It’s long been held, in some quarters, that the smartest players on a football field can be found on the offensive line. Count us in that camp.
If you dispute the claim, well, here’s a point upon which we can probably agree: No one works harder in football with less recognition than the boys up front.
To help right the oversight, the Record-Journal introduces a new Thanksgiving feature recognizing the top offensive linemen on our area teams, as designated by their coaches. It will be an annual companion piece to “The Defenders” series on the top defensive players.
Admittedly, we don’t have a snappy name yet. “Blocks of Granite,” for lack of originality, is out.
Besides, granite is immobile, and while play on the O-line still demands muscle, it has become like the rest of the game. The premium on speed and agility is greater than ever. You still have to be able to slam-dance in the trenches, to be sure, but you need to know ballet, too.
Our initial class of honorary linemen covers all the positions across the line. Most are left tackles. No surprise. That’s the blind-side protection and the majority of high school programs, including ours, run spread systems.
Our linemen, by the way, were not blue-chippers. They are guys who plugged away and stuck with it and capitalized on opportunity when it came their way. They are now players their teams can’t do without.
Amid major loss of manpower in the Platt trenches, the guy who has emerged as the cornerstone is senior Andre Barnes. It’s too bad he doesn’t have another year.
Protecting quarterback A.J. Marinelli’s backside and opening holes for area rushing leader E.J. Dudley, Barnes is anchoring an offense putting up 341 yards and 27 points a game. The Panthers are, on average, passing for 157 yards and rushing for 194.
“He had kind of a slow start, but he's been on point the last few weeks,” Platt coach Jason Bruenn said of Barnes. “He's trying to be the leader of a young line.”
It’s hard to miss Platt’s emergent left tackle. No. 74 goes 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds. For the finer points, you have to go to the videotape, as Bruenn discovered.
“I didn't really notice how well he was doing until I looked at the film,” the head coach said. “He's just blocking the heck out of people.”
Like Andre Barnes of Platt, Southington’s Jonathan “J.J.” Clark is a big man who blossomed in his senior year.
A newcomer to the Blue Knights’ starting front five, Clark wound up being a cornerstone due to injuries around him, particularly to returning left tackle and senior captain Jake Monson.
“J.J.’s played really well this season,” said Southington coach Mike Drury. “We had a couple of guys with injuries and he stepped in a major role position at left tackle.”
Clark has contributed to an offense putting up 370 yards and 37 points a game. Both are area highs.
The Blue Knights average 226 yards passing and 144 yards rushing. Those big numbers, not to mention Clark’s 6-foot-5, 270-pound frame, have helped generate college interest for No. 68.
There are several guys in our inaugural collection of linemen who are being recognized for their outstanding two-way play. Cheshire’s Dan Covel is one of them.
The senior captain is at tackle whether the Rams have the ball or are on defense. You can throw special teams into the mix, too. “He’s on the field the whole game,” as coach Don Drust said.
Covel goes 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds. He has made 41 tackles, including seven for a loss. On offense, he helps push an attack averaging 145 yards rushing and 133 passing.
Covel is coming off an injury heading into today’s Apple Classic. Win or lose, this won’t be his last football game. No. 72 is heading to St. Lawrence in upstate New York. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for him,” said Drust. “Because of football and academics, he put himself into a tremendous academic school.”
Senior Desmond King has much in common with his mates on this first R-J All-Star line. Like Cheshire’s Dan Covel, he goes both ways. Like Southington’s J.J. Clark, injuries forced him to fill a void on offense.
A defensive lineman by trade, the 5-foot-10, 260-pound King slotted in at center and guard when the Spartans took hits up front. He’s helped the offense average just under 320 yards and 29 points a game.
On defense, No. 72 has been unstoppable. Of King’s 55 tackles, 19 have been made behind the line of scrimmage. That includes 8½ sacks. Those are numbers rarely seen for a defensive tackle.
“He's the most diverse player we have,” said Maloney coach Kevin Frederick. “He’s a mauler; he’s physical. He wants to push people around and gets a good push upfield. He knows his assignments well. He's tenacious.”
If you read our season previews back in September and watched the accompanying videos, Lyman Hall’s Andrew McClure might have struck you as one of the more well-spoken senior captains in the area. (Smartest players, remember?)
McClure talked about the importance of re-establishing a winning culture in Lyman Hall football and, sure enough, the Trojans did just that this year, winning as many games as they did in the past five years combined. That’s why, regardless of what happens today in the Carini Bowl, 2017 will be remembered as a sucessful season for LH.
As a senior captain and returning center, No. 51 was literally in the middle of it. Coach Bill Weyrauch termed the 5-foot-11, 217-pound McClure the anchor the offensive line.
“Drew makes all the calls for the linemen on the line of scrimmage for each play. He also gives direction to any lineman who is confused about our blocking scheme on a particular play,” Weyrauch said. “As a captain this year, his leadership was outstanding. Drew was the main reason our two primary backs ran for more than 1,200 yards.
We mentioned our linemen weren’t blue-chippers coming in the door. Sheehan’s Stephen Zenisky is Exhibit A. He was a 130-pound freshman.
Now a 275-pound senior, No. 54 is the leader of the O-line at left tackle and a key defender on the other side of the ball with 57 tackles, including eight for a loss.
Zenisky and the offense are averaging 362 yards in putting up 35.8 points a game. That’s the third-most prolific attack in the SCC and it’s propelled the Titans to an 8-1 record and a spot in the state playoffs for the first time since 1995.
"Steve has played like a beast all year,” said coach John Ferrazzi. “He's gotten physically stronger every year in the program ... He's now the strongest player we have ever had in the program.
“He is also athletic for his size and he could play any position on the line,” Ferrazzi added. “He makes a lot of plays and no one can block him one-on-one. He's a fierce player on both sides of the ball."
Sean Krofssik and Ken Lipshez contributed to this story