Seahawks look to continue top-flight offensive line tradition
By Kyle LoJacono
From its inception in 2007, Sunlake football coach Bill Browning wanted an offensive line that was the envy of anyone his Seahawks played.
Last year’s line was one of the program’s best. Sunlake racked up 30.1 points and 296.2 yards per contest in 2012.
Browning has been coaching football for more than 30 years and always puts a focus on the big boys up front.
“Without an offensive line there is no throwing, there is no catching, there is no running the football,” Browning said. “The offensive line is where it’s at.”
The Seahawks return only one starter from last year’s offensive line after the graduation of center Nate McCoole, tackles Canon Clark and Brandon Franklin and guard Brain Walders, but the expectation to dominate remains.
“Most of these guys were backups last year, so they’ve worked together and understand the blocking schemes,” said fourth-year offensive line coach Matt Smith. “They know what’s expected of them. Last year’s offensive line set the bar pretty high, so these guys are working really hard to keep that up.”
Smith, who has served as the Seahawks defensive coordinator since the school opened, has been on Browning’s staff since 1996 at Hernando and played for the veteran coach at Springstead. Browning said Smith’s commitment is a big reason for the line’s success.
“No. 1, and this is true about all my staff, Matt cares about the kids,” Browning said. “That goes beyond football. He cares for the kids, and he wants them to be not only a better football player, but a better young man. He’s knowledgeable, very dedicated.”
Smith is also the Seahawks’ boys weightlifting coach. He said being a strong O-line is important, but pointed out that strength is nothing without unity.
“I would say the biggest thing is getting all five of them to work together to achieve one goal,” Smith said. “As long as they continue to do that and want to do that they’ll be successful. It’s a team sport. They have to work together as a unit, and once we decide who’s going to start we try to keep them together as much as possible. They get a lot of good reps. Our defense is solid, and that helps them stay sharp.”
The lone returning player is 5-foot-11, 270-pound senior Aaron Protch, who is moving from guard to center to better use his experience. He takes great pride in being part of the squad’s O-line.
“When I say I’m a Sunlake lineman and started here, in this county that says something,” Protch said. He added, “It doesn’t matter about the size. You’re going to be strong. It’s Sunlake, and they really stress the weight room. That’s not the big issue. It’s if you’re mean enough and willing to do it. If you’re willing to throw yourself at someone and move them every play. If you go your hardest, then you’re perfect for this line.”
Smith said Protch’s ability, experience and leadership are critical in rebuilding the line.
“He’s an extremely smart kid and very strong,” Smith said. “He’s got a 350-pound bench press and works really hard. … He’s the one who makes all the calls on the line, and he’s a good leader. He leads by example, and that’s the best kind of leader in my opinion.”
Along with Protch at center, Browning has picked the starting guards — She’ron Wilkins on the right and Zach Kweller at left. The seniors got playing time last year and relish the chance to start despite the hours of grueling work it takes.
“Last year, I had a chance to start, but I didn’t make it,” said the 5-foot-10, 220-pound Kweller. “I really drived myself to get better for this year, and when I drive myself and the rest of the line does the same there’s no stopping us. … You have to be one sick man in the head to be a part of it. We work so hard each practice.”
The 5-foot-10, 235-pound Wilkins said that mentality shows.
“We’re a little bit small, but we’re hungry,” Wilkins said. “We’ll hit you every play.”
The tackle positions are still up for competition. One of those looking to grab the left tackle spot is 6-foot-1, 253-pound senior Travis Manecke
“There’s a lot of talent,” Manecke said. “Everybody just has to work because there’s spots out there for guys to take. Everyone is working hard and fighting for it.”
Manecke was at Wiregrass Ranch as a freshman and sophomore and said the focus on offensive line is greater with the Seahawks.
“Offensive line is a big part here,” Manecke said. “We’re one of the strongest schools around. We got the fastest line out there right now.”
Protch thinks the new additions will give the line more speed than in the past.
“We’re stronger than last year, and the thing that’s different is we’re faster,” Protch said. “Last year we had trouble getting to the second level and to the linebackers. That’s really what kind of killed us during plays. Nowadays we get there. We can get to linebackers before they take their first step.”
Sunlake’s new offensive line will face its first challenge of the regular season at Hudson on Aug. 31 before hosting Wiregrass Ranch on Sept. 7. Both contests start at 7:30 p.m.
—Stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches