The shortest distance between a season opener and a conference championship is a solid offensive line.
That seems to be the feeling shared by the Patriot Athletic Conference coaches heading into the season, as several are worried about the massive losses they took along their lines while others are worried about the lack of losses their PAC opponents had.
“To me it’s going to be the key to whether we’re going to have any success or not,” Clearview first-year coach Mike Collier said. “We’re replacing four starters on the offensive line and I’ve told those kids how important their roles are — especially in the passing game. They’re a unit that has to ensure there are no creases when there are blitzes so a defender doesn’t get in on the quarterback.”
The Clippers are the defending Stripes Division champions, and have a lot of their All-PAC players back from last season. But the losses on the line could prevent them from defending their title.
The same can be said for the Stars Division-champion Wellington Dukes.
“You hear all the time that’s where the game is won and lost,” Dukes veteran coach Matt Stoll said. “We have to replace both our offensive and defensive lines. There are a lot of things going on up there — recognizing defensive fronts, pass blocking, run blocking — there’s a lot of mental things involved with that position.”
An offensive lineman may have to make as many quick decisions on a play as a running back does on a rushing play or even a quarterback might during a passing play. High school programs have increasingly added complex offensive designs on the line that have guards and tackles pulling, sweeping and double-teaming their opponents’ top defenders.
“To me, (the line’s) everything,” Columbia coach Jason Ward said. “If you can’t develop and nurture a good line, if you can’t open up holes and pass protect, those wide receivers, quarterbacks and running backs aren’t going to be able to fulfill their potential.”
Most coaches agree that a strong, experienced line is just as important as having talented skill position players on offense. Some think it’s much more important.
“I’ll take that offensive line every time,” Brookside coach Mike Akers said. “I’ve seen some average backs do great things because of the line in front of them. Our philosophy is we take our quickest and strongest athletes and put them on the offensive line, then we put our biggest kids on the defensive line.
“To me a perfect game is to win 28-0 and dominate the line of scrimmage. Long plays are nice, but to see our kids grind out 4 or 5 yards per carry, that’s when you know you have the game in control.”
The Cardinals, who were a perennial laughingstock in Lorain County during the late 1990s, became a football power on the strength of their lines. The players began spending large amounts of time in the weight room and started winning state weightlifting titles — the end result of which was a dominating performance at the line of scrimmage.
“Doesn’t matter what level you’re at — peewee to the NFL — teams win and lose games because of what happens in the trenches,” Keystone coach Rob Clarico said.
While the two returning PAC champions could struggle due to their inexperienced lines, several teams are being named the league’s favorites solely due to the fact that they have the bulk of their lines returning.
Buckeye, who won the inaugural Stars Division title and finished runner-up last year, has a handful of returning starters back, and they were all named to the all-conference teams last season. Senior Josh Varney and sophomore Kelton Keller were second-team selections, while senior Dan Novotny was an honorable mention.
First-year coach Chris O’Brien said he feels good about the upcoming season due mostly to the fact that the Hurricanes’ lines are filled with varsity-tested players, and Columbia’s Ward is excited because he feels the preparation he and his assistants do with the lines could have a big payoff.
“It does make you feel good,” Ward said. “We try and make sure that we have three solid linemen coming back every year. We rotate in younger guys in years where the line is filled with seniors to get them experience for next season.
“I try to look two years down the road and figure out what we’ll need.”
Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.