Bull-rushing a man who stands 5-foot-11 and 300 pounds rarely ends well for the bull-rusher, but that was the drill, and for college football players spring presents an opportunity to show teammates and coaches what they've been doing all winter in the weight room.
So a Southern Oregon University defensive lineman went chest-to-chest with boulder-esque center Ronald Rylance Tuesday at the SOU practice field, pushing the senior-to-be into the backfield, where an imaginary quarterback scanned an imaginary receiving corps. The battle, one of dozens during the two-hour practice, lasted about three seconds and ended shortly after Rylance's helmet was wrenched off as he continued to pump his arms and fight for ground. Then the whistle blew, Rylance scooped his helmet off the ground by the facemask and jogged out of the way so that the next group could assume the position.
As far as brutality is concerned, it was just another day at the office for Rylance and company. But in another way, it was anything but for the Raiders' Sacramento, Calif., import — nicknamed "Bubba" — who has a newfound appreciation for the grind.
"I haven't smiled like this in a long time," he said, flashing a wide, toothy grin after practice Tuesday. "I feel happy."
Rylance's bliss is multifaceted. For one, he's back doing what he loves after a long, painful year of waiting and rehabbing from a broken foot. For another, he anchors what is expected to be one of the best offensive lines in the country and certainly one of the best in Raider history — a unit that without Rylance allowed just 14 sacks on 540 pass attempts in 2013.
Rylance's return at center will allow Max Proudfit, the fill-in center, to return to his natural position at left tackle. The other returning starters are Dylan Bratlie at left guard, Nathaniel Timoteo at right guard and North Medford alum Drew Gibson at right tackle. You want heft? Their average weight is 294 pounds, and Rylance is the only one shorter than 6-2.
"I would say right now, at this point, it's the best offensive line we've had," head coach Craig Howard said.
A year ago, Rylance was preparing for what he thought would be his last hurrah — another playoff run, he hoped — when his season came to a sudden, unceremonious end before it even began, though he didn't know it at the time. Rylance broke the fifth metatarsal, a tiny bone, in his right foot only days before Southern Oregon's annual spring game.
He was hoping to recover in time to salvage at least half his senior season, and when SOU traveled to Sacramento in mid-September for a game against Sacramento State, Rylance visited a doctor there to have the foot reevaluated. The X-rays spelled out only bad news — at least four more weeks of rest, then another check-up.
"That would have been seven games into the season," Rylance said, "so that was when I knew that I wasn't going to be able to play that year."
The setback hit him like a corner blitz.
"It hurt me a lot," he said. "I cried. It's my family out here. I felt like I let the team down, I let the coaches down."
Now, Rylance is using that disappointment as a motivational tool, which he could use in the coming weeks — even though the bone in his foot has completely healed, the rest of his body is still re-acclimating to the gridiron. It's a difficult process, but as Rylance can attest it sure beats spectating.
"I'm not close to being in football condition," he said. "I'm ready strength-wise and smarts-wise and knowing who I'm getting and everything. But the conditioning factor's a little off. I wasn't able to really run until December."
Rylance's comeback kicked into high gear Monday, when SOU opened its spring practice, a month-long camp of sorts that culminates with the spring game on May 2 at Raider Stadium. It was a spectacularly gorgeous spring day in Ashland. Clear skies. A slight breeze. Not that Rylance needed all that. A typhoon would have sufficed, so long as the field was playable. It most definitely was, so SOU's man in the middle soaked it in.
"It felt good," he said, "like you can breath again. It's like being next to the people that you've always been next to."