More than one football coach will tell you that any chance for success starts up front.
No matter how talented a team may be at the skill positions, a solid line is a necessity.
The Sherman Bearcats have had their ups and downs this season, but steady improvement by the offensive line has helped put the team in position to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Seniors Mekhi Johnson-Berry (center), John Cooper (left guard) and Bret Boatright (left tackle) have been key pieces.
“They have really come through and done some really good things for us,” coach J. D. Martinez said.
The group has helped Sherman average 353.9 total yards and 28.1 per game in going 4-4 overall and 2-2 in District 5-5A. After this week’s open date, the Bearcats visit Wichita Falls High and host Denison to close out the regular season.
Cooper said being a game away from clinching a playoff berth only adds motivation for the Bearcats.
“It gives us confidence going into the next game, but not complacency,” he said. “We’re trying to finish these two games out strong.”
Sherman has shuffled the line almost the entire season as injuries have been a constant issue.
“The only ones we’ve had consistently in the same spots are Mekhi at center, John at left guard and (junior) Rudy Vazquez at right guard,” Martinez said. “The most consistent (tackle) has been Boatright at left. Then the other ones have been switching in quite a bit. Jose Montez has been starting, Chris Tobar and Christian Smallwood, who’s been injured. He was back last week, but we kept him out. He’s going to be back next week. He’ll be ready to roll.
“It’s good that we’ve had some kids who have stepped in quite a bit for us, but those seniors … you always look for something that’s going to come around.”
The best illustration of the line’s level of play is running back Nathaniel Omayebu, who leads the area in rushing with 1,078 yards. Boatright said the line and backs feed off each other to achieve results.
“A good line makes a good back,” Boatright said. “That’s why he has 1,100 yards, we’re doing our jobs. But a good back makes a good line. Even when we mess up, he makes us right by getting yards.”
Martinez said a good line can work in any offensive scheme.
“It kind of goes with what your way of thinking is,” he said. Here at Sherman, we want to impose our will on (opponents). We’re definitely better run blockers than we are pass protectors. It’s wherever you put your emphasis.
“If you’re a veer team, then you’re going to be really good at down blocking. If you put all emphasis on inside zone, you’re going to be good at it. If you’re a counter team, down blocking and pulling is where you’re going to be good.”
One key to success Martinez pointed to was having the proper frame of mind to play up front, something that usually goes against what players have been taught growing up.
“The one place that is always the slowest to develop in your program is the offensive line mentality,” he said. “They come in as freshmen and they’re still not very aggressive. You hope that they are, but a lot of times they’re very unsure of themselves and they won’t come off the ball because they’re afraid of making a mistake.
“They were always told, ‘you’re the bigger one, don’t pick on them. You’re the big guy.’ Everything from their mom to their third-grade teacher, ‘don’t pick on them.’ We have to go through and basically destroy that way of thinking and at the same time, you want to be a good person off the field. We want them to keep that, but when they step in between the white lines, all bets are off.”
Martinez credited offensive line coaches Josh Aleman and Presley McMahan with helping players develop the proper approach.
“We talk about it with our linemen all the time,” Martinez said. “Watch the pros, watch the college offensive linemen. It’s a brutal game where the best of the best are the meanest. When they are out there, it’s a fight, mano a mano. Whatever means necessary to win, but keep your hands inside, work your leverage points, drive your feet. Twist them, grind them, mash them, do what you have to do.
“That’s what we’re really working toward is that mentality with the linemen. It really doesn’t come into play for most of them until their junior year. I think that’s when the light switch flips and they understand. And I think some of it’s probably confidence. When the confidence hits them, they realize, ‘oh, I can do this.’ When they get their pancakes, when they start to realize what they’re able to do, then that confidence starts bringing a little bit of attitude. When you have an attitude, you’ve got to have a little bit of swagger about you. Those are the good ones.”
Johnson-Berry said it has been a long process, but the Bearcats are starting to show results.
“It’s been good helping us establish physicality,” he said. “I feel like that was the problem at the beginning of the year. We were kind of coming off the blocks a little slow. But as the year’s worn on, we’ve definitely gotten more physical, more aggressive. That’s just carried on and that’s why Nate is doing the way he’s doing.”