If you saw the University starting defensive line walking down the street, you might confuse them for linebackers.
Averaging just a tad over 215 pounds, the Hawks front three are drastically undersized compared to many competitors. Last week, they faced a Wheeling Park squad that averaged more than 280 pounds along the offensive line.
It’s not always size that makes the difference, though, and according to UHS head coach John Kelley, his unit makes up for the disadvantage with a fierce mentality on every snap.
“They’re giving up anywhere from 80-100 pounds, and they just take double teams and iso backs coming down on them and they do their job,” Kelley said.
“Sometimes, they’re going to get pushed around, but they hang in there and do their job. It’d be easy for them to give up and say I’m not big enough to play here — on paper they’re not — but they’re the best we have.”
Hawks’ senior Ben Gribble, who plays nose guard, attributes his physicality and toughness to his predecessors — a defensive line with two NCAA Division I walk-ons in Josh Ritchie and Dalton McDaniels (both now at WVU) that led UHS to an undefeated regular season and quarterfinal playoff appearance.
“We have a lot to live up to with our defensive line from last year — it was one of the best in the state. They left us with a mentality of never giving up, no matter the situation,” Gribble said.
“Now before games, we get together and tell each other, no one is going to beat us. That plays a bunch into our success. I get double-teamed every play, and I’m facing 250-300 pound lineman. But I never want to give up.”
Of course, quality coaching will always play a role in a successful unit, and defensive tackle Jackson Summers knows that he has to give a fair share of the credit to the men in charge.
“It’s a challenge to deal with the bigger lineman. The coaching honestly help us out a lot. They teach us different techniques and how to take on different blocks,” he said.
Of course, it wasn’t smooth sailing from the beginning — a change in the system saw the Hawks defensive line switch focus this fall from play-making to clogging gaps and forcing opposing backs to the outside. The transition wasn’t necessarily smooth, with John Marshall tallying over 300 yards on the ground against the Hawks in the opening week.
“It took them awhile to catch on to what we wanted. A lot of them wanted to make quarterback sacks and big plays in the backfield, but that’s not their role,” Kelley said. “I thought they did a great job of it last week against Park — a top-five team in the state. They came in and thought they were going to run right over us but we saw some major improvement last week. These lineman are starting to buy into the system, believe in it, and mature with it.”
Gribble discussed the pros and cons of the system, noting that the role he plays can prove disheartening at times. It’s a quote from his coach — from day one of camp — that keeps fueling him.
“The first day of defensive line practice, our coach always says, ‘You’re never going to be a star player. You’re in the trenches, this is where real men are made. Kids play in the other places,’ ” Gribble said.
As the Hawks travel to Class AA No. 2 Fairmont Senior tonight, Kelley expects the unit to face a test unlike one they’ve seen this far.
“They have the toughest task they’ve ever had this week. You’ve got two Division I lineman, both 280-285. The rest of their line is still experienced and much bigger than us,” he said. “It’ll be important to get pressure on the quarterback. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the state. They’ve got their work cut out for them.”