"Blue Magic" was the nickname the Howard offensive players picked during spring practice. But when Bison Coach Floyd Keith assessed this summer what was left of a potentially veteran offensive line, he got a case of the blues.
The Bison offensive line did little last year to make fans think of Southern Cal, Alabama or, for that matter, this week's opponent, South Carolina State Running backs failed to average three yards per attempt and only one averaged more than 37 yards per game -- 50.
However, five regular linemen were slated to return; they brought back more experience, if not outstanding credentials.
That was before academic and personal problems forced three -- including an All Mid Eastern Athletic Conference selection -- to leave the team.
The Bison had several promising young running backs returning and Keith had gone out and recruited several more. But the absence of Howard's top three tackles from the spring depth chart and the starting center from last season threatened to quickly age those running backs.
So what has happened since the Bison opened the season with a line consisting of a junior college transfer who was moved from defensive tackle, a freshman center moved from guard, and a pair of tackles who both played guard during the spring?
They are running like crazy, despite all the preseason problems.
Some numbers tell most of the story: The Bison now consider themselves a ball-control team; their run-pass ratio thus far is 3-1. It is much easier to control the ball when a team can pick up five yards per run, as the Bison have done in their opening two victories.
Tailback Greg Banes and fullback Ray Cryer each rushed for better than 100 yards against Maryland Eastern Shore. It was the first time anyone at Howard can ever remember that happening.
Bison runners have broken runs for 10 yards or more 18 times in the first two games; 17 yards or better nine times, 20 or more yards five times.
The Bison offense has even become a threat to the well-being of Keith: Cryer's unobstructed 16-yard scoring run against UMES made the coach hurdle the team bench in joy. Keith almost missed clearing it.
The players responsible for the success of Cryer, Banes and Co. include:
Senior tight guard John (Bear) Jenkins and junior split-tackle Bill Hewlett, the only veterans; Danny Williams, the junior-college transfer, and John Bilberry -- moved from tight end -- share split guard duties; the tight tackle is sophomore Keith Hill, admirably relieved by junior Craig Cason -- at 265 pounds, the biggest man on the roster.
Jim Tsilimos, the offensive line coach, has said he would like the line to grade optimally at 88 percent. Against UMES, Jenkins was an 89, Bilberry, starting his first game ever, an 88, and Hill an 86. The play of the line as a unit was improved 20 percent from the first game.
Bison runners capitalized on these efforts for 332 yards against Eastern Shore. Only once was a Bison stopped for no gain; the rushers did not lose ground on any attempt.
"The line blocked excellently," Cryer said. "You could pick from an assortment of holes."
The Bison linemen will not make opponents shudder from sheer bulk. After Cason, Bilberry is second-largest at 240 pounds.
"One thing they do have going is that they are quick enough to make their blocks on the line and then get downfield to hit the defensive backs," said Tsilimos. "That shows hustle.
"They're still very green. I expect them to continue improving. It's going to take time, but I'm looking forward to each week."