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Ursuline leaning on experienced offensive line

Staff photo / Neel Madhavan. The Ursuline offensive line (red caps) line up against the defensive line during a practice this summer. The Fighting Irish return five seniors up front and all of them have at least two years of starting experience.

YOUNGSTOWN — In any football offense, everything typically starts up front with the offensive line.

The offensive linemen are the first players off the ball and they help lead the point of attack for the offense. They’re responsible for both run blocking and pass protection on any given play. As a result, the way that unit performs can make-or-break an offense and the rest of the team.

This year, Ursuline will rely on a talented, veteran group on the offensive line with a plethora of experience under its belt. This group consists of five seniors, each with at least two years of starting experience — Isaac Lucas, Colton Ross, Brian Frasco, Casey Leugers and Mike Branch.

“It’s been an unbelievable group since they were freshmen,” said Irish head coach Dan Reardon. “They’ve grown so close, just playing football for four years and being in class together for four years and it’s just a very tight-knit group. They’re easily the strongest offensive line that I’ve coached in all my years of coaching, and that’s saying something because we’ve had some good ones and strong ones.”

It works out well for the Irish because they graduated a large portion of their skill talent from what was an incredibly explosive offense with last year’s team. Even though Ursuline returns Marc Manning and Will Burney at receiver, the Irish will still have a new quarterback, running back and a couple new receivers.

Being able to rely on an experienced offensive line helps get those new, younger skill players familiar and comfortable with the offense.

“You want to be veteran upfront when you have that situation,” Reardon said. “It’s a good situation for our new skill guys. They don’t have to be all stars and they can just stay within the framework (of the offense) and let our O-line go to work. We feel good about what they’re going to enable our skill guys to do and it gives them some time to develop.”

“In any offense, it always starts up front,” added Lucas. “So I think that having five seniors up front that’s been there and played a lot of football for this program, it really helps the skill guys behind us. It gives our quarterbacks more time and our running backs better holes to read.”

However, it hasn’t all been a smooth process. This group has had to undergo some growing pains to get to where they are now.

These senior linemen were part of a team that won just two games as freshmen and are now coming off an appearance in the Division IV state championship game.

“I remember freshman year in our game against Fitch where we had eight in protection and we had a receiver out wide open, but they got a sack,” Ross said. “That just showed us that we needed a good line to get us to where we wanted to be — like the state championship game last year. Without help upfront, that would not have come close to being possible. So I just think we understand our role and we understand that the team goes somewhat off how we go.”

Ross said he remembers how much smaller they were as freshmen than they are now. The weight room had a lot to do with their growth and development over the years.

Since freshman year, Leugers has put on almost 20 pounds, Lucas has gained about 18 pounds and Frasco has added about 11 pounds. But, Branch has had possibly the biggest transformation — growing about two inches and putting on 35 pounds.

“They’re all big, strong kids, but it’s because they worked their butt off in the weight room for four years,” Reardon said. “They’ve really invested time in the weight room.”

They’ve also had to learn their roles.

Offensive linemen are often looked at as the big brothers on the team — they stand up for and protect the smaller skill players and the rest of their fellow teammates. Ross said that was something they had to learn.

“After a game, I forget when, but coach brought up on film one time that your quarterback’s on the ground and no one’s coming to help him,” Ross said. “Ever since then we’ve thought that no one’s touching our quarterback, no one can touch our running back in the backfield. If they do, it’s personal for us. We have to go out there and attack. We want to take care of our guys, make sure that they stay healthy and know that we have their back.”

nmadhavan@tribtoday.com

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