Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers are often times referred to as “skill players.”
As much skill as those positions might have, games are often won in the trenches.
The offensive lines at Verona, Oregon and Stoughton paved the way to playoff appearances last season, and are looking to do the same again this fall.
Each team has different nuances and drills for its blocking systems, but the technique ties almost all lines together. The goal of each line is the same — work together out of the limelight, so others can enjoy the spotlight.
Coach Dave Richardson said the blocking schemes have not changed at all in his two decades of coaching.
“We are doing the exact same thing we did 20 years ago with the O-line,” he said. “The formations, motions and shotgun are a little different.”
One of the biggest differences in the past 20 years is the size and strength of players who play on the offensive line. Verona senior center Gunnar Kilen is 6-foot-7 and 280 pounds, and tackle Adam Vandervest is 6-foot-6 and 290 pounds.
“We love to have kids who are all big, but for our offense, you have to have kids who can move at the guard and center,” Richardson said. “You have to be a pretty good athlete at guard. Our guards are generally kids 220 to 230 (pounds) with good feet.”
The Wildcats look for bigger players to play tackle and center because they are called on to do more down blocking.
“We have had years where we have had nobody over 200 pounds and we’ve been very successful,” Richardson said. “If they are aggressive with our scheme, it’s pretty simple. If you take care of your inside gap, you’ll be in good shape because there’s always someone kicking someone out. We always take a running back or the opposite side guard to kick someone out.”
The coaching staffs at Oregon and Verona have frequently swapped ideas about offensive line play throughout the years.
However, the Panthers do not enjoy the Wildcats’ luxury of size.
Only two starters — right tackle Adam Yates and right guard Nate Hall — are more than 200 pounds. Left tackle Brady Gagner and left guard Logan Woodson are both listed at 185 pounds. Center Brody Barlow is only 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, but plays with a chip on his shoulder in the Panthers’ Wing-T offense.
“In close quarters, it doesn’t matter if you’re 300 pounds,” Barlow said. “If I’m faster, I can still win that matchup.”
Players in the Oregon football program grew up running the Wing-T, a popular offense in the Badger South Conference. Continuity at all levels, especially in high school, is crucial to success.
“We focus a lot on communication of where we’re going and who to block,” Gagner said. “We always make sure we’re on the same page. We typically don’t have any issues, and if we do, they get ironed out in practice.”
“You have to be smart and have a lot of chemistry,” Woodson added. “If you can’t play for the team and communicate, everything is going to fall apart.”
Oregon also tries to confuse teams by flipping its guards and tackles throughout games based on formation and personnel. In addition to potentially throwing off defenses, Panthers offensive line coach Scott Mirkes noted the flipping strategy keeps linemen focused.
“It’s challenging for them and keeps them engaged,” Mirkes said. “It also makes in-game adjustments easier; they can adjust on the field instead of us having to call timeout.”
Unlike its chief rival in Oregon, the Vikings have big linemen that are required to zone block in a spread offense.
“We typically go about 50/50 with the run and pass, but if the holes are there, there’s no reason to pass,” Stoughton offensive line coach Rocky France said. “The pass keeps defenses honest, but as an offensive line coach, I love to run the ball. We have a great group of guys that fire off the ball.”
University of Wisconsin-Madison commit Jack Nelson is set to anchor the Vikings’ line in his fourth season at left tackle. Three of the other four linemen are entering their second seasons as starters. Sophomore Gabe Rousseau is expected to step in at left guard, but started all of last season primarily blocking as Stoughton’s starting U back.
“We just need to get better in practice each day,” Rousseau said. “We’re going to be a dangerous line this year, and our running game should be pretty good.”
Nelson certainly garners most of the attention on the Vikings’ line, but France has high expectations for Rousseau and seniors Ethan Skavlen, Zach Wahlin and Tony Hohol.
“We have four guys that can play at the level Jack does,” France said. “They just have to be on their game. We’re pretty even across the board, and that’s what we want. We don’t want the defense to be able to shift to a weakness.”