Behind the lines – the big guys in the middle

“Joe Fan” as my late friend Harold Bailey often referred to the experts behind us in the stands, doesn’t always understand the important aspects of the game. Whether it be football, baseball, basketball, track, or any of the myriad other sports, the basics are all the same. Preparation, execution, and adaptation are the obvious keys to success, but what are the others?

Harold also preached, and those who played for him have heard this phrase thousands of times, “Take care of the little things, the big things take care of themselves.”

The little things when it comes to football, aren’t little at all, at least in terms of the size of the players. The adage that offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships start with the big guys in the middle, the guys who make the offense shine, and who shut down the running game and make life miserable for the quarterback on the other team.

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Deion Sanders, arguably one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century is now the head football coach at Jackson State University.

Sanders was lighting in a bottle as a player. Incredibly fast, cocky to the point of derision, and the epitome of the shut-down corner. He once famously said, “The earth is covered two-thirds by water, I cover the rest.”

A flashy defensive back, return specialist, and occasional wide receiver, he also played major league baseball.

“Prime Time” as only announcer Chris Berman could call him, was one of the best at what is annoyingly called the “skill positions.”

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When you hear the term “skill position” it’s always about quarterbacks, receivers, running backs, and occasionally tight ends. The backside of that phrase is that the offensive linemen and the guys lining up in the box on defense are something less than skilled.

Sanders with his obvious “skill position” resume turned that term on its head earlier this season commenting on the difference between top 25 college football programs and the rest of NCAA Division I football.

“It’s the big guys up front that make the difference,” Sanders said. “Quarterbacks, running backs, receivers are good at every level, but recruiting lineman for both sides of the ball separates the best from the rest.”

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Sanders relentlessly advocates for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) football programs. You’ve probably heard of a few of them, Grambling, Southern, Mississippi Valley State (thanks to Jerry Rice), and Sanders’s own Jackson State program, incidentally Walter Payton’s Alma Matter.

My friend Tom Zingarelli and I often joked about the rosters at Grambling, Southern, and other HBCU schools. We’d make up a name like Willy Jackson, “Scrap Iron” Johnson, or Mac Wilson and list his height and weight like they used to do on Monday Night Football. It was always 6-1, 196 pounds.

The truth was if you looked at the rosters of these schools that’s exactly what half of the squads were composed of.

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A fast kid at 6-1 and 196 pounds has the potential to be a fabulous college football player, but they’re going to get mashed into a pulp if they line up with one of those 6-8, 315-pound lineman playing at Ohio State, Michigan, and Alabama.

Which brings us back to Neon Deion as a coach and “Joe Fan.”

Games are won and lost in the trenches. I always enjoy watching the action at the point of attack when the center takes a jab step after snapping the ball to engage a lineman or linebacker. Watching the feet of offensive linemen is a technique I taught linebackers, corners, and safeties to read since their feet always give away the play no matter what the quarterback is doing behind them. 

Hinge blocks, drive blocks, base blocks, pulling, cross blocks, and the ability to scoop a defensive player are all tactics that separate great programs from the rest. Though the “experts” don’t consider these techniques examples of a skilled position, you should try to execute them against a quick, oversized opponent. You’ll soon learn what skill is at the point of attack.  

In Wyoming prep football, no one can compete with the success at Cokeville under now-retired head coach Todd Dayton. Dayton’s teams won 20 of Cokeville’s 22 state championships during his 41-year tenure.

Dayton would be the first one to tell you a big part of that success comes from his longtime assistant Keith Nate who coached the line all those years. Nate’s linemen were precise, executed traps, double-teams, and base blocks with laser-like execution all the while often being the smallest unit in their entire statewide division.

On Christmas day 2016, my son-in-law Adam Orbell and I had sideline passes for one of the NFL’s most bitter rivalries between Pittsburgh and the visiting Baltimore Ravens.

Most fans only remember the last-second, game winning, four-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown, but a play in the early second quarter epitomized the rivalry for us.

Terrell Suggs was a 6-2 255-pound linebacker and defensive end for the Ravens, a fast, brutal pass rusher. Lining up to block him was 6-9, 320-pound Steeler left tackle Alejandro Villanueva.

As Roethlisberger dropped back to pass, he looked for an open receiver to his right. Just as he turned Suggs drilled him from behind, dropping Big Ben with a vengeance.

Offensive linemen take it personally when they give up a sack. Villanueva didn’t show any outward signs of what was to come, but I told Adam to focus on these two for the next few plays.

Sure enough, the Steelers ran a toss sweep to the right and the officials followed the ball.

Villanueva and Suggs were out of the play, but not out of the action. As most of the fans watched the ball, Villanueva picked up Suggs under the front of his shoulder pads, lifted him high in the air and body slammed him into the turf, followed by Villanueva’s 320-pound body weight focused on his right elbow driven in Sugg’s neck. The fight was on.

For the remainder of the game, those two went at it. I’ve watched Big Horn rams head-butting near Dubois and they had nothing on this pair. The battle was epic.

Football starts this Friday with zero-week games for Riverton and Lander and controlled scrimmages for many of the smaller schools. Watch the kids with numbers between 50 and 79, those are the linemen, and they’re the ones that get the job done without getting the glory and press the “skilled positions” receive.

Here’s to a great start to the season.

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