In the trenches with Garfield County’s top offensive linemen
In football, the offensive line is often a forgotten position. The big boys up front won’t receive the accolades, the headlines, or the glory within the schools, but there’s very few positions more important to the success of a football team that a good offensive lineman.
Look at winning teams on any level of football. Rifle routinely has a strong offensive line here in the valley, while big-name programs in college like Alabama, Stanford, and Ohio State put together some of the best starting fives in college football year to year. Then you get to the NFL, and the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers reign supreme in the trenches, thanks to a number of All-Pros and Pro Bowl-caliber players.
Sure, having elite skill players at receiver, quarterback and running back are keys to offensive success, but those players can’t do much on the field without a strong offensive line opening up rushing lanes, or providing the quarterback with ample time in the pocket to spread the ball around to said skill guys.
Playing in the trenches is the most physical aspect of football, considering you’re hitting every single play, and you’re trying to out-muscle the guy across from you snap-to-snap. There’s a beauty in that; one that only offensive linemen can ever attest to.
This year, each team in the valley has a standout offensive lineman that hopes to help carry their respective team to new heights this fall under the bright lights on Friday nights.
WRESTLING BACKGROUND HELPS RODRIGUEZ SUCCEED
Under a new head coach, the Glenwood Springs Demons have to replace a number of key starters along the offensive line. Fortunately for head coach Pat Engle, senior Alex Rodriguez returns for the Demons at left guard.
Rodriguez looks like the typical offensive lineman here in the valley — compact and powerful. The Demons will need everything he’s got this fall as Glenwood looks to return to its ground-and-pound days of smashmouth football. According to Rodriguez, that starts with the rest of the young offensive linemen stepping up this year by taking varsity football as serious as possible.
“I expect this group to be very good this year,” Rodriguez said. “We have to get some young guys to step up and really buy in and take this very seriously. It’s not junior varsity football anymore; varsity football means something to this school and this community. We need to give it our all.”
Slotting in at left guard for the third straight season, Rodriguez finds a certain beauty in playing offensive line, a beauty that is often missed by spectators. In the trenches though, there’s a battle within that drives linemen.
“You have to have a passion to play this position and love the grind,” Rodriguez said. “Playing offensive line isn’t a super complex position where you have to read and react like a running back or quarterback would. It’s contact every play; you’re grinding and hitting, constantly giving your maximum effort to get the best results. It’s really cool to have that constant grind, chugging along throughout the game.”
When young athletes come out for football, the first instinct is to play the glamour positions. Not with linemen. Sometimes you just know you’re an offensive lineman right away. Other times, it comes naturally due to team needs. With Rodriguez, it came naturally, thanks to a wrestling background.
Having that wrestling background helped Rodriguez transition smoothly to the offensive line, where he’s been able to utilize his leverage and technique to win battles up front.
“I’ve never been the biggest kid along the offensive line,” Rodriguez said. “But what I’ve learned is that you don’t need to be the biggest or strongest to be a good offensive lineman. It’s all about technique and leverage, and that’s the same thing in wrestling. You can be big and strong in wrestling, but if you’re going against a guy who has been wrestling forever but is smaller than you, you’re still going to lose.
“Being a lineman is all about technique, and that’s what I love about the position. There’s no better feeling in football than lining up across from a guy on defense and driving him 10 yards backwards to open up room for the ball carrier.”
WARFEL THE GLUE THAT HOLDS THE BEARS TOGETHER
Six years ago, Rifle senior Wyatt Warfel first went out for football to try something new. Prior to that, the all-conference center for Rifle thought football was dumb. He’s certainly changed his stance on that these last few years, starting at center for the Bears since his sophomore season, helping the Bears rush for nearly 7,000 yards in that period.
Now, he’s back for his senior year as the grizzled veteran on a young Rifle offensive line. With a young group of lineman, he’s the center of attention — no pun intended. He’s tasked with not only elevating his play to another level this fall, but also helping a young group of linemen develop quickly to help the Bears push towards a 2A Western Slope League championship.
According to Warfel, that development all starts with building a brotherhood with the offensive lineman.
“We have a good bond right now, probably the best on the team,” Warfel said. “On the offensive line, it takes all five guys working together, not just one guy. It’s a good position to be in. The bond has really grown this year. The communication is really good, and we just really have fun as a group.”
Rifle’s offensive line isn’t like any other offensive line. The Bears run the Wing-T, which uses a lot of motion and misdirection. That can cause headaches for defenses, but can also make for difficult blocking assignments up front for the Bears.
Warfel doesn’t see it that way though.
“It was definitely a challenge learning it when I first earned a spot on varsity,” Warfel said. “But it’s all about immersing yourself in the offense and learning it through repetitions. I’m pretty comfortable and confident now. Getting stronger these last few years has helped with that comfort and confidence now, but just being in the offense this long is the biggest key.”
Warfel also has the added coaching of former Roaring Fork head coach Matt Phelan, who played college football and UCLA, and earned an invitation to an NFL Training Camp in the 90s. Phelan has been able to give Warfel pointers as a fellow center, helping him take his game to the next level as a center.
“Coach Phelan was a center himself, so he’s helped me improve my technique a lot in the few short weeks,” Warfel said. “It’s been a lot of fun working with him, and hopefully I can take my game to the next level.”
SPELL LONE STARTER RETURNING ALONG LINE FOR TITANS
With graduation and families picking up and moving more and more frequently, change is all but certain in high school athletics. No program knows that more than the Coal Ridge Titans.
More than half of the 2018 roster is made up of underclassmen, or new students to the area. Add in the fact that Paul Downing takes over as the third head coach in three years for the program, change is common for the Titans.
Fortunately for Coal Ridge, one position that won’t go through changes is at left guard, as junior Damian Spell — a three-year starter — returns for the Titans.
“There’s a lot of pressure for me this year as the only returning starter up front,” Spell said. “It’s on me to make sure these guys know their jobs and are doing their jobs correctly.”
Spell was an all-conference honorable mention last season for the Titans, so having a guy with his pedigree return is a big boost for a young Titans group. That all-conference honor has helped drive Spell this off-season, pushing him to reach a new level this year.
Throughout the winter, spring and summer, Spell has worked on getting faster and stronger as a guard, allowing him to pull with more efficiency for the Titans’ rushing attack, which rolled up 3,264 rushing yards last season, a year in which the Titans put together their best record since 2010.
“I’ve really been focusing on being more explosive, working on my speed and strength,” Spell said. “There’s a lot I felt I could improve on after last season, and my goal during the off-season was to do the most I could to improve my game. I hit the weight room hard, and focused on a lot of the little things as an offensive lineman, in terms of technique, too. I think it’s going to pay off for me this year.”
Spell stated that his goal for the 2018 season from an individual standpoint is to earn first-team all-conference honors, and be the best possible version of himself that he can be. For the Titans, the best version of Spell should be more than enough to keep a high-powered offensive attack rolling this fall.
ANDREWS SETS THE TONE FOR CARDINALS
Last season, Justin Andrews emerged as one of the top guards on the Western Slope for the Grand Valley Cardinals, helping Grand Valley put up nearly 3,000 yards of total offense under head coach Tim Lenard.
Heading into the 2018 season, Andrews is the man on the offensive line for Grand Valley, which hopes to bounce back from a 2-7 season in 2017.
Part of that bounce back for Andrews starts with leadership, which is an area the senior guard has really grown into the last few years, after learning under former teammates Austin Walck and Austin Fox in years past.
“I think just looking up to them as captains in recent years and learning from them has really helped me,” Andrews said. “Being a captain means that I have to help the younger guys. It’s part of being an upperclassmen. The younger guys look up to you, and we’re a young team this year. Us seniors have to do a good job of bringing these guys along this year.”
An offensive linemen dating back to when he first game out for football in middle school, Andrews feels a certain bond with the grueling position, from working on little details like a first step, hand placement, and angles, to getting that perfect block. There’s just something about it that the senior guard loves.
“Being able to get that block just right is what it’s all about,” Andrews said. “Getting on that block means that you did you job to the best of your ability, and it helps your team out in a big way. It’s fun to see the block you make spring a guy like Jon [Pena], or other backs on our team.”
Spoken like a true offensive lineman.
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