WEATHERSFIELD - Jeff Whittaker has heard plenty of football proverbs during a coaching career that's going on 40 years, but there's one that always stands true.
"There's an old saying, 'You can be be as big as a house, but if you can't beat your grandmother across the street, you're not going to be a very good football player,' " said the first-year Mineral Ridge coach with a laugh as he explained the importance of offensive linemen having good footwork.
If the old adage is true, the Rams appear to have some solid players up front.
"I think most of them can beat their grandmas across the street," he said. "I don't know about their grandad though."
All joking aside, Whittaker is excited about the blend of size and speed that Mineral Ridge's offensive line possesses. He talked briefly about the immense speed the Rams boast at the skill positions, but he spoke at length about the boys in the trenches. Another old-but-true saying is the main reason he has a positive mindset as the Rams prepare to open the season Thursday at home against Salem.
The saying? Football games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage.
"You can have all the talent in the world, but when it comes down to winning football games, you're going to win them in the pits, on both offense and defense," Whittaker said. "Yeah, if you have a huge skill separation, there may be an advantage, but the closer your skill levels get together, the game's going to be won or lost in the trenches."
That means the Rams are relying heavily on seniors Jacob Snyder, Andrew Garris, Christian Herbert and juniors Zane Rummell, Micah Hawout and Thomas Pepe. Mineral Ridge has an average size of nearly 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds up front, but as Whittaker so eloquently mentioned, those measurements wouldn't mean much if they couldn't move.
Luckily for the Rams, the line takes pride in its footwork.
"All summer before two-a-days and even during two-a-days we were working on footwork and speed," said Garris, one of four returning starters on the line. "That was a huge part of the offseason. We had the size and the strength - we had to get down that footwork, and we did."
Maintaining those steps and that speed is equally important, especially for guys as big as Snyder (6-3, 250), Rummell (6-3, 255) and Hawout (6-4, 275). Keeping their wind and staying technically sound becomes even more difficult considering five of the six play on both sides of the ball. That's why Whittaker said depth and conditioning are so important.
"When you can run, and you carry that much weight, you get tired fast. There's no doubt about it," Whittaker said. "But we expect our linemen to be athletic. We expect them to do the same things - maybe not as fast or as agile - but to do the same things, movement wise, as anyone else on the football team. The gassers we do, the sprints we do, the conditioning we do - it's all equal. Just because you're big doesn't mean you get a break. We may need to space out recovery times a little bit, but they still have to do the same things."
The linemen do a little more, in fact. Whittaker said the line has stayed after practice to do extra conditioning, and it's not just to stay physically fit. Communication can break down when a player becomes fatigued, as Snyder pointed out, and keeping in contact with the person next to you is critical up front.
"We usually key on that because if you don't, missed blocks tend to happen," Snyder said.
As motivated as they are, the heat and humidity still gets to them from time to time, as does the extra conditioning, so the Rams' coaching staff came up with some incentive.
"We get a lot of glory from our line coach," Rummell said. "He said we get an Aunt Jemima pancake every time we get a block and knock someone over."
They better hope grandma doesn't beat them to it.