Football is unlike any other team sport in that it contains teams within a team. Case in point, the offensive line is typically the five brutes you see sitting together on a bench behind the rest of the team on the sideline during a game.
Quarterbacks and running backs get all the headlines. But what really makes a dominating offense click are the five guys who create those dump truck-sized gaps you see when you gasp, "Even I could run for 10 yards through that hole!"
As Eastside enters tonight's second round playoff game with Carrollton, the one unit that has come together the most and been perhaps the biggest reason for the team's success consists of left tackle James Johnson, left guard Lane Dobbs, center Dalton Temple, right guard Micha East and right tackle Jarrett Hubbard. Meet the men that battle in the trenches - the offensive line.
Coming into the season, the offensive line was shrouded with questions. Even the coach was an unknown. But 11 games into the season, those questions have been answered and then some.
Led by third-year coach Michael Kennedy, the Eagles offensive line has evolved into what offensive coordinator Jay Cawthon refers to as "a well-oiled machine."
"We only had one starter, James Johnson, coming back, but I had watched all of them before I and I thought there was some talent there," Kennedy said. "I could tell, especially in the springtime, that Dalton [Temple] would be good and we all knew Jarrett [Hubbard] was going to be good."
Kennedy moved over from defensive line to the offensive side at the request of head coach Rick Hurst as he thought he was the best guy for the job. As a former collegiate standout who played at perennial Division II powerhouse Grand Valley State University in Michigan, Kennedy is familiar with line schemes, in particular, the zone blocking scheme that Eastside implements.
The "well-oiled machine" is five linemen who trust each other. More than any other group of players on the team, Kennedy said the offensive line has to work together and pick each other up. That's especially true with a zone blocking scheme.
"The offensive line is more a family in a team of a family," Kennedy said. "For us, it's all about repetition. They have to work together. The best lines are always the closest lines and I think what's made us so good is they are close friends. There is no other group that has to work with the guy next to him and know what he is doing so much."
The key to Eastside's zone blocking is the unit working together and getting up field. Kennedy said the reason his works so well is because he has smart players and Temple, who recognizes the defensive line's look and calls it out to his teammates, has the ability to read what the defense is going to do. But it's all about execution.
"We are blessed to have two tackles [Hubbard and Johnson] that are both strong and quick enough to be lead men on the zone," Kennedy said. "They are both great athletes. They can punch quickly and get up to the linebackers. The glue that keeps us together is our center Temple. He's the one making all the calls and telling us what defense we are in."
While the zone scheme is not new at Eastside, Kennedy has brought a more effective element along with a rigorous conditioning program and the line runs through each play.
"We've run the zone in the past, but I have emphasized more of a true zone, where you trust a takeover, trying to push the offensive line up to the linebacker," Kennedy said. "Before, I don't think the line made it up to the linebackers as effectively as we have this year."
The zone relies on the line moving together and staying on a set course. For the zone to work well, the linemen must stay on that course and pick up blocks along the way. It's easier said than done, especially in high school.
"Depending on where the lineman is, depends on who you pick up," Kennedy explained. "I refer to it as the railroad tracks and the linemen are the locomotive. You have to stay on that course no matter what. You can't derail the train."
Think of a small squad of soldiers that ambushes an enemy. The lead lineman acts as the point man and the guys in tow are following his lead with the trailer picking up the rear. In the meantime, each player is picking off would-be tacklers and opening those holes for Broderick Alexander, Git Aiken, Rashad Hill and Justin Wray to exploit.
At it's best, the zone blocking scheme is poetry in motion. Look at the Denver Broncos in the NFL. For years Denver has played with a smaller, yet quicker offensive line but consistently turns out 1,000-yard backs. During the Terrell Davis, Olandis Geary and Mike Anderson days, it didn't matter who lined up at running back. The athletic offensive line was so in tune with what it was doing - working with each other and picking up assignments, it powered them to consecutive Super Bowl wins at the turn of the century.
"The advantages are getting up to the linebackers and taking over the gaps," Kennedy said. "If the defense is in a gap, you try to take it away from them. The best thing is to double team the defensive lineman, then work your way up to the linebacker."
At its worst, a zone blocking team can be shut down quickly. That's something that Kennedy admits Cawthon was worried about coming into the season.
"In the springtime, there was still some concern from Cawthon about us leaving down linemen to get up to the linebackers," he said. "He was afraid that a high school team wouldn't be able to do it like a college or pro team does it. So it was over a period of time that they [Cawthon and Hurst] started to see that we were actually running it as well as a college team. I think Cawthon felt very comfortable at what we were doing at that point."
Over the last five games, Eastside's line has helped the Eagles score close to 38 points per game and average more than 200 yards on the ground. It's safe to say, the o-line is peaking at the right time.
"I feel good about the way we are playing right now," Kennedy said. "The coaches have confidence in the line and you can tell. Our backs trust the line and everyone is working very well together."