It's tough being an offensive lineman.
Toiling in relative obscurity, the big guys up front generally are unappreciated by fans and rarely get the credit their counterparts on the defensive line do.
Whether it's at Alabama, Notre Dame or UTSA, about the only time an offensive lineman gets singled out by the public-address announcer is when he's called for a penalty.
But while offensive linemen go largely unnoticed by the people in the stands, they are valued by the teammates who rely on them to clear the way with their size, strength and quickness.
Our offensive line is what makes us go or not, UTSA senior quarterback Eric Soza said. They're the guys who don't get a lot of credit. They're the guys who put in the most work, whether it'd be on the field, in the film room or the weight room. I wouldn't want to be protected by any other guys in the nation. I know they're the hardest-working guys on the field.
The junior trio of center Nate Leonard, guard Scott Inskeep and tackle Cody Harris anchor a UTSA offensive line that has improved steadily since the Roadrunners played their first game in school history two years ago.
The offensive line had one of its best games of the season in UTSA's 32-13 victory against Texas-El Paso last week, helping the Roadrunners grind out a season-high 181 yards on the ground in their Conference USA debut.
Leonard, Inskeep and Harris will be in the lineup when UTSA (2-2) plays Houston (3-0) in its last nonconference game at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Alamodome.
Leonard has started all 26 games in UTSA history
UH hung on for a 31-26 win over C-USA team Rice last Saturday, a few hours before UTSA stopped a two-game skid with their victory against UTEP.
Because it generally takes longer for offensive linemen to develop, Roadrunners offensive line coach Jim Marshall said it's usually best to redshirt them as freshmen to give them time to mature and get stronger.
The thing about offensive linemen is birthdays and strength coaches, Marshall said. It's got to be tough kids or you can't play up there.
Leonard, 6 feet and 290 pounds, is the only player on the UTSA roster who has started all 26 games in the program's history. Inskeep (6-4, 300) and Harris (6-5, 300) have started 25 and 24 games, respectively.
They've come a long way, head coach Larry Coker said. Offensive linemen take a while to develop. I think it's one of the toughest positions to play. If you're a wideout and can run fast and jump high and catch, you can play pretty quick.
But those guys on the offensive line, they see do many different fronts. College can be a little tougher than the NFL because the NFL is kind of a cookie-cutter league. College, you see a different front every week. They have a lot of confidence now and that helps.
The Roadrunners' two other starting interior offensive linemen are junior guard Payton Rion (6-3, 280) and junior tackle Josh Walker (6-3, 290). Sophomore William Cavanaugh (6-1, 295) drew a starting role last week when he subbed for Rion, who missed the UTEP game following the death of his 12-year-old sister, Reagon, on Sept. 19.
Payton Rion, who returned to practice Tuesday and is expected to play against UH, was awarded the game ball from UTEP after a workout this week.
Marshall coached at UIW before going to UTSA in 2010
The Roadrunners have rallied around Rion, who played at Smithson Valley High School with Harris.
I've known Payton since I was 12 years old, Harris said. Of course, we've come together. We don't really bother him much. That's a whole family thing. We're his second family. He does what he needs to do. If he needs us, he knows we're there.
The Roadrunners' offensive line reflects the grit and work ethic of the man who coaches it.Marshall was an assistant at Incarnate Word for one season before joining the UTSA staff in 2010.
He can find that one thing that kind of gets under your skin, and he'll ride it for a while, Leonard said. When he sees that you've responded, he may bring it back again. He knows that the way he coaches every individual is going to make him play up and play better. It's amazing to watch and really awesome to see how much I've improved and how much he's improved every single one of us on the offensive line.
He'll scold us like we're his own kids and before we take the field, he respects us. He's always real respectful. He kind of calms us down and gives us that little confidence boost that we need. He keeps us focused on the field.
A former center at Bowling Green and Tennessee-Martin in the late 1960s, Marshall has coached offensive linemen at every stop during his long career except when he was head coach at Richmond (1989-94).
He's got great experience and is an outstanding teacher, Coker said. The guys know that if they listen and do what he says, they'll be successful. I think that's the big thing. They believe in him.
Harris, Inskeep and Leonard part of UTSA's first signing class
Marshall, 65, has a knack for getting the most from his linemen by striking a fine balance between being a taskmaster and motivating them with positive reinforcement.
He's been around and knows the game, Harris said. He's going to tell it to us straight. He does his homework and knows what the defense is going to do.
Said Inskeep: We've been coached up since Day 1 by Coach Marshall. He's tough when he needs to be and he's big on fundamentals. It's good to have that. He's great with adjustments. We'll tell him what we have on the field and then draws up the play and tells us how we're going to block it.
Harris, Inskeep and Leonard share a strong bond as members of UTSA's first recruiting class in 2010. They were among the players who endured the tough workouts of the Roadrunners' fall camp in 2010, when UTSA practiced during the season but never played a game.
We went through a season that not very many people would go through in 2010, said Leonard, who graduated from McKinney High School. After that, we were already solidified as a unit. We knew we were going to be something special and lead the younger guys that followed behind us.
There's really a bond there. It's hard to explain. We can bicker and we can argue, but at the end of the day, you pick on any one of us, and it's going to be a tough day for that guy. It's really a brotherhood, is what it is. Especially with an offensive lineman, that's what you want. For us three, it's really like that.
With Harris, Inskeep and Leonard expected to return next season, the Roadrunners' offensive line undoubtedly will be one of the strengths of the 2014 team.
As far as how we've evolved, it's amazing to see, Leonard said. We really have come from being five offensive linemen to one offensive line unit. You hear about it all the time. It's takes a while, it takes a while. Well, we're in our third year and it did take a while. But we are a unit.
Yes, they are.