A salute to a new but equally successful championship-caliber offensive line
By Geoff Morrow:
4th Down Magazine
Cole Senior once pulled the wrong way.
The Middletown junior offensive lineman looked to his right as the play developed opposite of where he engaged the linebacker for what was supposed to be another devastating run block.
Instead, the duo – guard and linebacker – danced a meaningless dance as the Blue Raiders’ running back still made headway on the other side of the field.
“I just saw the whole play develop to my right as I was in no-man’s land watching,” he said from Middletown High School this week, where the 14-0 Blue Raiders were preparing for Saturday’s noon kickoff against Quaker Valley (13-1) in the PIAA Class 3A championship game at Hersheypark Stadium.
“It was still a good run.”
Amazingly, mistakes like Senior’s on this particular play have been few and far between during Middletown’s second straight championship-caliber season.
The amazing part? Brett Myers’ Blue Raiders returned to the title game after losing a significant chunk of last year’s squad to graduation, including 80 percent of the starting offensive line.
Most expected Middletown to be pretty good in 2017, as the team brought back studs like running back Brady Fox, tackle Brendan Douglass, linebacker Kyle Truesdale, wide receiver/defensive back Tyreer Mills, and athlete Tre Leach, among others.
But this level of domination? A second straight unbeaten regular season? A second straight District 3 championship? Outscoring foes 371-35 over the last eight games, five of which came against playoff teams?
It’s safe to say nobody saw this coming. Not even the guys in that locker room.
And, while there are stars galore donning blue and gold, it all starts up front with that rebuilt, restructured but equally dominant offensive line.
EXPERIENCE BEGETS FORMULAIC SUCCESS
The 2016 offensive line, which paved to way to monster seasons by running backs Jaelen Thompson (now at Towson) and Fox, was such a well-oiled machine, the sideline verbiage was nearly unrecognizable.
Myers and offensive line coach Mike Dupes so trusted last year’s group, the conversations could fluidly micro-focus on the smallest details.
Douglass, now a 6-foot-5, 285-pound senior, was the unit’s only underclassman. He played alongside four-year starter Tommy Staker and three-year starters Trey Michal, Griffen Radabaugh and Ethan Newton, all four of whom were recognized in some capacity as Mid-Penn Capital first-team all-stars (Radabaugh on defense).
Into the offseason, after suffering the campaign’s only loss to Beaver Falls in the PIAA title game, Douglass quickly realized he needed to change his mindset.
When that Hersheypark Stadium clock hit 0:00 last December, he suddenly went from fifth wheel to head honcho among the offensive linemen.
“It was a little awkward at first because, coming up through high school, I was just so used to following the people ahead of me,” he said. “But then I realized I was at the top of the chain. After a while it did get really comfortable because I know these four really look up to me, and I can help them out with whatever they need.”
While Douglass shifted from right to left tackle, he was ultimately joined by four fresh starters, all juniors – Senior at left guard, Bishop McDevitt transfer Joey Gusler at center, Morgan Billman at right guard, and Ethan Miller at right tackle.
In addition, Myers and Dupes added a veteran coach to the mix, convincing Myers’ old line coach, Jon Dickey, to return to the varsity sideline after previously serving as a Blue Raiders assistant from 1988-2000.
“They do an unbelievable job of finding out how to communicate with the players, to make them better,” Myers said of Dupes and Dickey, who are both teachers in the school district. “Those two are obviously pretty good at doing what they’re doing. Now, when you’re talking, it sounds like last year’s conversations. And when you hear those things, you know we’re doing OK.”
Dupes focuses on the guards and centers, while Dickey mostly trains the tackles and tight ends.
“It’s a typical Middletown kid, as long as I’ve been here, who will follow your lead,” Dickey said. “It’s a mutual respect. They’ll go through a wall. They’ll give you what they have, and this group has given a lot.”
WORTH THE WEIGHT
As is typical with football – especially offensive linemen – initial bonds are built in the weight room.
Douglass, with his newfound leadership, drove the new crop of potential line mates hard in offseason workouts.
“He really pushed me over the summer, to the point where I wanted to quit,” said Billman, who missed 2016 with a broken collarbone and was behind even his fellow first-year starters in terms of learning curve. “But he kept on pushing me to make sure I’m where I needed to be for this season.”
While Senior and Billman, as the athletic guards, more closely resemble fullbacks or linebackers with their modest size, Gusler (6-foot-2, 270) and Miller (6-foot-3, 220) boast more typical lineman girth.
Overall, though, this is far from the biggest offensive line. They’re mashing foes with a combination of smarts, athleticism and flat-out determination.
“You just had to really work hard to claim a [starting] spot,” Miller said. “It was pretty much about whoever wanted it the most, and a lot of people stepped up this year. That’s why we are where we are.”
Douglass, Senior and Gusler all achieved first-team Mid-Penn Capital status, while Miller picked up a second-team nod.
Though the group shifted positions throughout the first half of the regular season, they solidified in their current roles around midseason.
It’s no coincidence that the Blue Raiders have simply overwhelmed every opponent since then, as Fox (1,402 yards, 26 touchdowns, now the school’s all-time leading rusher) and sophomore Jose Lopez (1,749 yards, 25 touchdowns) chew up yardage like Little Leaguers with wads of bubblegum.
Fox, who missed the season opener with a concussion, returned to the lineup in Week 2 against Northern.
“Breaking my first long touchdown, I was back to last year,” Fox said. “But then I realized it’s a different line, a different team. And I kind of had a good feeling about this year’s line and knew we were going to do big things.”
And even in those rare instances when the line screws something up, the synergy carries the Blue Raiders through.
“It seems like if our O-line would have a bad game, our running backs could still make us look good,” Gusler said. “There could be a missed assignment, we could miss a block, and they could still beat that one player. We try to get them one-on-one, because they can usually beat that.”
POINTS OF PRIDE
As Senior says, one of the best parts of being a lineman is avoiding the limelight and maintaining a humble attitude.
There’s also the fevered frequency of contact, which a lineman’s animalistic instincts crave like slabs of meat for a hungry lion.
But what’s impressed Myers more than anything is the seamlessness with which this new offensive line bonded, developed and prospered, as if this group, like last year’s, featured a slew of returning multiple-year starters.
He was particularly dazzled by Douglass, because every championship-caliber team needs a few B-Dougies on its roster to lead the pack.
“Last year all the older guys used to look out for Brendan when I’d be a little too rough on him,” Myers said. “They’d stick up for him, and you watched him take that role on this year and stick up for the younger guys. He’s probably the perfect person for that.”
Miller, Billman, Gusler and Senior all sang Douglass’ praises, too, and none of it smelled like brownnosing. There’s a matter-of-factness about linemen that makes hyperbole seem like a waste of energy.
“I’m right beside him, so we kind of got into a groove at the beginning of the season,” said Senior, who’s also a first-team defensive lineman. “It definitely started in the weight room, but it’s a friendship, a bond. He just taught me a lot.”
Douglass has generated college interest through his high-quality play, specifically from Shippensburg and other PSAC schools.
But those concerns about the future can wait a few more days.
For now, this offensive line – and the entire Blue Raiders’ roster, including another key blocker in fullback Lamar Ventura – has one more goal to cross off the list.
“It never really dawned on me until we won the last game,” Douglass said of the rare opportunity to compete in back-to-back state championship games.
“Coach is always telling us not to look too far ahead, to just take things one week at a time, so that’s what I was focusing on. But now that we’re here, looking back at what we’ve done, the coaches have done a great job all year pushing us, making sure we know what we’re doing.
“We just do our jobs on the offensive line, the proper footwork, punching, driving the defensive line off the ball. And then the running backs just run behind us and run for a long distance.”