CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Brad Kaaya heard the criticism of his offensive line last year, and like any quarterback, he wasn’t happy about it.
We’ll get to that. First, here’s his assessment of how it looks now:
“They’ve got a different mentality about themselves,” he said. “[Offensive line] coach [Stacy] Searels has got them into great shape and he’s on them hard, he and [strength] coach [Gus] Felder.”
Those two, Kaaya said, are “beating up the O-line” in workouts, leaving them “exhausted.” They want the line to “get after people, get after D-linemen, go attack defenses.”
The returning starters from last year, Kaaya said, “have really stepped up and solidified their spots in the rotation. That’s really big. They’ve stepped up and a lot of them have really grown up a lot. We’ll see how it is when the season comes, but right now, it’s a different mentality in that room. I think they’ve matured.”
So according to Kaaya, the line has had a change in attitude, an improvement in strength and conditioning — players also credit nutrition coach Kyle Bellamy for changing eating habits team-wide — and looks leaner and meaner.
Kaaya revealed something else about the unit of left tackle Trevor Darling, left guard Kc McDermott, center Nick Linder, right guard Danny Isidora and right tackle Sunny Odogwu, which is expected to open fall camp as the front five.
“One thing no one realizes is a lot of those guys were young last year, and a lot of them were playing with injuries,” Kaaya said. “A lot of those guys are healthy now. Just about the entire – just about the entire O-line had some kind of major injury that they were playing with the entire season. Guys had torn MCLs, torn meniscuses.
“People were saying, ‘Oh the O-line isn’t looking too good right now,’ certain games people would say that, but it hurt me because those guys were laying it on the line for me.”
Kaaya noted how Odogwu, who missed the Sun Bowl after having season-ending surgery to repair a torn MCL, played through that injury during the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh (Odogwu, when I asked him about it, memorably replied that it “hurt like s—“).
Kaaya also revealed that Isidora “had a torn-up knee.” Linder, he said, played with “both his shoulders hurting,” and played the entire game against Florida State with “whiplash. He couldn’t move his neck. He had ice bags on his neck after the game. TV doesn’t see that, but I do.”
Linder had surgery on at least one of his shoulders in January, and missed the spring. He is expected to be ready for fall camp. The exact nature of Isidora’s injury is unknown, but he said he was healthy when I spoke with him this month at a community service event.
Kaaya said the left side of the line (left tackle Darling and left guard McDermott) was “generally healthy,” but he added that “everyone on the O-line had bumps and bruises and injuries that they played through, that some of them maybe didn’t talk about it … maybe some people ignored it. They had all kinds of injuries they played through, because they wanted to protect me and they wanted to help our offense. It means a lot.
“Those guys are laying it out on the line, and they’re all healthy now. And their weights are down now, too, which is a big part of staying healthy is being the right weight for your body, for your frame. As long as they stay healthy, I think they’ll be pretty good. They should be one of the best offensive line groups in the conference.
“I think this year we’ll see a different unit.”