The indispensable job of protecting Nick Ferrer’s blind side

Alex Woods’ value to the University of Saint Francis football team lies primarily in one skill: He protects quarterback Nick Ferrer’s blind side.

The defending NAIA champion Cougars (4-0) are undefeated and still No. 1 and possess an embarrassing wealth of talent on offense and defense. But they’re not making a run at a repeat title without a healthy Ferrer. When Ferrer’s healthy, as he is now, he puts up crazy numbers. Through four games, Ferrer has completed 99 of 136 passes (72.8 percent) for 1,414 yard, 17 touchdowns and only one interception.

It’s no stretch to say the probably main objective for archrival No. 8 Marian (2-1) will be to disrupt Ferrer when the teams meet at 6:05 p.m. Saturday on the Marian campus in Indianapolis.

Woods has his work cut out for him as usual.

“I’ve been Nick’s blind side going on three years,” Woods said. “He trusts me and I’m glad he has faith in me. We’re good friends off the field. I make sure he feels comfortable. If here’s something he needs me to do, I’ll adjust accordingly.”

The offensive line was one of the Cougars’ question marks entering the season after the graduation of linemen Brian Gegner, Zach Minardo and Keegan Bruner. Only Woods and Connor Holcomb, who moved from left guard to center) were regular starters, with Jaylen Gamble also playing frequently. Gegner won the Rimington Award as the NAIA’s best center and Bruner was a second-team All-American. All three of last year’s senior linemen were on the Mid-States Football Association all-conference teams.

“We graduated three really good offensive linemen,” Woods said. “It’s been a sigh of relief to know we’re merging together now as a unit and picking up where we left off.”

Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley and offensive line coach Trevor Miller have worked to capitalize on the new unit’s strengths. The unit has also been effective in run-blocking, as tailback Justin Green is averaging 114.5 yards and two touchdowns per game.

“You have to adjust to what you have instead of what you had,” Donley said. “We’re a lot more basic, simple. We’re still relying on the center to make the calls and we have a very bright young man in Holcomb doing a good job there. We’re coming around.”

Ferrer has been sacked five times this season, including three times in the Cougars’ 48-23 win over Saint Xavier on Saturday at Bishop D’Arcy Stadium. That game was the biggest test yet for Woods and the Cougars’ offensive line. The 2017 starters are Woods at left tackle, Gamble at left guard, Holcomb at center, Austin Smogor at right guard and Nick Shoemaker at right tackle.

“We played a very physical defensive interior, probably as good as we’re going to see,” Donley said. “It was a good test. We’re coming along there. We have another good challenge this weekend.”

The Saint Francis vs. Marian rivalry has heated up as of late, particularly in light of the fact the schools have won the last two NAIA titles, with Marian in 2015 and Saint Francis last season. Marian also won in 2012.

Since the start of the 2015 season, Saint Francis is 1-2 vs. Marian. The Cougars are 27-0 vs. other opponents.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Woods said. “They don’t like us. We don’t like them. We do respect their program and I think they respect us as well. It’s a big week and we need to focus. But it’s a big game because it’s the next game, a conference opponent.”

There’s no denying the rivalry, and the recent head-to-head battles, adds extra flavor. Saint Francis beat Marian 45-42 the last time the game was played in Indianapolis in 2015. Marian avenged that defeat with a 45-14 win in the 2015 playoffs in Fort Wayne, and then beat Saint Francis 35-21 in Fort Wayne last season.

“That keeps a chip on your shoulder to know that’s the one team that has outplayed us,” Woods said. “We have a good game plan this week. The coaches have hammered it pretty hard. We’ll implement that game plan and be ready to go.”

Woods was a two-time all-state player at Center Grove High School and his college choice came down to Saint Francis and Marian. (Incidentally, Woods caught his first pass, for no gain, when a Ferrer throw was deflected last Saturday. He joked that he practices that all the time.)

“A good amount of my high school friends went to Marian, and I’m good with their coaches, too,” Woods said. “Coach Donley is one of the main reasons I’m here, the winningest-active coach. On top of that, it’s a great program, great tradition.”

No matter the opponent, Woods’ primary job remains the same: Keep Ferrer on his feet.

“He’s got to have great focus,” Donley said. “That’s why we demand focus. Pay attention to detail and it carries over out there.”