'Bruiser' adds depth on line for No. 6 Cowboys
After losing a second experienced offensive lineman to injury this season, No. 6 Oklahoma State needed to plug in someone else to protect Brandon Weeden and keep the offense rolling along.
He is called ''The Bruiser.'' And, for a week at least, Casey LaBrue can also call himself the team's offensive MVP.
LaBrue, a bulked-up former walk-on, got the honor last week after stepping in for injured center Grant Garner, who had started the last 17 games in a row. The Cowboys (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) wound up matching the most points they've put up in the past 94 years in a 70-28 rout of Kansas, becoming the nation's highest-scoring team in the process.
''I knew I couldn't come in there and miss a beat without Grant in there because he's really the heart of this offense and everything revolves around him,'' LaBrue said.
Oklahoma State had already lost guard Jonathan Rush to a season-ending knee injury when Garner hurt one of his legs. Coach Mike Gundy said he expects Garner to be able to play Saturday at No. 22 Texas (4-1, 1-1).
If not, LaBrue has proven himself to be a capable replacement.
''To have Casey come in and play as well as he did, it's very refreshing,'' said Weeden, who ranks second in the FBS in passing. ''I've always known he's a great player. As a quarterback, you get so comfortable with your center. So, when that's a change, that's a little bit different than losing a receiver or losing a running back or something like that from a comfort standpoint.
''But I think Bruiser came in and just played great.''
Offensive line coach Joe Wickline had been pleased enough with his depth early this season that he started the practice of substituting linemen during drives to get fresh blockers in. Now, the guys that were only in the rotation are taking advantage of that experience in the starting lineup.
''He's one of the best there is, and he gets all of the guys prepared - even the backup guys. There's not much that we don't know how to do,'' LaBrue said. ''Guys like me, I have to prepare just as hard as Grant does because if he goes down, I've got to control the line and tell them who to block.''
While Wickline perhaps gets the most credit for aiding the development of 2009 first-round NFL draft pick Russell Okung, he's also been able to steadily produce linemen. When Okung and three other starters moved on prior to last season, Wickline had a batch of replacements ready.
LaBrue, who got to campus as a 245-pounder from Enid, is the latest to emerge from nowhere.
''We've got some guys that have a little bit of experience and we've finally built some depth up on the offensive line,'' Gundy said. ''My first really three or four years here as a head coach, we always had a great concern about losing a player.''
After facing a struggling Kansas defense, LaBrue and the Cowboys face a different challenge this week against a Longhorns defense that blitzes frequently. Texas lost to Oklahoma 55-17 in their annual showdown.
''Texas is a good team. I know they probably didn't do as well as they really are last week but, God, they're athletic as can be,'' LaBrue said ''They've got great players, they show a lot of different looks, they play hard.''
Offensive coordinator Todd Monken said that scheme, combined with the difficulty of playing in a noisy stadium on the road, put experience at a premium. And it means that any more injuries, or if Garner can't return as expected, would add stress to the Cowboys' front line.
''It tests your depth. As much depth as we think we have at a number of spots, you can't keep losing guys and think you're going to be as efficient,'' Monken said. ''I mean, there's a reason why they're your starters.
''Hopefully, we get Grant back this week, especially against a team that puts so much pressure on your protection.''