High-powered offensive line making a name for itself

By Eric Wein

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Hicham El-Mashtoub, Arizona's 6-foot-3, 290-pound center, took one look at the cover of Sports Illustrated last week and his eyes widened in surprise.

"Darn," he said, looking up to see if his teammates had gotten a glimpse at it. "I wish I could have been on there."

The five cover boys were all members of Arizona's defense, the basis for the national recognition the Wildcats have recently gotten. But El-Mashtoub's statement took on a reasonable amount of meaning this season.

The cover's title "ROCK SOLID" could just as easily describe Arizona's offensive line, a group of experienced seniors who anchor what has suddenly become an optimistic offense.

Those linemen look forward to beginning their final year together and they enjoy playing next to each other in their pursuit of better things for Arizona.

Experience runs through the line and even a few of the backups have seen time as starters.

"Everybody knows everything," left guard Pulu Poumele said. "We know how everybody else plays, where they're going to be, what they're going to do. If I slip up, (left tackle) Paul (Stamer) will tell me what to do or I can ask Hicham. It's like having a center all the way across the line because the center has to know all positions on the line."

It takes a certain amount of concentration and desire in order to fill their positions. The UA linemen realize their roles and what they'll need to do in certain situations.

"It's very easy to communicate if all the guys are focused on what we're doing," El-Mashtoub said. "It's not choppy like it used to be. When we first started playing together, we got confused very often but now everything's flowing, everything is in sequence."

Said right guard Warner Smith: "None of us have to think about a play, it just happens. We just have to fire off the ball and hit somebody."

After a recent practice, the linemen stayed late afterwards to continue running wind sprints. That dedication embodies their desire toward their final drive through a college football season.

A few years ago, nobody could have predicted the stability Arizona would have this season.

The three players on the middle of the line El-Mashtoub, Poumele and Smith began their careers at Arizona as defensive linemen. They were each switched to offense after their freshmen years.

Right tackle Joe Smigiel sat out at Long Beach State with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and eventually transferred to the UA in 1992 when the 49er program was terminated. He was promoted to the starting lineup last year. Stamer had originally planned on redshirting his freshman year in 1991 but ended up starting five games when injuries forced him into the lineup.

"I think they're a great group," offensive coordinator Duane Akina said of the offensive line. "The game is won up front. It doesn't matter who you have at quarterback or running back. If there's no time or no holes, it doesn't work."

The players that make up the line are as coherent a group off of the field as they are on it.

"These guys are great," Poumele said. "This is like a family. Sometimes, we get in fights. It's just a part of being together."

Said Smigiel: "We all mesh together well. We're all good friends."

Many different personalities compose this veteran line.

"Paul and I, we're kind of the quiet ones," Poumele said. "Joe and Warner are the rowdy side. But Paul is definitely the quiet one. He barely even speaks. If he does, it's hard to hear him."

Both Smigiel and Smith worked the same summer jobs together they were bouncers at O'Malleys, a local college bar. While they had the ability to throw people out and prevent people from getting past them, there wasn't any need to show off their blocking skills.

"It was real mellow," Smigiel said. "We got to meet a lot of people. Nothing too crazy happened there."

The offensive linemen all seem as though they have been cut out of the same mold. They're big men who usually go unrecognized. They enjoy their work and they enjoy sprinting to the end zone to celebrate whenever the Wildcats score a touchdown.

"We're just happy about winning," Poumele said. "We're there to do our jobs. They make the touchdowns and we make the holes."

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