Picture an offensive lineman.
Now picture this: Philadelphia Eagles scatback Darren Sproles at right guard, hand in the grass, ready to pull to his left or chip to his right or do whatever anonymous task that offensive linemen are called on to do, play in and play out.
That would never happen in the NFL, of course. But in prep football it happens all the time.
Maybe not with players as lightning fast as Sproles, it doesn’t. But on Friday nights, players built like him — 5-foot-6, 190 pounds dripping wet— can often be found in the trenches.
“You want to get your 11 best athletes, 11 best players on the field, so we might talk to a kid and tell him ‘I don’t think you’re going to start at tight end, but if we move you to guard, there’s a good chance you can start,’” said Poynette head coach Greg Kallungi, who was the offensive line coach before taking the helm three years ago. “Most guys just want to be on the field, regardless of what position they play.”
Added Lodi head coach Dave Puls, who has amassed a 124-36 career record in 14 years with the Blue Devils, culminating in a WIAA Division 4 state championship last season: “In 2004, I had to take my two best fullbacks and turn them into offensive guards. We had no choice — we had to put our best athletes at guard. One was 185 pounds, the other was 175 pounds, and one of them ended up being first-team all-conference.”
Such is life for a lot of the Division 4 and smaller programs across the state these days, especially as a variety of factors are causing a decrease in numbers across the board.
But in high school football, the size of the dog in the fight isn’t anywhere near as important as the size of the fight in the dog — most of the time, anyway.
Coaches will take guys like Portage junior Jonah Stout (5-10, 185) every day of the week.
Stout is “an undersized guy, but he’s tough as nails. He goes in there, sticks his nose in there and if something (bad) happens, he comes back the next play,” Warriors head coach Bob Hepp said.
Stout’s teammate on the line, senior Sam Bleich (6-foot, 160), is the same way.
So are Horicon/Hustisford senior Ethan Budnik (5-9, 165) — a second-team All-Trailways Large Conference pick last year — and sophomore teammate Josh Thomsen (5-7, 155).
Budnik is from the Hustisford end of the co-op, while Thomsen is from the Horicon end, and both are fit for the job.
They’re “very fast with a low center of gravity and can (easily) get lower than their opponent. We use these two to pull around the edge and trap block due to their quickness,” said H/H head coach Shannon Mueller, whose third-year co-op has made the playoffs both of the last two years to end postseason droughts that for Hustisford dated to 2009 and for Horicon dated to when it made the Division 5 state quarterfinals in 2006.
Rio’s Kevin Xiong (5-9, 170) and Steven Hoene (5-11, 170) — a former running back — are guys just like those other four.
So are Mauston seniors Rayn Vang (5-7, 170) and Clayton Walsh (5-11, 195), who have made the move to the offensive line from running back and tight end, respectively, out of necessity after a few other players who were expected to play on the line chose not to go out for football this fall.
“And they’ve done an awesome job,” said Golden Eagles head coach Roland Lehman, who does have 6-foot, 280-pound senior Dom Meurett on the line. “So we’re not going to be big up front — Dom is a pretty good-sized kid — but we’re going to be pretty athletic.”
The reality is, guys like Vang and Walsh and all the others already mentioned are more and more becoming the prototypical high school lineman. And that’s not necessarily a problem in terms of Xs and Os.
“You can take quite a few guys and make them a lineman. It’s just about whether or not they want to do it,” Rio head coach Brian Brewer said.
Overcoming small size
Getting guys to “do it” usually isn’t much of a problem, though.
Just ask Tom Noennig, who has lived it both as a player in the early 1980s at Wisconsin Lutheran and now as the head coach at Mayville.
“This was the story of my high school career,” he said. “My sophomore year, I was the starting fullback and also had to work in the offensive line due to depth. Usually by the second quarter of every game, I would have to go change jerseys from an eligible number to a lineman number and finish the game at guard.
“After that season, I never got into the backfield again and I was a full-time offensive lineman. This was a difficult time, but I grew to love the offensive line and it was a great lesson that I share with many high school players. I needed to sacrifice my ‘want’ for the ‘need’ of the team.”
Because of his experience, Noennig also knows that size is pretty far down the list as far as what it takes to be a successful offensive lineman.
“I’ll take five tough, hardworking guys who bring their hard hat to work every day,” he said. “We can make a solid unit of guys like that, regardless of size.”
That description — hardworking, brings his hard hat— certainly fits Baraboo senior center Brady Quinn, who’s tall (6-1) but at a lean 200 pounds still would be considered undersized for the position, especially in the Badger North Conference.
Regardless, he’s the Thunderbirds’ best lineman thanks to a fine attention to detail, a great work ethic and quick feet that allow him to effectively get to the second level in time to block linebackers.
“He has an ‘I’ll do anything to help the team win’ mentality, which is all I care about as far as finding starters for Friday nights,” Thunderbirds head coach Steve Turkington said. “We won’t win games with selfish kids — this game is about developing team (and) Brady Quinn is a team player.”
There are also some other factors that help teams overcome being undersized on the offensive line in addition to there being a lot of fight in the dog.
For example, offensive linemen are generally thought of as being among the smarter players on the team — a job requirement due to the number of different blocking responsibilities from play to play and the number of different defenses to diagnose in order to execute those blocks.
“During the game, they have an ability to problem solve and fix things that happen play to play,” Kallungi said.
They have to be able to “think on their feet, as assignments can change very quickly,” Noennig added.
And what a player may lack in size can easily be made up for with A-plus execution.
“I think their footwork, taking the right steps, delivering a blow, using their hands, all those things — being technically sound — is more important if you’re an undersized type of guy,” Pardeeville head coach Tyler Johnson said. “Using your strengths, like your quickness and your feet are some things that benefit those types of guys.”
“We’ve made a living on some of the smaller, quicker guys that understand leverage — they understand footwork,” Beaver Dam head coach Steve Kuenzi added. “We can get by with those types of concepts.”
Kuenzi knows firsthand that asking players to move from the backfield or tight end to the offensive line doesn’t always work out.
“When I was coaching at the college level, we had a fullback that was just getting caught in the numbers, wasn’t going to emerge. So we (said), ‘Why don’t you try playing guard?’
“He ended up quitting, (so) sometimes that can backfire on you.”
But most of the time it won’t.
And Dodgeland senior guard Ryan Neu — all 6 feet, 185 pounds of him — is a classic example.
When Neu — the reigning 170-pound state wrestling champion in Division 3 and the “toughest kid on the field,” according to Trojans head coach Doug Miller — signed up to play football for the first time last year as a junior, all he wanted to do was buckle up his chin strap and get after it.
He didn’t care where.
“You could play him in a number of spots, (but) last year when he came out I needed another lineman. I wasn’t sure what he was hoping to play and I asked him, and he said, ‘Put me wherever you want, I just want to hit some people,’” Miller said. “You can call him undersized, but every year, I learn about those 180-pound kids who can run and can hit you.
“There’s never been a time in 30-some years of head coaching where we haven’t run into those kinds of kids, where you wished they were playing for you. And now I’ve got one.”