Chiawana running back Austin Urlacher has had a season for the ages, rushing for a state-record 2,776 yards in 12 contests.
But even Urlacher knows he can’t do it alone. He needs an offensive line.
He loves that offensive line, and he appreciates those guys up front.
“They mean a lot to me,” said Urlacher. “Without them, I wouldn’t be able to run like I can.”
His blocking entourage includes senior Jake Martin, sophomore Anthony Reisch, senior Bernardo Castillo, junior Kameron Silvers and senior Trenton Steach.
Throw in senior tight end Christian Penny and sometimes Juan Noyola, also a senior, and that’s a pretty good wall for Urlacher.
“They’re big and physical, and they will get after it sometimes,” said Chiawana head coach Steve Graff, whose Riverhawks (12-1) look to defend their state title at 7:30 p.m. Saturday night against the Bothell Cougars (13-0) in the Tacoma Dome
Graff and offensive coordinator Dave Spray admit they have been hard on their offensive line all season.
“Sometimes they are such nice boys,” said Spray. “Their parents did a good job with them and brought them up to be gentlemen. But they don’t always have the motor sometimes needed for an offensive lineman.”
The coaches can be critical for a big reason: A football team’s success starts with its line play.
“I don’t care what anyone says, this game is won and lost in the trenches,” said Graff. “For me, it has been a roller-coaster. One time out they’ll destroy people. The next series something different happens. It’s focus. Every play matters.”
But Graff admits his linemen have gotten better over the course of the season.
Spray can point to where things got better. Urlacher started out the season getting hit a number of times behind the line of scrimmage. But the senior would still turn the play into a positive gain.
Graff, Spray and the other coaches were all over the linemen. This was perhaps the lowest point.
“It’s a pretty smart group scholastically, but sometimes it carries over to too much thinking,” Spray said. “But since Week 4, it has been a lot better.”
Steach said that was about the time the line started jelling.
“We started getting together and watching film as group more,” said Steach. “We worked on maintaining blocks.”
Guys like Penny — who catches passes as a tight end and sees plenty of action on defense — get their due credit from the fans and media. So does Noyola, a defensive force on the line.
But for the remaining five, anonymity is a fact of life.
“To be honest, it really doesn’t matter to me,” said Reisch. “We just all work as a big group and keep on winning. That’s the big goal for me.”
“I think if we’re winning, we don’t really care (about being popular),” said Martin. “We don’t mind getting yelled at either.”
Well, to a point.
Last week against Graham-Kapowsin in the semifinals, with the Riverhawks leading 21-6 in the fourth quarter, Chiawana got the football back at the Eagles’ 47 yard line.
An assistant coach gathered the line together and yelled at them to pick things up; that the defense was carrying its weight and they needed to start carrying theirs.
“They took over the game,” said Spray, who watched it unfold. “They took it to heart. All of the sudden there it was. They were blowing guys off the ball. That fickle thing of momentum was back.”
An offensive line needs to work as one sometimes to get the ball moving. On that series, Urlacher carried the ball all seven plays, with the last yard being a touchdown for a 28-6 lead. Also on that series, Urlacher broke the state record for yards in a season.
“I don’t know what it was,” said Martin. “I think we were getting annoyed with what the coaches were saying to us. We knew we had to do something to show them. I think we just took it to heart. We also don’t want to see Austin go down with an injury.”
Castillo says the linemen have a saying to just let things go.
“We say ‘Flush it,’ ” Castillo said. “We always need to be on the same page.”
That includes Urlacher, who joins the linemen on the sidelines after every series.
“I’m always on the sidelines, talking with them on what we need to do,” said Urlacher.
Steach calls the linemen’s area The Bench.
“We have The Bench we pull away from the rest of them on the sides,” Steach said. “We sit down with our offensive line coach (Devin) Chavez. We talk about this play and what happened, how can we fix it. Austin is always a part of that. We communicate with Austin what we’re seeing.”
And his record is theirs.
“I think we know it’s ours too,” said Silvers. “Just knowing that he broke the yardage record lets us know we’re getting the job done.”
And not getting headlines is OK.
“It’s been a lot easier of how Austin deals with it,” said Steach. “He gives us a lot of credit. He tells us before he goes back out to talk to the media ‘I’m gonna give you guys the credit.’ And he does.”
It’s made them want to run through walls for him sometimes.
“Austin Urlacher is an inspiration to us,” said Castillo. “He works so hard that we want to work just as hard.”
Spray likes what he sees now in this line.
“It takes a while to get cohesiveness in a line,” said Spray. “I think they’ve done that. I like their size, their mobility, and when they decide to be physical and compete on people, they’re really good.”
That will have to happen from the outset Saturday night.
“That’s the thing we talked about: being physical, being on people and take away their vision so they can’t see Austin,” said Spray.
Steach said he and his linemates will ready to answer the bell.
“When the job has to be done, we get the job done,” he said.