The offensive line was Leesville Road’s most untested area as the Pride prepared for the 2012 high school football season.
The Pride’s interior blockers in 2011 primarily were two-year starters who played as a unit extremely well and were the strength of a club that finished 12-1, averaged 51.5 points and rushed for 373 yards per game.
But when Leesville football coach Chad Smothers gathered his club in August for preseason drills, there wasn’t a single offensive line starter back.
Smothers knew he had a group with potential. He knew the group had worked hard in the offseason and that they were physically strong and fit. But he did not know if they could become an effective unit. He didn’t know if they would be effective blockers.
“I think groupings are important in football, especially with your defensive backs and offensive line,” Smothers said. “They have to work together, to have an idea about what the other people around them are doing. Our guys had practiced together, but not really played together on the varsity level.
“Last year we began the season with five offensive line starters who had already started 12 varsity games. Those guys knew what the other guys were doing. They played as a unit. We didn’t know if this year’s group would develop that cohesiveness.”
The effectiveness of this year’s blockers is reflected in Leesville’s 8-0 record. The Pride averages 43.9 points and leads the area with 352.6 rushing yards per game. The offensive line play allows Leesville to average 50 rushes per game and 7 yards per rush.
“They’ve done a good job. I think they are playing with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder,” Smothers said. “They heard the naysayers talk about our offensive line not being as good as last year’s.”
Zack Stafford, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound guard, said this year’s front noticed the preseason talk about the offensive line being a Pride weakness.
“But last year in practice every day we went against our starting defense,” Stafford said. “We had a good defense and working that much against good competition made us better. And we’ve worked hard.”
The group also has built an uncommon unity.
“We vowed that we were not going to be the reason if we didn’t have a great season,” said tackle Selo (rhymes with Jell-O) Kuvana (6-0, 195). “We talked about it. We might not be the biggest or the most experienced, but we were going out there to push people around and help our team win.”
Four of the six primary blockers are seniors who have had to wait for their turn.
Senior right guard Drake Edwards (6-3, 240) had the most game experience. Junior center Alex Butler (5-10, 290) was starting at nose guard early this season before an injury necessitated Stafford, who had been at center, to slide to guard. Junior Chris Pendergraft (5-9, 300) stepped up at left tackle and senior Brock Pyper (6-2, 190) took over at tight end.
Kuvana made one of the biggest shifts, leaving tight end. “It can be tough on a kid to turn in his (number) 81 and pick up a 61,” Smothers said, referring to the relative glory of catching passes and scoring touchdowns as a tight end compared to being an anonymous blocker. “He’s a great kid, though. He never batted an eye.”
Kuvana said a few days before he was asked to make the move to tackle he had said he’d do anything to help the team.
“It was an adjustment at first, but then I figured out it was essentially the same things I had been doing,” he said.
Edwards, the most experienced of the linemen, said his goal this year was to emulate the attitude of last year’s primary blockers.
“Play hard on every play,” Edwards said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re playing the biggest game of the year or if you are in a game where you are ahead 71-0. You play hard on every down. Every snap. You don’t let up.”
Leesville plays at home on Friday against Cap Eight foe Heritage before finishing the regular season at Wake Forest-Rolesville.
Last year’s club reached the third round of the playoffs before losing to Garner in the Eastern semifinals. A similar matchup is conceivable this season.
“We saw the preseason predictions about Leesville not being very good,” Edwards said. “We wanted go out and prove we’re the real deal. We’re not going to go out and lie down because you’re bigger than us.”
The senior linemen are playing for their third position coach in as many years: Jimmy Williams left to coach at West Johnston, successor Will Orbin is now head coach at Holly Springs, and current offensive line coach Dickie Schock joined the staff after being head coach at Rocky Mount High.
“They are all different, but they are all alike,” Kuvana said. “They teach in different ways, but they always expect you to play hard and play as a unit. That’s what we want to do.”