NILES - It is often said that offensive linemen live mostly in anonymity, they only get noticed when they commit a holding penalty or when a quarterback gets sacked.
Such is not the case this year in Niles, where the big men up front are getting the attention usually reserved for the skill-position players.
Of course, it's difficult to remain anonymous when you're a player like Frank Saban, who is 6-foot-5 and weighs 310 pounds.
"It's kind of neat, especially when we're out together as a group," said Frank Saban. "People notice our size, and they recognize who we are. That usually doesn't happen with us linemen, so it's a little different in a good way."
Saban is a right tackle who has already earned a pair of varsity letters. He is part of an offensive line which also includes left tackle Josh Krok (6-foot-8, 300 pounds), right guard Kullen Smith (6-2, 310), right tackle T.J. Brown (6-3, 230) and center Jake Forward (5-11, 195).
Krok, just a junior, has already garnered interest from numerous Division I schools throughout the country. The rest of the projected starters - including Saban, who is also attracting DI interest - are seniors.
After finishing 5-5 a year ago, Niles lost its starting quarterback and entire receiving corps to graduation. How the Red Dragons perform this fall will be based largely on the play of the line, according to first-year coach Brian Shaner.
"This is our strength. We'll go as far as the offensive line takes us," Shaner said. "There has been a ton of talk about this group all throughout the area. Now it's time for these guys to lay it on the line."
Shaner noted that the recognition and focus on a group of players not used to the limelight hasn't been without its struggles. He pointed out that the linemen "looked as though they pressed at times" in a recent scrimmage. A new staff meant a new playbook and new blocking schemes which are still part of the learning curve.
Still, Shaner believes that there is merit to the excitement which is prevalent among the Red Dragon faithful.
"Honestly, the sky is the limit with this group. Once they're all on the same page and once they all mesh, great things can happen," Shaner said. "These guys aren't just big. They're physical, they're strong, they come off the ball quickly. They're smart players and they are extremely hard-working."
"There is no reason at all to believe this group can't live up to the high expectations."
Saban said the key to success revolves around teamwork.
"When you're a lineman, you have to know the tendencies of the guy beside you. It's important to all work together, or you won't succeed as a team," Saban said. "We could have four guys drive the defense ten yards back, but if one guys misses an assignment, the play can go for a loss."
"That's why I like our chances. We work great together as a team and we all get along off the field. We're not in this as individuals. We're in it for Niles football."
The Red Dragons in recent years have struggled. After finishing 7-3 in 2007, they experienced three losing seasons, then finished 5-5 in 2011. However, Saban is quick to point out that the Dragons lost very close games to Poland and Salem. They handed Brookfield its only loss of the regular season, and rallied to defeat a heavily-favored Canfield team in Week 9.
"We walked away from last season feeling like we had a lot to look forward to this year," Saban said. "It made all of us work even harder during the off-season."
That was especially true with the linemen.
"People look at us and say, 'Oh you're huge, you're going to be good,' but we know it takes a lot more than size," Saban said. "That's the best thing about this group. They've all worked like crazy to get stronger and to become better players."
"We're not taking anything for granted. We'll do whatever it takes to have a winning season."
Niles opens its season next Thursday when it hosts Girard.