BELTON — Lane Smith experienced something last December that was a first for him at Mary Hardin-Baylor. Through 29 consecutive games as a member of the Crusaders’ varsity squad, Smith had never tasted defeat.
Needless to say, that 12-0 loss to Mount Union in last year’s NCAA Division III national championship game was overly bitter — to put it mildly.
“It was very disappointing. It was a tough loss to take,” Smith said earlier this week. “I had never lost a game here on the varsity. I had never been part of a loss, so I didn’t know how to take it.
“It has motivated us to work hard, though, because we want to get back there.”
The 6-foot-3, 285-pound senior guard and the rest of the No. 2-ranked Crusaders take their first step toward trying to reach their third straight Stagg Bowl when they open their season at noon today against Albright in Reading, Pa.
Whether UMHB plays in the national title game for a third consecutive year will have a lot to do with how Smith and the rest of a revamped offensive line perform. Of the five-man unit, only Smith and tackle Colton Hall have started a game before today. The other three members — Azaviar Carter, Steven Sellers and DoRion Dreighton — are all sophomores.
Add in new offensive line coach Dustin Washburn, and there’s scant familiarity from the last couple of years.
“It’s always hard when you’re not bringing back many guys (on the line) from the national championship game,” said Smith, who started 10 games last season. “But a lot of these new guys have stepped up, and we’re really buying in to what Coach Washburn is saying.”
Taking over as the position coach of a group already in flux, Washburn’s first order of business was finding a cornerstone or two. He didn’t have to look long to find Smith.
“I’ve tried to find my leaders. Meeting Lane, ultimately I knew he was one of the guys I could build this group around,” Washburn said. “I’ve tried to get these guys to pick up what I’m trying to teach them and what we’re trying to implement offensively, and he has really taken his role and run with it. He has become a way more physical player. He’s grown up a lot as a football player. He’s turned into a solid guard.”
Physicality is a term that comes up often these days when there’s discussion about the UMHB offensive line. It’s a trait the players and coaches believe started to wither as the competition heated up in the playoffs last season.
“We’re trying to bring a new mindset up front,” said Smith, who had never played any position other than center from his days as youth player all the way through until he arrived at UMHB. “A couple of times last year, we might not have been physical enough. That’s been our main focus — to be more physical and get back to running the ball. We struggled with that some last year, and it started showing up come playoff time.
“It’s kind of hard to tell that when you’re playing some of the teams earlier in the year. But once we started seeing tougher competition, we could tell that we weren’t the same.”
Smith and his teammates in the trenches are out to prove that last year’s troubles are just that — in the past. Their initial chance to do that comes today in southeast Pennsylvania.
“The first game is always a little nerve-wracking. We’re just going to try to play our style of football,” the senior said. “We have a lot of good athletes, and we’re going to try to make some plays.”