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Gainesville's 'Baby Line'

Young offensive line gets job done for Big Red

POSTED: November 19, 2007 5:03 a.m.
It was supposed to be the key, exploitable weakness for Gainesville this year.

But after the Red Elephants won their final regular season game two weeks ago, stamping their ticket for their seventh consecutive trip to the playoffs, senior quarterback Justin Fordham could only sing the praises of his offensive line.

"They have done an amazing job this year," he said. "I wouldn’t trade them for anyone in the world."

Fordham will have the same five linemen protecting him Friday night at Westminster High in the first round of the Class AAA playoffs that he had at the beginning of the season.

Commonly referred to as the "Baby Line" by parents on the sidelines at practice, the four sophomores and one junior that make up the Red Elephants’ starting offensive line had their young hands full before the season started.

Gainesville graduated the majority of a stellar offensive line from the 2006 season. Two players on that line signed with Division I-A colleges and graduate Bo Wren now starts at the Virginia Military Institute.

"Last year, we didn’t know if we’d be playing much," sophomore lineman Sloan Strickland said. "We just sat on the sideline wondering when our time would be."

Their time would be sooner than most expected.

After the 2006 season, Gainesville coach Bruce Miller decided to shift from a Wing-T, run-based offense to a spread, pass-based offense.

Instead of strong space-fillers, Miller and Gainesville offensive line coach John Kemp needed smaller, faster and more athletic players on the offensive line.

"It is a total change in priorities," Kemp said. "We had to totally re-adjust, spend a lot more time on pass protection."

Although they were young, Gainesville’s coaches had a group of offensive lineman that fit that description waiting for their chance.

"I think we fit it real well," sophomore lineman Michael Walters said.

Strickland, Walters, sophomore right tackle Taylor Stowe, sophomore lineman Jacob Couch and junior center Nick Williams put in time during the offseason and before school to get acclimated to the new style of blocking.

"I love the offense," Stowe said. "It’s pretty easy. We have all the plays on our wristbands. It is kind of dummy-proof."

Even with all the extra time spent on the field, the young group still wasn’t sure who would be starting and when.

The line found out that the job was theirs before the Red Elephants’ preseason scrimmage against Habersham Central.

"I didn’t think I would be starting," Strickland said. "I was very surprised."

Couch had a hard time keeping his excitement and anxiety to himself on the field.

"I think I jumped offsides on the first play," he said. "You could definitely feel the nerves."

The nerves of that first game haven’t completely dissipated for the four sophomores and one junior.

"On the first play of every game, I still get nervous," Stowe said with his teammates agreeing. "We are fine after that."

Gainesville’s preseason diagnosis from many high school football pundits was that it had some of the best skill players in the region but one of the weakest offensive lines, mainly due to the youth and inexperience of the group.

Those concerns permeated the walls of the Red Elephants’ fieldhouse.

"There was a lot of concern," Kemp said. "I know at the beginning of the season, we were hearing it a lot. Even amongst ourselves."

Not all of the linemen were convinced that the new style of play would succeed.

"In the beginning, I didn’t think it was going to work," Couch said. "I thought I was going to get killed."

It wasn’t until the Red Elephants beat East Hall 55-0 in the rain-soaked season opener that Couch saw what the offense was capable of.

"That was when I knew we could do some great things," he said.

Six wins and a playoff berth later, Gainesville’s offensive line is one of its most improved units and no coach, quarterback or running back has a complaint about its youth.

"It has been a pleasant surprise for some people," Kemp said. "We knew, in time, they would be fine."

It hasn’t been a perfect season by any measure for the young line. All of the linemen pointed out the Chestatee game, a 35-19 loss, as a time when they weren’t at their best.

That loss was the third in a row for the Red Elephants, a time that had many of the players, parents and coaches concerned with the rest of the season.

During the turmoil, the "Baby Line" managed to stay together.

"They get along great," Kemp said. "They communicate well. They play for each other."

The group said it spends a lot of time together, including going out to dinner together every Thursday night.

Get any number of them in the same room, and it’s only a few minutes for one to crack a joke about another, or one to finish another’s sentence.The jokes made at their expense by their teammates, however, have decreased.

"We were definitely getting harassed at the beginning of the season," Walters said. "But now they are laying off because they see how good we are doing. I don’t think Justin (Fordham) has been sacked more than three or four times."

With all five returning next season, Gainesville’s coaches think the preseason evaluation of the offensive line will change from weakness to strength.

"If we can keep them all healthy, keep them all motivated, it’s going to be an advantage," Kemp said.

The "Baby Line" itself is eager to see how they play in the future, although they are ready to rid themselves of the nickname.

"I think we are going to be able to do some special things in the future," Strickland said.



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