Coming into this season, Bruce Ivory, Howard assistant coach, knew his offensive line would be weak. With only two seniors and no experienced players returning, Ivory could predict the inconsistency that has plagued the Bison line. But he could not predict the injuries.
Howard has suffered injuries to four of its starting five linemen this season, and has been able to use its first string in only three games. Over the last four games, all losses, the Bison have been forced to use different combinations up front.
"By far, we've been the weakest link in the team," said Ivory. "We knew that last spring, but the injuries have really hurt. It all starts up front. If the offensive line isn't doing its job, the other offensive players don't have confidence to execute."
In Saturday's homecoming game against Norfolk State at RFK Stadium, Howard's offensive line will be at full strength for the first time since Sept. 24. Tackles Zane Smith and Robert Lewis, guards Izael Sanders and Wayne Carter and center Calvin Epps all are able to play, and Bison Coach Joe Taylor feels the offense will benefit.
"When the line is all there, we've been great," said Taylor, whose team is 1-6, the school's worst record since 1967. "But when the horses aren't in there, nothing happens."
Smith, a senior, has been the only lineman not to miss a game this season with injuries. Carter has been slowed by an illness, and Sanders missed three games with an ankle injury. Both Lewis and Epps have suffered shoulder injuries. Epps, whose injury left him unable to snap for more than half of each game, still is hurting, and may split time with freshman Algustus Lee Saturday.
Both Ivory and Taylor were encouraged by the play of the line in the team's first four games, when Howard went 1-3, but lost twice by no more than five points. But since losing to South Carolina State, 28-7, on Sept. 24, injuries have forced Taylor to use nine linemen.
Although reserves Lee and Burnell Irby have played well, Howard has given up 18 sacks, including four in last week's 22-0 loss to North Carolina A & T. Despite attempts by Taylor to pattern his offense to the inexperience of the line, the Bison offense is ranked last in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
"It's been an uphill battle this year," said Ivory. "The stats are nothing I want to brag about. I feel we (the line) are the reason we lost last week. But we are getting better at controlling the line of scrimmage. Hopefully, this week it will show."