, Port Arthur, Texas

November 21, 2012

Nederland's offensive line stands tall

David Coleman
The Port Arthur News

NEDERLAND — From afar, the Nederland offense looks like a well-oiled machine. The Bulldogs have shot out to a 10-1 record this season, have a 1,400 yard rusher and a QB who has thrown for 13 touchdowns.

Lookicloser, though, and that fact becomes more and more amazing because of how much change has gone on with the backbone of said offense — the offensive line.

“Our offensive line has been somewhat of a work in progress,” Nederland head coach Larry Neumann said. “Our continuity there has gotten better midseason, but Justin Byrd was out with illness last week so Jorge Del Fierro was in there. We haven’t had five guys all year, but it’s developed into being pretty good. That’s with time and success and a running back like Kendrick (Hopkins). When a running back is making yards with little holes, the line tries to block harder the next time to make a bigger hole. It’s motivation.”

Ten different players have started so far on the Nederland offensive line. The Bulldogs have featured at least six different combinations on the line, with only junior left guard Jacob Brinkley avoiding the missed time barrage that has hit the Bulldog group up front.

During training camp, the starting five looked to be senior Jorge Del Fierro at left tackle, Brinkley at left guard, junior Chris Henry at center, junior Cole Brown at right guard and senior Dannis Latiolais at right tackle.

That group didn’t even make it into Week Zero intact. Starting with Henry’s hurt foot, the injuries mounted. Both Latiolais and Del Fierro suffered concussions. Justin Byrd, who replaced Del Fierro at left tackle, missed time with an illness. Brown missed a game as a precaution and to give him a rest to let some miscellaneous bumps and bruises heal.

All that adversity has only drawn the group together, as the Nederland line continues to produce consistently across the board.

“We’ve been real lucky this year with injuries,” Nederland co-offensive line coach Jae Stoker said. “This year has been crazy with the amount of injuries. It’s never been anything major. From concussions to Logan’s knee to the flu to holding Brown out one game for some boo-boos, we’ve gotten other guys more playing time. Luckily, we have more depth this year than we’ve had and we have needed all of it.”

That depth is always getting a workout because the line is always working. During the defensive half of practice, the group will work together on the side. All the extra work keeps the group together and talking, which only helps build that all-important chemistry the group needs to succeed.

“Our biggest deal has been the continuity of the kids,” co-offensive line coach David Crommett said. “It’s about trust with everyone starting on that line. We tell them we’re different. We’re going to work harder than anyone else. It can’t be one individual. It has to be us as a unit.”

The experience of Brown, who’s started 23 games in his career, Brinkley (23 starts), Latiolais (20 starts) and Del Fierro (15 starts), have played a big part in developing that chemistry, even if the players are at different positions than they had played before.

“We require our center to do a lot,” Stoker said. “Cole is directing everyone. Last week, Cole was directing Brock all over the place and Brock trusted Cole to put him in the right positions. We’re always looking for the chemistry. Dannis is one of our most consistent blockers. But, the biggest thing about having Cole at center is helping our chemistry.”

One of the most pleasant surprises has been Byrd, who was more of a defensive lineman previously, but has really blossomed when given a chance to play.

“When Jorge got hurt, Justin stepped up big,” Crommett said. “In Justin’s case, he showed us some stuff that he had never indicated to us he could do. It allowed us some freedom when Jorge came back to do some things with him.”

The players have all performed very well all season, as Crommett said that the group has graded out more consistently than in recent seasons from week to week. That also says something about the coaches, who took two different defensive linemen and plugged them in as a starter this year without a dropoff in productivity.

When the two first started working together, Stoker and Crommett didn’t always mesh their blocking backgrounds together.

“We require our kids to be very intelligent,” Crommett said. “He and I have grown into that. I was a man gap guy and (Stoker) was a zone guy. When we first started working together, we thought other one was stupid. It’s been a huge benefit, because we’ve combined both of them. When you’re aggressive in a zone scheme, you give your kids a better chance to succeed.”

The biggest reason that Nederland has seen success this year, despite all the different combinations on the offensive line, is flexibility. From the players moving around and playing at different spots to the position coaches and offensive coordinator Monte Barrow making a scheme that makes sense, the secret is fitting the strategy to the personnel.

“I think the thing we do best is that we’ll fit our scheme to our kids,” Stoker said. “Some teams are straight zone or straight man gap blocking. We’re not going to say, ‘This is our offense and that’s the only thing we’re going to do.’ That’s a credit to Monte too. He’s put a lot of trust in us to do some things that he may not always think is right.

“We can’t always match up man to man with teams. Take Dayton for example. We did some things last week scheme-wise than we’ve ever done. That’s the biggest thing about coaching. Anyone can draw up X’s and O’s. That doesn’t make you a coach. Fitting your personnel around a scheme or fitting your scheme around your personnel is the biggest part. You can’t be afraid to change.”