Ever since hoisting the 2015 MAC Championship trophy, Bowling Green has been in the midst of an elongated struggle. Last year’s record may not have demonstrated much progress on paper as the Falcons finished 4-8, but it felt like the program took its first major leap forward since Dino Babers left campus seven years ago.
In its winningest season since 2016, Bowling Green witnessed considerable improvements within most position groups, but there were some position groups in need of more development. The odds were especially stacked against the Falcons in the trenches, which exhibited one of the youngest offensive line units in the country, but Chris Hedden was up for the challenge in leading the group in his first year as the offensive line coach.
The unit started two freshmen walk-ons including one who was a first-year player. Yes, a true freshman walk-on started... as early as Week 1. Cade Zimmerly was the only true freshman with a walk-on designation to earn an FBS start in 2021, and he recorded 10 — two at center and eight at guard, in one of college football’s more unlikely stories. Zimmerly now has a year of experience under his belt and shedding true freshman status should only help fortify Bowling Green’s offensive line in 2022.
Zimmerly likely maintains a stranglehold on a starting guard position, opposed to center, since the transfer portal presents the Falcons with a new option in the middle. Bowling Green landed a high-caliber transfer in Jakari Robinson, who served as Cincinnati’s primary center from 2018 to 2020. The former Rimington Trophy watchlist candidate paved the way for the AAC’s top-ranked rushing attack and best pass protection in 2020 before transferring to Memphis in 2021. Robinson’s experience in starting for ranked Bearcat teams should fare favorably in improving Bowling Green’s interior line strength in 2022.
Two additional Bearcat teammates of Robinson travel from the southern tip of the state to Northern Ohio to don the orange and brown. Marcelo Mendiola and Jake Burns did not receive ample on-field action at Cincinnati, but both offensive guards were members of back-to-back AAC championship teams that participated in New Year’s Six bowls — including the 2021 College Football Playoff.
Bowling Green also filled out its guard depth with transfers from the FCS level in Delonus Kabir and Bronson Warner. But occupying the other starting spot alongside Zimmerly should be an incumbent roster member in Jalen Grant, who started each of the last 15 games for the Falcons. Grant began the 2021 season at left guard before shifting to center for the final 10 games. With Robinson entering the lineup, a shift back to left guard remains the most likely scenario for the junior.
At offensive tackle, the transfer portal was well-utilized as an alternative to bringing in another horde of freshmen. Kameren Stewart arrives on campus after recording eight starts in 2019 and 2020 for an upstart Coastal Carolina program. Cedric Dunbar II is another tackle with substantial starting experience, manning a No. 1 offensive tackle spot 24 times for Deion Sanders’ rising FCS power Jackson State. Lastly, Tunde Fatukasi joins the group from Rutgers, but he still awaits his first collegiate snap.
One of the starting tackle roles is certainly reserved for Jeremiah Banks-Wall, who started 11 of 12 games at left tackle last year. Similar to other returning starters Zimmerly and Grant, Banks-Wall has a bulk of his college career ahead of him with three years of eligibility remaining. Thus, the young offensive line from 2021 still has plenty of time to mesh together.
Aforementioned transfers Stewart and Dunbar are likely competitors for the starting right tackle spot, but several returning Falcons remain in the mix for the job. One is the 6’7” Alex Wollschlaeger, who took a redshirt while playing three games in the 2020 pandemic-abbreviated season. Wollschlaeger recorded two starts last year, including Bowling Green’s Week 3 win over Murray State which snapped a 10-game losing streak for the program. Another candidate is Alex Padgett, who started three games in conference play but preserved his redshirt status by making just four total appearances last fall.
Overall, a potential starting lineup from left to right takes on the form of Banks-Wall, Grant, Robinson, Zimmerly, and Padgett/Wollschlaeger/Stewart/Dunbar. The addition of Robinson to anchor the middle should work wonders in run blocking and pass protection, but gaining age and experience might be the most important factors which propel this line forward in 2022.
Bowling Green ranked in the bottom 15 of the FBS by yielding 3.25 sacks and 7.1 tackles for loss per game. The run blocking must also improve after the team sat 10 spots from the nadir in rushing yards per game with 103.5. Only four times last year did Bowling Green witness one of its running backs attain 60 yards in a single game, and creating openings for running backs is essential to amplifying the team’s 109th ranked scoring offense. Just like the Falcons observed drastic defensive improvement from 2020 to 2021, the same jolt of energy can strike the offensive line for this coming season.
Our first barometer to measure that progress will occur Sept. 3 when Bowling Green visits the Rose Bowl to battle UCLA.