If you ask football coaches, scouts, or even ardent fans, they will likely tell you a football team is as good as its offensive line. Linemen, despite being overshadowed by high-profile skill players, are as integral to a team's success as any position on the gridiron.
However, in this day and age of 7-on-7 camps, quarterback showcases, speed coaches and extravagant training devices catered towards skill players in order to make offseason strides, offensive linemen have been left behind in the ever-evolving race to get a leg up on the competition.
Enter former NFL All-Pro LeCharles Bentley.
Fifteen months ago, Bentley opened the doors to the L. Bentley O-Line Academy in Cleveland, a one-of-a-kind training facility focused on aiding the development of offensive linemen of all ages, from the high school level to the professional ranks. The academy has flourished, helping a variety of players - from high schoolers looking to receive a scholarship to NFL linemen trying to refine their game - reach their goals.
Bentley, a former standout at nearby Cleveland (Ohio) St. Ignatius High School and Ohio State, remained in Northeastern Ohio after a serious knee injury ended his career in 2006 during his first practice with the Cleveland Browns. Instead of lamenting bad luck during the prime of his career, the former Rimington Award winner transferred his passion and energy to the Academy.
"It's something I wanted to do ever since I was drafted (in the NFL)," Bentley said. "I'm taking all the experience I've had and know I can transfer it to help transcend players' abilities.
"This is my pride and joy and there's nothing like this in the country."
The Academy provides a comprehensive program that high school linemen, regardless of experience or skill level, can put to use to achieve personal goals. The program works on all areas of development, from technique to explosiveness to diet, and is based primarily on the knowledge and experience that Bentley gained throughout his playing career.
While position-specific drills are always incorporated, Bentley has developed a unique approach that includes Pilates and karate to help improve flexibility and dexterity, as well as a strict diet regimen to incorporate better eating habits and proper body composition.
"I'm not pulling out some magic formula out of the trunk of my car and I'm just bringing out to show the world," Bentley said. "It's the stuff I've taken from all the different coaches I've played for."
One of Bentley's long-time disciples has been standout offensive lineman Aundrey Walker, a product of local Cleveland powerhouse Glenville High. Walker, who is one of the top offensive linemen in the state for the Class of 2011, boasts more than 20 scholarship offers from some of the top programs in the country. But the blue chip prospect knows he wouldn't be where he is currently without Bentley's instruction.
"Two years ago I met LeCharles at school and he saw potential in me," said Walker, who has been working with Bentley since his sophomore year when the Academy opened. "Now he is like a big brother to me."
Walker is one of the most herculean players in the state, if not the entire country. At 6-foot-5, 355-pounds, one of the areas that Walker has benefited from is implementation of proper diet in order to keep his weight under control.
"He's been on me, seriously," Walker said. "I was down on a visit to Pitt (with LeCharles) and stepped on a scale. Once he saw the weight he said, 'Dre, we got to lose some pounds.' He's always told me that size doesn't matter and it's more about technique and wanting to dominate someone every play."
"Bigger is not always better," Bentley added.
Despite the Cleveland area being his home, Bentley's decision to found the facility in its current location was more strategic than anything. Blasted by winter weather from November to March, if not longer, Ohio offensive linemen don't have the opportunity to work outdoors for nearly half of the year, allowing rust to set in.
Meanwhile, many Southern and Western states have spring football where linemen get additional repetitions during the offseason.
Part of Bentley's mindset is that offering a facility to get needed football coaching and fine-tuning can bridge the seven-month gap between the end of the football season and following season training camp.
Bentley eventually hopes to branch out to other states.
"With the Cleveland weather, it's a major plus that LeCharles has an indoor facility," said Antonio Underwood, a class of 2011 offensive tackle from nearby Shaker Heights (Ohio) High who recently committed to Ohio State.
Underwood, who has worked with Bentley for the past three months, admits that he attributes Bentley's tutelage as part of the reason why he landed a scholarship with the Buckeyes.
"Of course he's made me a better player," said Underwood, who found out about the facility through Facebook. "There's a lot to offer there, like LeCharles walking us through film, plyometrics, pass protection work, and so forth."
The Academy has been instrumental in the development of young players who have their collegiate careers in front of them, but Bentley also has worked with those who have reached the pinnacle. He has trained several current NFL linemen, including San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Alex Boone and Dallas Cowboys guard Montrae Holland. These players realized that keeping a spot on an NFL roster requires significant offseason work.
"You need to work harder (once you reach the NFL) and only the strong survive," said Boone, a Cleveland native who met Bentley while playing at Ohio State. "I worked with LeCharles for three months straight during the offseason and I'm now a better player plain and simple."
Boone, who acknowledged that shedding weight and improving his strength were the two areas in which he improved most, only needed to look at his mentor's accomplishments in deciding to work with him.
"He opened my eyes," he said. "If you want to be an All-Pro, you say to yourself, 'if that's what LeCharles did (to train), I should be doing it too.' "
For more information about the Academy, visit www.o-lineacademy.com.