For the Bryant Hornets’ offensive line in 2016, it was the old proverbial baptism by fire with new guys in every position.
“We didn’t play the same lineup until about week five and a couple of them played a couple of different positions,” recalled Hornets offensive line coach Shane Clancy. “Last year, it was either feast or famine for us. We either blocked or didn’t do a good job.”
And they kept improving and learning, often the hard way, all the while helping the Hornets to an eight-win season and the deepest run into the playoffs any Bryant team had ever made, all the way to the semifinals.
“And it’s really paid off this year,” Clancy observed. “The guys really took it upon themselves to make sure (those problems) don’t happen again. They’re working hard every day.”
“I think our offensive linemen are really, really good,” agreed Hornets offensive coordinator Kirk Bock. “That’s going to give us a chance to run the football. We feel like we’re going to get a chance to run it against anybody. That’s been the biggest improvement in our offense.”
“Hopefully, we’ll go out and do our jobs and stay under the radar because the only time we get publicity is when we don’t do good,” Clancy added with a smile. “They know that but they want to show they’ve improved.”
Even though they may go unnoticed, any coach will tell you, the work of the line sets up the offense, dictates how much you can do, clears the way and gives the skill guys the time to make plays.
Clancy lists six first-teamers for the five spots on the o-line entering the Salt Bowl on Saturday. They are Zak Kemp, Logan Burton, Preston Kyzer, Clay McElyea, Joseph Wyllia and Blaise Smith.
“We probably won’t know until game day (which five will start) because there’s a little battle,” he mentioned.
As for depth, he mentioned Logan Reed, Jake Burton, Josh Stevens, Tanner Wilson and Mitchell Jones.
“We’ve got a little bit more depth that we had last year,” Clancy said. “They’re all working hard and we feel like we’re a little more prepared to play and be able to address injuries.”
Looking to take advantage of that improvement up front will be junior quarterback Ren Hefley. Though he only saw spot duty in the Salt Bowl last year, Hefley eventually took over the starting job and, while still sharing time much of the way, passed for 1,770 yards and 12 touchdowns last year with just four interceptions.
“Ren brings that experience to the table,” said Bock, who coaches the quarterbacks. “He came in last year and did a great job for us. And he’s just picked up right where he left off last year. He has confidence. He’s a very coachable kid.”
Asked where he has improved most significantly, Bock said, “Decision-making, knowing when to escape, staying in the pocket a little bit longer.”
Back up for Hefley will be provided by sophomore Jake Meaders and senior Reid Mobley.
“They are just right there behind (Hefley),” the coach asserted. “Meaders is just young but does a good job. And Mobley, he’s kind of beat down right now but when he’s healthy, he does a great job.
“Our receivers are doing a good job,” Bock added. “They’re starting to figure out concepts and not only how to get open but how to stay open.”
Receivers coach Adam Pendergrass will probably start Randy Thomas and Brandon Murray wide with Luke Curtis and Matthew Sandidge in the slots.
“Randy played a little bit last year,” he noted. “Brandon played last year and he was an inside guy. We moved him outside where he gives us some speed on the edge.
Curtis, who plays tight end as well, is the top returning receiver with 18 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns last year. At 6-3, 225, he provides a big target.
“Matthew Sandidge is a baseball player and came to us late in the summer but he’s a big part of our offense,” Pendergrass mentioned.
“We’re going to play a lot of guys at receiver,” he added. “We’ll probably play eight or nine guys. We’ll try to rotate in, three plays and out. If they run a deep route, we’re putting somebody else in so we can keep going fast like we want to.
Seniors Ja’Kalon Pittman and C.J. Wallace will play key roles, the coach said. “They’re going to play just as much as the starters.
“We’ve got Logan Grant who’ll play some at outside receiver, and Hunter Ulmer,” he mentioned. “He’s a young kid but he’s playing one of our slots. He’s a quarterback but we moved him to receiver and he helps us out there, runs good routes, understands the offense.
“Our goal’s going to be to catch everyone thrown to us, block for our running backs and our quarterback and see if we can’t score as many points as possible,” Pendergrass said.
The Hornets graduated their top four rushers. Latavion Scott, who had 148 yards on 27 carries last fall and Kris King who picked up 121 on 28 tries lead this year’s primary ball carriers. They’re backed by Keethan Hudson and Braylon Butler.
“All four of those guys, we expect them to play quite a few snaps,” said backfield coach Terrence Heaggans. “They’ve done a great job all throughout the spring and the summer, learning. When we practice, we just rotate them one after the other. We practice them to score and run 40-yard sprints every day.
“Kris King is a bigger back but he catches the ball really well,” he related. “Latavion Scott has great vision and Braylon Butler, you give him a crease, he can go. Keethan Hudson runs well and does some good stuff. They all have their different strengths so they give us a lot of options.
“They’ve also done a great job in pass protection and doing all the things to help us be successful.”
The Hornets will have a challenge replacing all-State and record-breaking placekicker Hayden Ray. Junior Martin Ramirez, one of the top soccer players at Bryant, and sophomore Grayson Scoles are competing for the primary position. Both kicked for their freshman teams. Last year, Ramirez was Ray’s back-up.