WEEK 1 TEST: Line play crucial for Rams against Trojans
Follow Friday’s action live on Twitter via the hashtag #ROBCOFB and be on the look out for The Robesonian’s 16-page football tab appearing in Thursday’s print edition.
PEMBROKE — Trial by fire.
Mark Heil knows his offensive line faces a treacherous assignment in Friday’s opener against Pine Forest, a program with at least two future Division I studs up front including five-star defensive tackle Lamont Gaillard — a University of Georgia commit who’s rated North Carolina’s top prospect.
But that’s what makes coaching fun for Purnell Swett’s veteran leader who spent the weekend devising a game plan that puts his inexperienced group of blockers in the best position possible to succeed.
“There’s a sense of urgency on offense with us and those kids know we’ve got to get better now,” Heil said before Monday’s practice. “I’ve rode those players hard all summer and event though coaching the offensive line isn’t my forte, this first game has provided me with the challenge of getting my guys ready to play. The kids are excited and I’m excited.”
Swett opens the season along with Robeson County’s five other schools on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Despite losing all five — some multi-year — starters along the offensive line, Heil says he is encouraged by his unit’s recent scrimmage play at Jack Britt after a subpar showing earlier in the day against E.E. Smith. He’s hoping the resiliency his newcomers have shown throughout the summer appears under the lights inside Big ‘Mo’ Strickland Stadium.
“The problem is we’re facing a really good football team that is so much bigger than we are up front,” Heil said. “We don’t have time to be average. We’re not going to out-size anyone this season, but the best thing about this bunch is attitude. These kids want to play football and seem to really care about winning.”
Josh Singletary is Swett’s only returning offensive lineman who saw more than a handful of varsity snaps last season. Brandon Hunt’s the biggest of the group, a 6-foot-3, 320-pound right tackle that will go toe-to-toe with Pine Forest’s Harold Landry, a rangy defensive end headed to Boston College.
Wakiyan Dial, a 5-foot-10, 260-pound senior, is Swett’s strongest player in the trenches and could see snaps on offense and defense.
“I’ve seen a lot of positives the last few weeks from our offensive linemen,” Heil said. “We really haven’t had any terrible practices this summer despite being new up front. We started out a little sluggish and slow, but the guys have turned it around.”
Swett’s 48-minute crash course on dominating between the tackles will have to begin better than last season’s opener with the Trojans. In that game, Pine Forest held the Rams to two first downs and forced five turnovers including a muffed punt in the fourth quarter that led to a two-possession lead.
Pine Forest returns most of its starters on defense and is highly-skilled in the secondary, a unit featuring three-year starter Man Fleming at corner.
Should the Rams contain the Trojans’ senior-driven defensive line, protecting quarterback Josh Brooks against rapid-blitzing linebacker Zach Chambers and Pine Forest’s other speedy pass rushers is the next goal. Heil says Brooks, a junior, will get the nod at quarterback after winning the job over Thristian Lowry last week in the Two Rivers Jamboree.
Brooks started last year’s opener in Fayetteville, but was ineffective.
“Josh stepped up and made some nice throws (against Britt) under pressure,” Heil said. “We’re hoping that will carry over here at home on Friday night. I hope he accepts that challenge.”
With Swett’s offensive line under the microscope early this season, senior defensive captain Chuck Oxendine believes his side of the football will hold up their end of the bargain.
“They’re young, but they understand when they mess up and they’re working hard to fix it,” Oxendine said in reference to Swett’s newcomers up front. “Our big focus as a team is moving some guys around and finding the right people who can help us win. We’re hungry.”
Reach staff writer Brad Crawford at 910-272-6119 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.
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