High School Sports

Linemen show area football teams the path to success

On the first day of spring football every year, Arroyo Grande High assistant coach Scott Shepard has a message for the incoming class of offensive linemen.

“I tell them Day 1, ‘If you’re looking for your name over the loudspeaker, it’s not going to happen,’ ” Shepard said.

“I look for a guy that lives for intrinsic rewards,” said Shepard, the Eagles’ offensive line coach since 1986. “You’ve got to find that reward within, where you see that nice block or see a ball carrier score a touchdown. That’s what hopefully motivates you.”

Such is the eternally unsung life of offensive linemen, for whom anonymity can be a fact of life, scoring is a historical oddity, and glorified individual statistics are nonexistent.

If quietly, though, offensive line play has long been one of San Luis Obispo County’s strong suits, and this season is no different.

Two locals, Paso Robles senior center Cole Thompson and Morro Bay junior tackle Jon Miller, were named to the Cal-Hi Sports preseason all-Ventura/Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo counties first team. San Luis Obispo senior Nick Butier earned the same distinction at linebacker, although he also starts as an offensive guard.

All four county teams from the PAC 7 are averaging at least 25 points per game. The offensive lines at San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande and Atascadero are all paving the way for more than 225 rushing yards per contest, while Paso Robles’ offense has been the most diversified of the bunch, ranking second in the CIF-Southern Section Western Division in passing efficiency.

But does the void of fanfare and instantaneous jersey-number recognition bother the guys blocking every down?

“I think we’re looking at the win,” San Luis Obispo sophomore guard Jack Ferguson said. “How many points we put on the board relies a lot on how much push we get, and if we get the win, we’re happy.”

Arroyo Grande senior guard Griffin Soto was of the same thought process.

“I wouldn’t mind scoring a touchdown here or there,” Soto said with a smile, “but line’s pretty fun, too.

“As a team, I think we just want the ‘W’ and everyone doing their right assignment.”

In the Los Padres League, first-place Morro Bay’s front is clearing the way for more than 200 yards per game on the ground, with Templeton and Nipomo each grinding out over 190.

Area small schools have their standouts as well. Mission Prep’s Joey Miller won the East Sierra League Lineman of the Year award as a junior last year, and Coast Union has had three different running backs all surpass the 100-yard plateau in separate games. At the 8-man level, both North County Christian and Shandon are putting up at least 30 points per game.

No matter the setting, players and coaches agreed that a vastly overlooked aspect of a line’s tasks are the cerebral ones — pointing out potential blitzers, and being able to anticipate and adjust at the line of scrimmage to what a defense may suggest is in the cards after the offense breaks the huddle.

“You can’t be in the land of ‘duh,’ ” Shepard said. “You’ve got to come up there, see what’s going on in a split second and make changes.”

And in a realm where the only official person-specific stats are negatives such as sacks allowed and penalties accumulated, linemen can become their own toughest critics.

“I still haven’t forgotten a sack,” Soto said. “It gets me pretty upset when we give up a sack, because our quarterback trusts us to block for him. That’s our job, and he shouldn’t have to worry about that.”

Added San Luis Obispo senior tackle Alex Klott, “You really have to trust everybody on that line to do their job, because you can’t be worrying about someone else’s job when you have to go get the point linebacker, you have to cut the defensive end.

“You have to do your job and count on everybody else to do theirs.”

Last week, keyed by an undersized group of blockers in a scheme tailor-made for their talents, San Luis Obispo had one of the most impressive showings of the season among any local team thus far.

The Tigers, who don’t start an offensive lineman bigger than 6-foot-2 or 225 pounds, rushed for nearly 200 yards more than a much larger Righetti squad in a 38-17 upset. It left the Warriors with their first league loss since 2008.

But the result was no surprise to the Tigers, whose triple-option backfield requires quickness and explosiveness from its linemen. In most other systems at similarly sized schools, San Luis Obispo’s linemen likely would’ve been playing at other positions because of their size alone.

“We knew that we would do whatever it took,” Klott said of a group also led by senior center Ryan Coburn. “So there were some of us that sacrificed other positions (with scoring and stats) to play what we needed to play.”

It can take years for many players to reach that realization, as most kids grow up idolizing quarterbacks, running backs and receivers first and foremost on TV.

“I’ve never heard a little kid say, ‘Hey, I want to be an offensive lineman,’ ” said Shepard, who played at Oregon from 1980 to 1983. “It’s usually a quarterback — or even defense. You hear a lot of kids say they want to play defense, defensive line, because they want to hit. But I tell them, ‘You’ve got to hit on offensive line, too.’ ”

In fact, that’s what can make it all worth the while — especially if it helps someone else score or chalk up some stats.

“That feeling when you just destroy somebody and you get a touchdown off it, it’s just the best feeling,” San Luis Obispo senior tackle Brian Lang said. “It just sticks with you that whole game, and you keep working for it every time.”

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