Cavs O-line Helps Jones Chase Record
Oct. 8, 1999
So far this season, many Virginia faithfull have kept a close watch on three main areas of this year’s Cavalier squad. The star attraction reamains Thomas Jones as he carries a large portion of offensive load, while inching closer towards Tiki Barber’s all-time school rushing record. The supporting cast consitsts of a young defense plagued with injury, and a new quarterback who contiues to adjust to his starting role. All three have combined to provide more action and excitement than most soap operas, and to this point, the ratings have been fairly strong. Yet, with any group there are always those performers tucked neatly behind the scenes. Like any key grip or best boy, you won’t find their names in lights but listed somewhere within the closing credits.
For the 1999 Virginia Cavaliers, the offensive line represents one of the most important and overlooked components to this year’s team. Led by seniors Noel LaMontagne and John St. Clair, the front five entered the season as one of the bright spots on the ’99 squad. With a total weight approaching one ton, they are not hard to find, but often times fans tend to concentrate on the more glamerous positions. While UVa fans watch Ellis and Jones pick apart opposing defenses, the offensive line remains content knowing the team’s most recognized and well-know player relies heavily on them. “When you have a guy like Thomas Jones who is a great running back and a great person, you want to go out there and perform well,” said St. Clair. “I think it’s our job to go out there and help him reach his goals throuhout the game. He takes a beating out there and we take a beating also, but it’s up to us to block for him and make sure he gets plenty of yards.”
A team’s offensive success often revolves around the play of its front five. At times they may go unoticed by the fans, but Virginia’s front line always attracts plenty of attention from the opponent’s defense. “To be a consideration in the defensive game plan, that’s the biggest compliment you can get as far as an offensive line is concerned,” said LaMontagne. “I think we have done that, and team’s are bringing up eight and nine men not necessarily to stop Thomas Jones, but to get people through and beat us.”
Always a force other teams must try and overcome, left guard Noel LaMontagne and center John St. Clair serve as the backbone to one of Virginia’s most powerful weapons. Each entered the season as one of the conference’s premiere players at their respective positions. LaMontagne returns as a 1998 first-team All-ACC selection, while St. Clair garnered second-team All-ACC honors last year. Together these two rule the trenches as they open running lanes for Jones and provide ample pass protection for Ellis. As seniors, they hope their high level of play serves as a standard the younger offensive linemen will aspire to acheive. “They look to me and Noel for leadership, which we provide by setting examples on the field instead of by talking or trying to lecture [the younger linemen],” said St. Clair. “I think we go out there and play hard, and hopefully it provides a big motivational factor for them.”
As leaders on the offensive line, LaMontagne and St. Clair work especially hard to make sure the entire group plays together as one single unit. In order to be effective, the front five must act as a well oiled machine whose efforts combine to produce one collective unit of output. Often times, maintaining the group’s unity requires players to understand exactly how their teamates will perform in certain situations. After playing side-by-side all of last season, LaMontagne and St. Clair have developed a special relationship that allows one to know what the other is doing without even saying a word. “You move as a group and you move as a unit, and it makes a big difference just knowing how the others play. I know what John usually does and how he usually blocks,” said LaMontagne. “Sometimes a defense does things at the last second or does something you don’t expect, and you have to be able to communicate. At times that communication is through knowing where others are or what they are doing.”
Yet, for John St. Clair just knowing how to play an offensive line position is something he has only learned in the past two seasons. He came to Virginia as a tight end, and during the 1997 spring practice period he moved to the center position. Undersized for an offensive linemen, St. Clair spent hours in the weightroom and dedicated himself to becoming bigger and stronger. When he first began playing center, he often faced players with a 40 or 50 pound weight advantage. Now weighing 295 pounds, St. Clair possess the size and strength it takes to be one of the ACC’s best centers. It was a change in postion that did not come easily, but in the end, the move has proved to be a positive one. “It was difficult because I had never played an interior line position before. I had 300 pound guys in front of me [for the first time], and I had to push them off the ball. I wasn’t used to that,” said St. Clair. “I stayed in the weight room and gained weight so I could compete with the guys that were 300 pounds. Now I’ve adjusted to the position and I just go out there and play.”
After becoming a member of the offensive line two seasons ago, St. Claire joins LaMontagne as the only other starting senior on this year’s front line. Together, the two lead a group that shares a close bond both on and off the field. Often times the entire offensive line will eat their meals and undertake other activities as a unit. Their relationships on the football field often translate to close friendships when away from the game. The hours of hard work and relentless dedication have produced great success as well as a strong commaradere amoung the front five. “It’s a situation where you are around each other so much and you go through so much together that you become almost like a brotherhood,” said LaMontagne. “It really is in the true sense a family outside of our own personal lives.”
They are the largest family on Virginia’s football team, yet they somehow manage to receive the least attention. The Cavalier front five anchors an offense that relies heavily on an effective running game. Led by two of the ACC’s best offensive linemen in Noel LaMontagne and John St. Clair, the front line battles each game to secure open running lanes and provide superior pass protection. Warriors who fight admirably in the trenchs, they truly are Virginia’s unsung heroes.