YOUNGSTOWN – In any football offense, it usually all starts up front with the offensive line.
Offensive linemen are the first players to remove the ball and they help direct the attacking point of attack. They are responsible for both run blocking and pass protection on any given play. As a result, how that unit behaves can make or break an offense and the rest of the team.
This year, Ursuline will rely on a group of talented veterans on the offensive line with a plethora of experience under their belt. This group is made up of five seniors, each with at least two years of starting experience – Isaac Lucas, Colton Ross, Brian Frasco, Casey Leugers and Mike Branch.
“They’ve been an incredible group since they were first graders,” Irish head coach Dan Reardon said. “They’ve gotten so close, just playing football for four years and being in class together for four years and it’s just a really tight-knit group. It’s by far the strongest offensive line I’ve coached over the course of of all my years of training, and that’s saying something because we’ve had some good, strong ones.
It works well for the Irish because they got a lot of their talent from what was an incredibly explosive attack with last year’s team. Even if Ursuline fires Marc Manning and Will Burney at receiver, the Irish will still have a new quarterback, a running back and a few new receivers.
Having an experienced offensive line helps familiarize these new, younger players and familiarize them with the offense.
“You want to be a veteran right off the bat when you have that situation,” Reardon said. “It’s a good situation for our new guys. They don’t all have to be stars and they can just stay in the frame (of the attack) and let our O-line get to work. We are happy with what they are going to allow our guys to do and it gives them time to develop.
“In any offense it always starts in front,” added Lucas. “So I think having five seniors up front who have been there and played a lot of football for this program, it really helps the skilled guys behind us. It gives our quarterbacks and running backs more time. better holes to read.
However, not everything was a smooth process. This group had to go through some growing pains to get to where they are now.
These senior linemen were part of a team that won only two freshman games and is now coming to the Division IV state championship game.
“I remember the first year of our game against Fitch where we had eight in protection and we had a wide open receiver, but they got sacked,” Ross said. “It just showed us that we needed a good line to get to where we wanted to be – like the state championship game last year. Without prior help, this would not have been possible. So I just think we understand our role and we understand that the team deviates somewhat from our way of doing things.
Ross said he remembered how much smaller they were in first grade than they are now. The weight room has a lot to do with their growth and development over the years.
Since freshman year, Leugers has gained nearly 20 pounds, Lucas has gained about 18 pounds, and Frasco has added about 11 pounds. But, Branch may have had the biggest transformation — growing about two inches taller and gaining 35 pounds.
“They’re all big, strong kids, but that’s because they worked hard in the weight room for four years,” Reardon said. “They really invested time in the weight room.”
They also had to learn their roles.
Offensive linemen are often considered the big brothers of the team – they defend and protect the smaller, talented players and the rest of their teammates. Ross said it was something they had to learn.
“After a game, I forget when, but the coach once mentioned on film that your quarterback was on the floor and no one was coming to help him,” Ross said. “Since then, we think nobody touches our quarterback, nobody can touch our running back in the backfield. If they do, it’s personal to us. We have to go out there and attack. We want take care of our guys, make sure they stay healthy and know that we have their back.