The Napoleon Wildcats are off to a 3-0 start for the first time since 2014 and are in the thick of the Northern Lakes League title chase — a title they haven’t won since 2012. While many are quick to credit Napoleon’s terrific running back combination of Jarrett Gerdeman and Michael Chipps, it has been the play of the Wildcats’ offensive line that is drawing raves from those most in the know.
“First off, a lot of times those linemen are the forgotten bunch,” said Napoleon football coach Tory Strock. “Everybody focuses on our great running backs and our talented skill guys. So those guys (the linemen) are the forgotten ones. But when your team is not playing well a lot of times it’s because the line is not getting it done. So those guys have to have a strong and unique bond, and they do. In the weight room, on the field, off the field, it’s very rare that you have a group like this collectively that has the type of bond or brotherhood that they do. It directly translates to their performance on the field.”
The Wildcats start six seniors on the offensive line. Lane Crossland is in the middle at center, while Jason Waisner and Bryson Brown are at the guard positions and Demitrius Hernandez and Carter Burken are at tackle. Isaac Fraker, another upperclassmen, starts at tight end.
Junior Brock Wiemken played the last two games, filling in for Hernandez, who had to be quarantined for 14 days after being possibly exposed to COVID-19.
“It was frustrating, and I almost got into trouble yelling at the TV (watching the games), but at the end of the day, watching the guys play, Brock did a really great job blocking,” said Hernandez.
“I wasn’t really nervous,” said Wiemken. “I knew if I had a question I could ask one of them. If any of these guys get hurt, I got to go in there.”
Napoleon has dominated its first three games, outscoring its opponents 140-21. While the defense has pitched two shutouts, the offense is putting up ridiculous numbers, especially in the running game.
The Wildcats have rushed for 935 yards (311.7 yards per game) and 16 touchdowns. Napoleon’s running backs are averaging 7.2 yards per carry ... for the season.
Strock said he understands just how important the guys no one knows are to the success his team has had, and will have this season.
“The older I get, and I think any veteran coach would tell you this, sometimes as a young coach you think it’s all about running backs, receivers and quarterbacks, the longer you do it, the older you get, the fuller you appreciate the importance of the line,” said Strock. “These guys are the cornerstone of our football team. They’re the reason we’re 3-0. They’re the reason we’re going to have an opportunity to compete for an NLL title this year and they’re the most important players on our football team. Period. End. The most important.”
This group has proved itself to be more than just blockers. With so much experience coming back, Napoleon’s linemen are like having coaches on the field.
“I think we work really well as a team,” said Crossland. “This year, more than other years, I feel we have been talkative on the line. The whole game we’re always talking, talking and talking. We’re almost all seniors and we’re all really good friends.”
“The best part about them is the way they coach each other and the way they communicate,” said Strock. “If we have a problem on the play a lot of times we don’t have to diagnose it or fix it as a coaching staff because on their way back to the huddle they’re helping each other out. It’s not finger pointing, it’s constructive. ‘Hey, next time you need to do this and I’ll do this.’ When you get guys accountable to one another it’s a powerful thing.”
For the guys in the trenches, it’s just another day at the office.
“It starts with us, with our run-heavy offense, there is a lot of pressure on you,” said Brown. “They (the other teams) know what’s coming. You have to have the mentality that they’re not going to be able to stop it. It sucks for them.”
“It’s nothing new,” said Burken. “People say it’s a lot of pressure, but you just got to go out there and get your job done. You go out there get all dirty and stuff and not get much credit for it.”
“We have to get dirty,” added Waisner. “You get hurt a lot, lot of scratches, and you don’t get any praise for it, lot of selflessness.”
“A lot of times I’m blocking a linebacker, but sometimes I do get to go down and get a defensive tackle,” said Fraker. “It’s fun to get some double teams and get people moving.”
But the linemen also know the players they block for appreciate what they do, and when the running backs and quarterbacks get the glory, the guys down in the dirt are the ones happiest for them.
“My favorite thing is when you are lying on top of somebody after you put them in the dirt and see your running back pass you,” said Burken. “That’s the best feeling you could get, I think.”
“Even though we don’t get our names in the paper, and stuff like that, I know when I see running back running for touchdown I know we did our job,” said Crossland. “It makes us feel good.”
“A lot of people, especially our quarterback, know what we do on the line and what it takes for us to be successful,” added Hernandez.
So why would anyone want to be a linemen? Well, at Napoleon, it’s almost like a tradition.
“Everybody thinks being a lineman is just being a big guy,” said Strock. “It’s so much more than that. So much more important than physical attributes is your mentality. You have to be stubborn, you have to be unselfish and you have to be relentless. All the while knowing you’re not going to get many pats on the back. That’s why it takes a very special kid to play the line and special group to buy in like they have.”
Others just eventually find their way to the line from other positions.
“Ever since I was a little kid my dad made me do football,” said Waisner. “I loved just the hitting. I was a running back when I was a little kid. Just always wanted to be part of it.”
“I tried tight end and I can’t catch,” said Wiemken. “They moved me down to guard and I really liked it. I like working with these guys and getting dirty.”
With the biggest game Napoleon has played in several years coming up on Friday, Strock said he knows his team will be ready to play and a lot of that confidence comes from his offensive linemen.
“When you have really good football teams and you’re walking into that tunnel on Friday night and you look behind you, you almost get a sense of calm,” said Strock. “This is one of those units, when I look behind me when I’m leading them to the tunnel and I look into their eyes, I know there is nothing to fear because their effort is going to be great. It’s not always like that. A group like this doesn’t come around very often and to have six senior starters and a kid like Brock Wiemken, who is a tremendous fill in, substitute guy, it’s a powerful thing.”
A power the Perrysburg Yellow Jackets are going to have to deal with come kick-off.