Though this formidable front is the sum of its parts, the five starters stand out individually. You have The Missionary, The Tattooed Man, The Perfectionist, The Walk-On and The Building.
Philip left on a two-year Mormon mission after his freshman year.Robertson has tattoos all over his body. Cameron is obsessed about not making a mistake. Merz came to Cal without a scholarship. The 6-7 O'Callaghan weighed 360 this summer before strict dieting got him all the way down to 357.
"The biggest thing about Ryan is he's massive," Michalczik said, "a massive guy who moves very well and is powerful. He just knocks people off the line of scrimmage. And he's a little grumpy.
"Merz is very intelligent and a very good athlete for his size (6-4, 340). I'm not sure he couldn't be a backup punter. Marvin is the nicest guy you can sit down with, but he has that toughness, that warrior instinct in him.
"Robertson is a tough guy who can scrap with you. He looks like a biker dude, but he's a deep thinker. Andrew is talented, competitive. His life is football. At night, he dreams football. He's a student of the game, a student of bio-mechanics, because he's trying to be a better player."
The only one of the five whose job is iffy is Robertson, who filled in ably for an injured Giesel last year. Now he has strong competition in Noris Malele, Bryan Deemer and Brian De La Puente.
O'Callaghan, Philip and Merz are seniors, Robertson and Cameron juniors. Malele is a redshirt freshman, De La Puente a soph, Deemer a junior.
"I can see quite a few of us making it into the NFL," O'Callaghan projected.
Cal's offensive line, starters and reserves alike, take retreats together to solidify their bond. They also crack up one another with humor that often goes over teammates' heads.
"We have this most sarcastic nature about us," Cameron said. "We're never intentionally mean to each other. It's real witty humor, and I think we're the only ones who honestly get it."
The hulk-like O'Callaghan, a first-team All-Pac-10 choice last year, can't lose weight to save his life, and he's not a big eater to begin with. Then there's his grumpiness.
"Me, grumpy? I get moody," he said. "I say things in the huddle. I upset some people, but I've toned it down lately."
Robertson, who's 6-2, 305, may be the only Pac-10 lineman who majors in Scandinavian, plays several musical instruments and has eight tattoos of a musical or mythological nature.
"People tell me, 'Be careful. That's permanent,'" he said of his tattoos. "That's one of the things that's fascinating about it, because it puts an emphasis on something. I think it's beautiful, a form of art. I'll have some more done, but I'm not planning to go lower than my elbows."
The 6-5, 300-pound Cameron believes one characteristic of Cal's line is its perseverance, sticking to defensive linemen until they're driven into the ground. Or pancake time.
"In my mind, there's no excuse to be beat," Cameron said of his aim for perfection. "I have all the physical ability, I know all the techniques, I'm strong enough, I'm quick enough. So when I do get beat, it's really frustrating for me because there's no reason for it."
Merz is from tiny Wasco in central California, no breeding ground for Division 1-A football. He walked on at Cal and worked up to a starter with Cameron, Philip and O'Callaghan, all Tom Holmoe recruits.
"I kind of fell through the cracks in high school," Merz said. "I played on a bad team in a bad league. But once I proved I belonged here, it was all even. Coaches want to win." Walk-ons or scholarship players, Cal's brick wall doesn't crumble.
"We all take pride in what we do, and we all want to see each other be the best we can be," Merz said. "No one's rooted against anyone on the offensive line so they can win a spot. We're all pretty selfless."
The 6-2, 305-pound Philip is the center, literally and figuratively, of the offensive line. As the starting five posed Wednesday for a photograph to accompany this story, when Philip said "smile," they all smiled. When he said "serious," every smile disappeared.
But the group's leader, make no mistake, is coach Michalczik.
"He one of us, one of the boys," Philip said. "When we have fun, he's having fun, too. And he gets on us when we need a little kick in the butt. He pushes us."
Then the O-line pushes back defenses.