The maturation of Gainesville’s offensive line has come in three stages.
As sophomores thrust into the starting role, they were dubbed the “baby line.” As juniors, they were grown up and helped lead the Red Elephants to a third-round appearance in the Class AAA state playoffs. Now seniors, this group of five considers themselves “nasty,” and they’re one win away from a berth in the state championship game.
“I think we’re more a nasty line,” said 6-foot-2, 245-pound Jacob Couch. “We’re high-intensity and really physical and just get the job done.”
Their job isn’t simple by any means, but it looks easy on the field considering this group has played together since they were in middle school.
“We’ve been together for a long time and our relationship has grown every year, getting tighter and tighter,” said 6-foot, 210-pound center Michael Waters.
They’re tight both on and off the field, scheduling eating competitions at Little Italy — Couch usually wins — and spending time as a not only as a group of players, but a group of friends, as well.
“On and off the field we’re always hanging out and always having a good time,” Waters said.
That bond translates to the football field.
“I think one of the biggest parts of this team is that we’re a big family,” said David McConnell, the biggest member of the line at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds. “Even if we do miss a block, we never get down because we’re very confident in each other and we always have each other’s backs.
“We’re like five brothers out here,” he added. “That’s honestly what I think of these guys.”
Those brothers put in one of their best efforts last Friday against Cairo, the Class AAA defending champions. The group opened holes left and right for senior Teryan Rucker, who had 161 of the team’s 256 rushing yards, and kept quarterback Blake Sims on his feet, allowing him to run the offense without the fear of getting hit.
“I know when I’m going through my progressions that I don’t have to look at my line because they have my back,” Sims said. “They’re all my brothers and they’ve helped me with blocking schemes and helped me stay healthy.”
With the wealth of playmakers at top-ranked Gainesville’s disposal, the offensive line knows how important a role they have on a team averaging 45 points a game.
“All we have to do is open holes for our skill guys,” said 6-foot-2, 215-pound Greg Stenzel. “When we give a good effort, they’re gonna make plays.”
Especially Sims, Rucker and Tyson Smith, who McConnell said was the most fun to block for.
“With Teryan, all you have to do is give him a gap and he’s gone,” McConnell said. “Tyson’s more of the guy that reads your blocks. He’ll get behind you and you can go 80 yards with him.”
This unit will attempt to do that Friday when the Red Elephants play host to Region 7-AAA foe Flowery Branch (10-3). And despite the 49-17 beating they put on the Falcons in the regular season finale, the offensive line is not taking this game lightly.
“I think Flowery Branch has a lot more confidence,” said 6-foot, 205-pound Sloan Strickland. “They’ve won three straight on the road in the playoffs, so they think they’re gonna come into our house and push us around. We have to step up and make sure they don’t do that.”
If they are successful and the Red Elephants win, this group will find themselves one win away from a new distinction: state champions.