By JIMMY WIGFIELD
Offensive linemen live largely in anonymity although they are engaged in hand-to-hand combat on every play, their faces buried in the dirt or in somebody’s groin on a drive block. They’re a crankshaft inside an engine, never noticed until it malfunctions.
“Guys don’t grow up with blocking pads in the front yard,” said Saraland offensive line coach Chris Fancher, himself a former lineman who knows, along with the other members of the prideful fraternity of blockers, the sport they love isn’t always fair.
“Nobody pays attention to the offensive line unless something goes wrong,” Fancher said.
Maybe that’s why never was heard a discouraging word about the Spartans’ line in last season’s resounding surge to the Class 6A state championship.
Three returning senior starters — center Bryceson Chastang, right tackle Brandon Autery and left tackle Ethan Green — are working for similar results this season.
With sophomores K.J. Lacey, Ryan Williams, Santae McWilliams and C.D. Gill dismembering the opposition with explosive plays and a running game that reached its zenith in the playoffs, Saraland led Class 6A statewide in scoring at 43 points per game, averaged 372 yards each Friday night, punted just 13 times in the regular season and allowed only seven sacks all year.
The offense — and the offensive line — were at their best in the playoffs against the toughest opposition.
In five playoff games, the Spartans’ running game nearly doubled its average yardage — going from 133 per game in the regular season to 220 in the postseason, including a Super 7 record of 357 yards. Amazingly, the offensive line allowed only two sacks in the playoffs as Saraland won four of its final five games by 34, 25, 15 and 21 points.
The running game sprang to life with five-star receiver Williams handling the ball more — scoring on runs of 45, 83, 43, 61 and 58 yards in the playoffs — and McWilliams punishing defenses with 5.3 yards per carry in the postseason. McWilliams also fumbled only once all year.
“The offensive line was certainly an important part of our playoff run,” Spartans coach Jeff Kelly said. “We ran the ball for a ton of yards through the playoffs and Santae had some good stretches and Ryan broke some big plays because they blocked them up good.”
But while the largest guys on the field vanished from public consciousness during the playoffs, championships are won up front and the linemen accept the contentment of that truth.
“We do our jobs and know the other players respect us,” Green said.
That job includes making it a priority for others to get the glory.
“The offensive line are like Marines — they must go in first and pave the way for the rest of the offensive skill players to succeed,” Fancher said. “It takes a special guy to have the satisfaction of seeing someone else doing well, like Ryan, K.J. and Santae. You can’t get caught up in saying, ‘I’m not getting mine.’”
They are getting theirs in other ways.
“We’ve got to know the same things the quarterback knows, plus they’ve got a 250- or 300-pound guy six inches in front of them they’re going to collide with,” Fancher said. “It’s the only position where you back up and stop somebody from getting through you. It’s a very unique position. Guys don’t grow up with blocking pads in the front yard. Then you put that stripe on your head and have a reality check. It takes a special person to do that.”
Fancher and those he coaches are among them. Fancher played offensive line for Tulsa University and walks with a limp, as many line coaches do, after two knee replacements. He also coached at four colleges before coming to Saraland, where he is in his eighth year.
“I don’t coach our kids any differently than I did in college,” Fancher said. “We put a lot on our offensive linemen mentally.”
The exacting Fancher isn’t a stereotypical line coach and doesn’t grade his linemen the way many of his colleagues do.
“I grade on missed assignments,” Fancher said. “Did you get your hands on someone? Were you on the right assignment? You might have blocked the wrong guy and the guy you were supposed to block goes free.
“It’s about assignments and execution. Did we win or lose, did the quarterback stay upright, did the running back play well?”
The answers to those questions in 2022 were win, yes and yes.
Saraland won 14 games; allowed only seven sacks, giving Lacey the time to find Williams and Gill and pass for 3,177 yards and 40 touchdowns; and McWilliams ran for 1,484 yards, 16 touchdowns and averaged six yards per carry.
But Fancher doesn’t want his players concentrating on how they graded or getting a pancake. Pass him some boots made for stompin’, not syrup for drizzlin’ — he prefers to call defenders who are exterminated “dead roaches” and he wants to hear them crackling under the feet of his linemen.
“Offensive line play isn’t about statistics, it’s about selfless sacrifice in order for others to shine out front,” Fancher said. “It’s about dirtying yourself so the quarterback’s jersey stays clean! It’s about celebrating others’ accolades. That’s why I love it.
“I don’t look at statistics. Say somebody grades at 95 percent. No way. You can find something wrong every play if you wanted. What’s a pancake? Some say a guy had 30 or 100 pancakes and put a guy on his back. How do you define it?”
There is an easy way to tell, Fancher said: “When I was in college, we called them dead roaches.”
Whatever the technique, from a reach block to a cleaned clock, domination is the backdrop for Fancher.
“I want us to enforce our will in everything we do,” he said.
Invested in each other
While each offensive line is different, Saraland’s is expected to be effective and deep in 2023, again providing the foundation for what may be the best offense in the state regardless of class, a major reason for favoring the Spartans to repeat as state champions.
The line will be anchored by Chastang (5-11, 230), Autery (6-4, 288) and Green (6-3, 230), all of whom played every snap last season.
“I expect all three to have a great season,” Fancher said. “We’re only going to be as good as we are up front.”
Kelly is savoring the competition this spring across the board.
“I feel like we have the pieces to have a good year,” he said. “There is a lot of depth there. Last year we had six or seven guys who could play and this year it’s probably close to 10. They all possess the ability and consistency to be guys we can count on. We’re only as good as that next man up. There will be a lot of guys who play up front, especially early as we try to find the right combinations.”
Hoping to be part of those right combinations are Landon Sullivan, Cam Owen, Roydarius Lacey (K.J. Lacey’s cousin), Jeff Allen, Landon Harris and Ben Manasco.
“This group hasn’t played a snap together,” Fancher said. “They’re developing their legacy. … (The returning starters) have got to help two new guys plug in and be as good as they are. All these guys care about the tradition being built here and they will pass that along to the new guys. I think that’s one reason the young ones come along quicker now. … They’re all invested in each other and they care about one another and that’s not common in society today. But we don’t have common kids here. We don’t have selfish guys.”
Can this new offensive line open holes into the history books?
“I could answer that better in week five,” Fancher said. “Are we going to try and maul the people in front of us or are we just going to get in the way?”
Chastang, a three-year starter, will lead the way up front as Saraland tries to win back-to-back state championships.
“I feel like we’re going to be really good,” Chastang said. “Everybody is going to be better. … I love this team.”
Green knows it will take more effort to hold two Blue Maps instead of one.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Green said. “Coach Kelly said it during workouts — we don’t want to think we’re entitled just because of last year. State is over with.”
The stars align
There is no question the Spartans’ offensive line is helped by the extraordinary skill of Williams and Lacey, two of the nation’s top prospects who are swimming in college offers.
Williams’ elite speed and Lacey’s understanding of blocking schemes and his rapid delivery, which makes defenders seem days behind the play, give the offensive line an advantage because the plays typically develop fast.
“Our skill guys make our job easier,” Fancher said. “We don’t have to block them perfectly and we still have a good chance of making a good play. … Those athletes make big plays and I’m glad they’re on our side.”
Autery said Lacey doesn’t require much time to diagnose a defense.
“If we give K.J. time in the pocket, he’s going to make the throw,” Autery said.
Chastang said he loves snapping the ball to a quarterback of Lacey’s caliber.
“The great thing about K.J. is he knows the protections,” Chastang said. “If we slide right, he knows the left-side player will come free unless the running back blocks him and he works things fast enough so we can get our hands on the defensive linemen. Then he gets rid of it so fast.”
The receivers are also sensitive if the blocking is askew and needs to be adjusted.
“They recognize if K.J. is not getting the ball out right,” Green said. “Ryan does that a good bit. He’ll even do that in a walk-through.”
The chemistry and trust are not only built on the practice and playing fields. The offensive stars enjoy going to a linemen’s dinner Fancher regularly hosts and bonding with their protectors.
“K.J. and Santae will come and Ryan too,” Fancher said. “They will ask about the food.”
The linemen fondly remembered McWilliams showing his appreciation with goody bags of chips, candy and Powerade after running for 180 yards against Foley.
“Santae is the best,” Green said. “He gives us gifts.”
Remember the champs