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Tiger offense breaks records behind veteran O-line

Dakota Wesleyan University left tackle Kyle Hencke makes a block during an offensive line drill at football practice Wednesday. (Aaron Saunders/Republic)

Dakota Wesleyan University’s explosive offense on the football field has been much of the talk this season.

Among highlighted players are quarterback Jon Bane, running back Francois Barnaud and wide receiver Anthony Muilenburg. Yet one group that stands in the shadows, but in many ways is the most essential portion of the offense, is the offensive line.

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The unit features junior left tackle Kyle Hencke, sophomore left guard Taylor Haley, senior center Eric Witte, senior right guard Skyler Eriksen and junior right tackle Jake Verry.

“This year we have relied on some real experience up front, and it has been a real pleasure to work with those guys,” third-year offensive line coach Josh Kotecki said before practice Wednesday. “We have some great leaders up front with guys like Eric Witte and Skyler Eriksen. All the guys do a great job and we will continue to rely on them.”

Kotecki also praised offensive coordinator Zeke Prado and the team’s tight ends and fullbacks, who have contributed to the offense’s success.

Playing a large part in the line’s success is the game time the players have logged. Witte, a Huron native, is a four-year starter, while Eriksen, a Presho native, Hencke and Verry are all three-year starters. Haley, a Winner native, is the lone first-year starter for the group. He stepped in for Scotland native Spencer Bloch, who went down with an injury early in the season.

“I really like the offensive line group we have,” Haley said. “When Spencer went down, I was kind of worried at first, but guys like Eric Witte and Kyle Hencke have helped me along the way. They make sure I am doing the right thing at the right time.”

The DWU offensive line has stayed intact throughout the season, which has given the offense stability. The offensive line doesn’t have many stats that pop up in the box score, but the group takes pride in providing DWU’s playmakers the opportunity to make big advances down the field.

Big plays have been the Tigers’ bread and butter this year, making DWU the Great Plains Athletic Conference’s second-best offense behind Morningside. The Tigers (6-3, 5-2 GPAC) are averaging 439.3 yards per game and 30.9 points per game.

The Tigers also have the conference’s leading rusher and receiver in Barnaud and Muilenburg. Barnaud has 1,631 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Muilenburg has 57 catches for 894 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The offensive line has provided superb protection of fourth-year quarterback Jon Bane. The line has allowed just eight sacks all season, which is the least of any team in the GPAC, and has given Bane enough time to complete 155 of 308 passes for 2,021 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

“They take a lot of pride in working together,” Kotecki said, adding the group is the best unit he’s coached during his tenure at DWU. “Communication is a major factor up front and doing things off the field together with one another helps make a good unit.”

The offensive line’s success also prompted Concordia football coach Vance Winter to call DWU’s unit one of the most underrated in the conference. Winter will see the DWU offensive line up close Saturday as the Tigers host Concordia at 1 p.m. at Joe Quintal Field in Mitchell.