Under the Radar, Offensive Line Clears the Way for Crimson Playmakers to Shine

Lined Up
Richard F. Taylor

Four seniors have anchored Harvard's offensive line, giving the league-best rushing offense space to run.

The Game '09

They are the “heart and soul” of the team, according to Harvard coach Tim Murphy. They are the main reason why Harvard leads the Ivy League in both scoring and rushing offense. But you’ll never see them in the box scores and rarely see them mentioned in the headlines. They are the senior offensive linemen—John Paris, Ben Sessions, Alex Spisak, and James Williams—and each is happy to play the role of the unsung hero.

“I’ve never been a guy that wants to be in the limelight,” says Spisak, who made the switch from backup defensive lineman to starting offensive lineman last year. “The running backs know it’s up to you, the quarterback knows you need to do it, but the fans don’t. And that’s fine. We go to work every day, put in the extra time, watch the extra film, and nobody really knows that. When it boils down to it, we don’t need the glory.”

That’s because at the end of the day, the numbers do the talking. Behind the blocking of the offensive line, running backs junior Gino Gordon and freshman Treavor Scales have rushed for 547 and 449 yards, respectively. Senior running back Cheng Ho, who averaged 6.3 yards per carry before suffering a career-ending injury two weeks ago, never lost yardage on a rush. And, just as importantly, this senior group gives its quarterback plenty of time to find his receivers.

“Being able to let Collier sit back there and make all the throws—let Gino, or Treavor, or Cheng, or any of those guys in the backfield score touchdowns—it gets the O-line pumped up,” Paris says.

But things were not always so comfortable for the offense. Going into the 2009 campaign, few experts predicted that the Crimson would evolve into such an offensive force, especially having lost former quarterback Chris Pizzotti ’08-’09.

“Being 6’5, 6’6, Pizzotti had no problems seeing over the line,” Spisak says. “It was very easy for him to just sit back in the pocket and see downfield for throws.”

So when Coach Murphy tapped junior Collier Winters to be this year’s signal caller, the move provided a completely different look in the backfield.

“[Winters is] much more athletic than Pizzotti was,” Spisak says. “He’s much more like Liam [O’Hagan ’08-’09] used to be, where he can get out and make people miss and move with his feet. So we’ve been able to put in a lot more bootlegs, a lot more sprint out moving pockets to get him out, where he doesn’t have to get between the linemen.”

It didn’t take long for the experienced line to adjust accordingly. With his supporting front, Winters completed 137 of 246 passes and threw for 13 touchdowns—second best among Ancient Eight QBs—in his first year as a starter. Given the amount of time the scrambler and his offensive line could buy, Winters only tossed seven interceptions, fewest among Ivy League starters.

For the four linemen, their familiarity with each other played a large role in their rapid adjustment to the new system.

“Those guys have also given us great commitment, great leadership, and there’s a tremendous camaraderie in the group from having come up through the ranks together to be a unit for a couple years now,” Murphy says. “It’s just a very close group. It’s probably the toughest unit to replace next year for a lot of different reasons.”

But before Murphy can begin thinking about next year, there is still The Game to consider.

“I think going down to Yale, hopefully beating up on Yale a little bit, will be a pretty good way to call it a career, hang up the cleats,” Spisak says.

—Staff writer Dixon McPhillips can be reached at fmcphill@fas.harvard.edu.

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