“I'm just biting, scratching, clawing and kicking,” Penn State's offensive line coach informed reporters on a conference call, “just like every day.”
He said it cheerfully, and in a drawl betraying his Georgia roots. No one, it would appear, enjoys his job more. No one better understands the unique (and necessary) bond among offensive linemen, and between the linemen and their positional coach.
McWhorter, 63, is 39 years into his coaching career, having come out of retirement last season to assist Bill O'Brien, a man with whom he had once worked at Georgia Tech. McWhorter variously referred to O-linemen as “a family” and “a fraternity,” and said, “I've never had a real good offensive line that wasn't cohesive, on and off the field.”
He makes it clear that he has their backs, in any number of ways. He endearingly calls them Hogs, as one-time Washington Redskins assistant coach Joe Bugel once labeled his linemen, and dispenses individual nicknames as well. (Center Ty Howle, for instance, is Swamp Man.) McWhorter also hands out the Boss Hog award to the most effective lineman in each game and cavorts about the practice field, guard Miles Dieffenbach said, “like he's 25 years old.”
Once McWhorter dove into a pile to break up a fight between one of his guys and a defensive lineman. “I just decided,” he said, “it was better if I was a casualty, rather than one of those.”
He came away unscathed.
“He's a Man of Steel out there,” Dieffenbach said.
McWhorter can only hope that his linemen are the same, that the whole is more stout than the sum of the parts -- that together, everybody bites, scratches, claws and kicks. He points out that the five linemen comprise 45 percent of the offense, and if they are not acting in concert, there are bound to be problems.
“That 45 percent has to work together on every snap, and communication is huge,” he said. “Some of the communication is totally nonverbal, just feeling each other and working together, and trusting each other that you're going to be there. … I've never had a real good offensive line that wasn't cohesive, that didn't jell good, that didn't like each other, that didn't do things together, that didn't hang around together. … We're fortunate here to have kids that really like each other.”
That said, this year's line has had its ups and downs, despite returning three starters. The Lions have already given up 10 sacks, equaling the most in the Big Ten and putting them on a pace for 30 this fall, nine more than a year ago. And the offense as a whole is in the bottom half of the conference in points, yardage and rushing yards.
He stopped short of saying his guys have had their struggles, but did say the line is “a work in progress,” as indeed it is every year. He also noted that the Lions have been breaking in a freshman quarterback, albeit a gifted one, in Christian Hackenberg. There were bound to be some growing pains early in the season.
“What we were trying to do at that point was gradually let him grow and not put a lot on him,” McWhorter said. “We have grown, gotten better, yes. But there were some runs that we were running in just some real uphill situations, where I don't know that John Hannah and the boys would have done a heckuva lot better.”
(Footnote for younger readers: John Hannah is a Hall of Fame guard who once played at Alabama and for the NFL's New England Patriots.)
“I think,” McWhorter said, “the line has grown and gotten better, and I think the offense has grown and gotten better, and more productive. We're certainly part of that.”
As in other years, McWhorter has a deep attachment to his current group. He revels in the potential of tackle Donovan Smith (“A tremendous talent”), enjoys Dieffenbach's sense of humor (“I have never NOT seen that side of him”) and marvels at the cerebral approach of guard John Urschel (“Whatever I tell him I better remember it, because he dang sure does.”)
In general McWhorter views offensive linemen as overachievers; not always, but most of the time. Each year he reminds them that they are not great athletes, that if they were they would be playing elsewhere -- maybe tight end or along the defensive line. His point is that they have to work hard and look out for each other.
And again, he's always looking out for them.
“When you look at the defensive line and the offensive line, that coach-to-player relationship is a little bit different than any other one,” O'Brien said.
That's because of the physical demands of the position, and the trust they have to place in one another.
“They're definitely unsung-hero-type guys,” O'Brien said. “Practice is not easy for them on a daily basis. Obviously games are very challenging. Your coach comes into play a lot, as a guy that's tough on you, that's fair, that's there for you when you need somebody to talk to. Those are tough positions to play, and the coaches that coach those positions are tough and they become close with their players.”
As do their wives. McWhorter's wife Rebecca, affectionately known as “Mama Hog,” bakes “Hog Treats” for the linemen, which Mac dispenses the night before a game. “She bakes magical powers in those that really enhance their play,” he said.
McWhorter was once an offensive lineman himself, at the University of Georgia, and upon graduation planned to go into real estate. Somebody asked him about becoming a high school assistant instead, and that's where his career took root.
After six years at that level he moved on to Georgia Tech. Then Alabama. Then West Georgia. Then Duke and Georgia and Clemson and Memphis and Georgia Tech again (where he crossed paths with O'Brien), and finally Texas.
He was happily retired in Athens, Ga., when he took O'Brien's call in January 2012. McWhorter hadn't planned on coaching again. He was enjoying his grandkids, enjoying some of the things he had never experienced during his 37 years on the sideline.
Like, for instance, tailgating.
“Man, I like that tailgating stuff,” he said. “That's fun.”
But he said he was “enamored” at the opportunity to coach at Penn State, and to work alongside a guy he respects as much as O'Brien.
“Not downplaying all the other head coaches I've worked for in the past 30-some-odd years,” McWhorter said, “(but) Bill may have the best feel for the entire game of any head coach that I've worked with.”
More than anything, though, McWhorter missed the kids, and the camaraderie.
“It's a business, but it's a people business,” he said. “I really enjoy being part of their lives, and I take it as a great responsibility that I'm going to have an influencing factor in their lives, for the rest of their life.”
So he came back. He has no idea how long he will stay, only that it will be very difficult to walk away. It's like it is with your kids, he said. They go out on their own, and you still have ties with them, still have a bond. But it's never quite the same.
“Nobody coaches forever, and there's got to be a severance point,” he said. “Whenever that is, that will be tough, and it will be very emotional for me.
“It's like a family, it really is.”