Prep Football: West Rowan’s offensive line shouldn’t miss a beat
By Mike London
MOUNT ULLA ó After the first hour of West Rowan’s first official football practice, often jovial offensive line coach Joe Nixon wears a menacing scowl.
“Our tempo is terrible,” groans Nixon, a former Catawba standout who’s now in his sixth year on the West staff. “We’ve got to do a lot better. Rodney, you look like you’re moving in slow motion.”
Rodney is massive left tackle Rodney Cline, a reserve on West’s 2008 3A champions when he checked in at 320 pounds and a sure starter in 2009. Cline has work to do, but he appears willing to do it.
The offensive line will miss steady head-knockers such as Garrett Teeter, Ricky Moore and Joseph Kerley and is getting early scrutiny because people weary of watching West hang banners are desperately searching for signs of weakness.
Good luck with that. West has 12 starters back, including all-world tailback K.P. Parks and all-world, zero-body-fat defensive end Chris Smith, a chiseled, cheerful Arkansas commitment. Smith leads every sprint and grins after each gasser, eager to run one more.
Punter/holder/receiver/kick returner/backup QB Jon Crucitti isn’t all-world, but he is All-State. The All-State tag also fits Tim Pangburn, a country-strong, 300-pound block of cement. Pangburn, the starting left guard as a sophomore and starting left tackle as a junior has moved to center for his senior year. He’ll anchor a reloaded O-line that will be called upon to pave the road for the punishing Parks and protect returning QB B.J. Sherrill.
Pangburn is an irresistible force. Right tackle Davon Quarles is a returning starter. Cline and right guard Charles Holloway have experience. The lone serious question is at left guard where neither Armando Trujillo nor Jairahmai “Biscuit” Robinson have been through the fire yet.
“We’ve got four O-linemen back who played in the big one,” said Nixon, referencing the Falcons’ 35-7 destruction of West Craven in the 3A title game. “Timmy’s going to be really good at center. He’s a power kid. His style is better suited to the interior.”
Tight end Patrick Hampton, Nixon’s brother-in-law, also is back. The tight end is usually a sixth O-lineman in West’s gameplan, but Hampton, long, lean and athletic, looks like he was born to catch passes. It could happen.
With a half hour to go at practice, Nixon sounds more chipper. Improved stances have led to quicker steps for his group. Improved steps mean better angles for their blocks. Defenders holding thick pads are knocked back and brushed aside. The imaginary holes that Parks will crash through in just a few weeks are getting wider.
“It all starts with that stance and now you’re learning,” barks Nixon, clapping his hands. “Open those steps up. Get those pads down. Know where your head’s gotta be. That’s it, Rodney. I’ll take that every time!”
No one needs to lecture head coach Scott Young, a former offensive linemen, that a cohesive O-line is the foundation for every successful team. It’s one of the beauties of football. They are generally the worst athletes, but they are also the most important.
Young’s first year in Mount Ulla was 1998. West barely reached 1,000 yards as a team that season, scored four TDs on the ground and went 3-8.
Things are much different now. West outrushed foes 4,153 yards to 847 in 2009. Over the last decade, Young’s teams have usually controlled the ball and the clock with their O-line. When he’s been able to mix in an accurate passer such as Jared Barnette, Bryan Aycoth or Sherrill, his offense has been elevated to devastating. West averaged 38.2 points a game last season.
“The O-line is a big part of our tradition,” Young said. “Ten straight seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher and two of those seasons we had two of ’em. I look at this year’s O-line and I see four legit guys right now. We’re working hard to develop that fifth spot.”
The quietly intense Pangburn feels better about life by the hour.
“First day of mini-camp I was worried a lot about this year,” Pangburn said. “But Nixon’s a really good coach. He’s fixed a lot a already. He’ll coach everyone up. We’ll be fine.”
One reason West’s O-line is making progress is the get-tough-or-die principle. West’s defensive line, with returning starters Smith and Eli Goodson and lettermen Emmanuel Gbunblee and Mackel (pronounced McHale) Gaither, is large, athletic and terrifying.
“I’m just hoping we can survive camp against those guys without me getting a heart attack,” Nixon said.
Young only had 83 bodies sweating on Saturday. He wants 100 and called it his “lightest number since 1998.” Still, he was encouraged by what he saw.
Some things don’t change at West. Not the cornfields. Not the character. Not assistant Ralph Ellis, who is back for his 29th season. The dominance of the O-line likely won’t change either.
“The guys worked pretty good today,” Nixon said. “They got better.”