There are four senior starters on the Minnesota State Mankato offensive line, a wealth of experience enhanced by the fact that all four played high school football in Omaha. Further enhancing that experience level is the fact that two of the four were high school teammates.
The history of competition among the players was perhaps the biggest obstacle to landing all four in the same 2010 recruiting class. Gary Hiatt and Max Hofmeister played at Millard South in Omaha, which met arch-rival Millard West in two consecutive large school state title games their final two prep seasons. Millard’s West line was anchored by current MSU center Josh Meeker.
“I knew [Meeker] was a really good player,” Hofmeister said. “I just didn’t know if I could stand playing with him for four years.”
There was less animosity for the fourth senior, Chris Reed, at least until the start of the track season. Reed was a two-time state shot put champion and the Nebraska track athlete of the year as a senior, and his shot put competition included his fellow senior linemates.
Happily for all involved, the four have put aside their competitive past and learned to exist harmoniously at Mankato. The offensive line, which also includes junior Herschel Prater of Ferguson, Mo., has been a cornerstone for a physical MSU team that has generally outmuscled opponents along the offensive and defensive fronts.
“Luck and linemen,” MSU coach Todd Hoffner listed as his keys to success. “You have to have a little bit of luck and you have to have linemen, or you’re not going to make it very far.”
The Mavericks (13-0) host Concord (W. Va.) in Saturday’s Division II national semifinals. The winner advances to the national title game, which would be a first for the Mavericks.
There was luck, or at least fortuitous timing, for the MSU coaching staff in its links to the Omaha linemen. Former assistant line coach Mike Cunningham worked the University of Nebraska football camp during the summer of 2009, where he got a firsthand look at Reed, Hiatt and Hofmeister.
Hofmeister was the first to commit, and within two days had talked his classmate, Hiatt, into attending MSU. Meeker was recruited by several other NSIC schools but decided he liked the idea of playing for Cunningham, a fellow Nebraskan. Reed had planned to accept a track scholarship at Doane College, an NAIA school, but was convinced he’d be able to play both football and track at MSU.
“I think, growing up in Nebraska, we had that connection together,” said Cunningham, currently at the University of Nebraska. “Knowing the type of kids they are, they’re kind of cut the same as I am — Nebraska blue-collar kids. …. They’re going to come with their lunch pail every day and do what you ask them to do.”
The linemen say the coaching carousel at MSU has made them even closer. Cunningham left for a Division I job at North Dakota before the 2013 season, which was a huge jolt for the linemen.
Hoffner was fired in 2013, then reinstated before this season when an arbitrator ruled he had should not have lost his job after school officials found naked pictures of his children on his school-issued cell phone. Hoffner was charged, but the charges were dropped when the pictures were deemed innocent.
“Out of high school, we thought we were coming here to play for Coach Cunningham,” Meeker said. But the years have taught them, Meeker said, to “play for each other, your teammates, the guys you’ve spent five years with.”
Which is exactly what they’ve done. The four, who were redshirted as freshmen, have a combined 174 starts, with Meeker’s 50 leading the way. The center also leads with 47 consecutive starts and is the leader of the line, Hoffner said, for his “personality and character and all that kind of stuff.”
Said Cunningham: “I’ve seen Meeker play with eight rolls of tape wrapped around his ankle, because he refused to sit out.”
Reed has emerged as the blue-chip lineman, attracting attention from virtually every NFL team, Hoffner said. He’s also a two-time NCAA Division II champion shot putter.
The four agree their shared backgrounds and four seasons of college experience have been a significant benefit on the playing field, where the Mavericks have outrushed opponents by an average of 250.2 yards to 111.8 and allowed only 21 sacks while recording 38.
“The biggest things is, we know what everybody is going to do out there,” Hofmeister said. “I know Meeker is going to go out and be a little crazy and tough and do his job. I know Chris, at the other tackle [opposite Hofmeister], is going to lock down his end. And I’ve played next to Gary [Hiatt] for as long as I can remember. … It’s like we know what each other is thinking out there.”
And right now, those thoughts are all focused on going farther than any MSU team before them.