Monday, June 17, 2024

'Mushroom Club' unites, works below radar to build solid Spartans' foundation

Members of the MSU offensive line practice blocking drills on Tuesday at the Duffy Daugherty Football Building.

There's an undeniable irony in nicknaming an offensive line - whose members all stand 6 feet 3 inches or taller and weigh at least 270 pounds - after a fungus that goes mostly unnoticed.

But when one begins to understand the sacrifice and underappreciation an offensive lineman experiences, the "Mushroom Club" moniker MSU's offensive line goes by makes more sense.

"We're the first ones to get blamed and the last ones to get a pat on the back," junior left tackle Stefon Wheeler said. "You know how a mushroom is like little stuff on the bottom of a tree that nobody wants to touch or mess with? We don't get any glamour, I should say."

While a lack of recognition might bother some players, MSU's offensive linemen seem to have a certain disposition that doesn't demand attention.

"I kind of like that because we know when somebody else is doing good in the offense, it's because of us," Wheeler said. "It starts with us."

This year, Wheeler and the rest of the Spartans' line will be without three starters from last season's line: Paul Harker, Joe Tate and Steve Stewart. All three were known for the example they set on and off the field.

"They were great people, great people," Wheeler said. "To play O-line, you have to be great people."

At the beginning of last season, when head coach John L. Smith was faced with rebuilding the MSU football program's image, which had been muddied by arrests and substance abuse, he chose Tate and Harker to represent the team as two of its four captains, citing their work ethic and team commitment.

Though Harker, Tate and Stewart are gone, their legacy remains with the younger members of MSU's offensive line. Redshirt freshman right tackle Mike Gyetvai remembers their persistence and heart.

"Their effort was unbelievable," he said. "Joe Tate, Paul Harker, Steve Stewart go on every snap; they never ever rest. In the weight room, they were phenomenal, took the pain no matter what.

"Joe Tate is quite possibly the toughest guy I ever met. Same with Paul Harker. Just nothing stops them, they were machines."

Gyetvai will be among the new faces on this season's offensive line. This spring, he's competing with senior Sean Poole for the starting right tackle position, which Stewart occupied last season.

Smith and linemate Wheeler say Gyetvai is full of potential.

"Gyetvai's going to be a great player," Wheeler said. "He's going to help us out a lot next year."

Despite the praise, the redshirt freshman from Ontario, Canada, seems already to have adopted the line's attitude of humility.

"I wouldn't say I'm a rising star," he said. "I wouldn't be the one to watch; I just go out there and do my thing."

The trick with a new-look offensive line is generating a cohesiveness and familiarity within the group that is crucial to its success.

In addition to Gyetvai and Poole, sophomore left guard Kyle Cook and senior right guard William Whitticker will be counted on to fill the vacant spots left by last season's seniors.

The transition from last season's line to this season's, however, is eased because the linemen are so close with each other off the field.

"Since the season was over, we all lift together at 6 a.m.," Cook said. "We all live by each other, we're all friends."

Though a few of next season's projected starters on the offensive line only have a handful of starts, players such as Whitticker have seen plenty of playing time, which should be noticeable once next season begins.

"We have a lot of people who played a lot last year coming back," Whitticker said. "So we're just trying to bounce back and get this group - we got a good group - get it together so we can go out there and play hard."

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