For a football team to be successful on offense, it all starts up front with the offensive line.
While the skill players get all of the mentions for passes, catches and rushing yards, the blockers up front are making it all possible.
When Waverly senior running back Payton Shoemaker surpassed the 2,000-yard mark in Friday’s 27-14 triumph at Oak Hill, he was quick to credit the guys up front and the rest of his teammates for making it all possible. Those linemen in the rotation have included junior center Spencer Pollard (#55, 6-feet, 205-pounds), junior guard Andrew Welch (#56, 6-0, 315), freshman tackle Brock Adams (#54, 6-1, 280), senior guard Zack Brown (#52, 6-0, 230), junior tackle Aiden “Buddy” Diehl (#70, 6-2, 300), junior tackle Blaise Reader (#75, 6-4, 270), and sophomore guard Zak Green (#74, 5-10, 225). Junior tight end Zeke Brown (#2, 6-3, 200) and the receivers do their job to provide blocks as well. All of those linemen, except for Zack Brown, will be back again next season.
“They (the linemen) have done a great job all year in everything. They work so hard. As a team, I think we’ve all worked really hard,” said Shoemaker. “There’s nothing that agitates me more than everyone saying I got 2,000 yards. I ran, but nothing could have been done without these guys (the linemen), the coaches, and everyone else. I just want to make sure everyone knows that it was the team getting 2,000 yards.”
In total, the Tigers have rushed for 2,234 yards and 30 touchdowns with Shoemaker producing 2,039 yards and 28 touchdowns. Senior Hunter Ward has added 210 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 16 carries. Six other backs have produced a handful of yards, adding up to the total of 2,234 yards.
The offensive line has also helped Waverly produce 1,765 yards in the passing game. Junior quarterback Haydn’ Shanks has thrown for 1,652 of those, with the remaining 113 belonging to backup sophomore Wade Futhey.
“It is really cool,” said center Spencer Pollard, talking about Shoemaker running for all of those yards.
“He (Shoemaker) makes our job easy,” added Blaise Reader. “We complement each other.”
“I feel like he (Shoemaker) makes us look good, and we make him look good,” said Aiden “Buddy” Diehl.
What the fans see on the field is a very small portion of what the Tigers do to prepare to work successfully together as a unit on offense.
“We do a lot in the offseason. We start like right after the season is over and we lift weights every day,” said Reader. “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we do line workouts. We work on our fundamentals — steps, angles, stances and pass sets — and then we will go together and work on plays.”
Pollard does more than just snap the ball.
“Sometimes it gets complicated to make sure Payton gets the right reads, so he can get the yards he gets. Sometimes if we get a blitz (from the other team), I have to make a certain call, so we can all block it right so Payton will get the right read,” said Pollard.
“We have a lot of run plays, so we try to do our best to make sure that he has room to run. We are all reading different people. The person that we don’t block is who Haydn’ reads. If someone blitzes, we have to make sure we pick it up. Otherwise, Haydn’ or Payton will get hit when they aren’t supposed to.”
Pollard also has to make sure he gets the shotgun snap into the right spot for Shanks to catch the ball and get rid of it quickly.
“Thankfully, there haven’t been any bad snaps at all,” said Pollard. “Every now and then, it will happen because of the wind, the ball will be slick, or my hand will mess up. None of those have happened in a game. They have happened in practice or the offseason.”
Adams, the youngster of the group, has started all season long and is appreciative for the opportunity.
“It has been a good experience. I’ve learned a lot from them,” said Adams of playing with the other linemen. “They all teach me every day. Spencer has probably influenced me the most with the mental side of things. He has helped me learn all of the plays and how not to mess up.”
“Brock is really strong. He is one of the strongest out of all of us. That helps a lot,” said Spencer. “Even though he isn’t always as fundamentally sound, he can get by with a lot with his strength.”
Adams suffered a leg injury in the game against Oak Hill and will not be back in the lineup this season. Reader has taken his place for the duration.
Zack Brown, who missed all but one game in his junior year and the start of his senior year with multiple knee injuries, is grateful to be back on the roster and starting once again.
“It means a lot, since I’ve missed so much. It is great to be back and help Shoe get 2,000 yards,” said Brown.
He loves the physical contact of being a lineman and was not ready to give the game up.
“Honestly, I just wanted to hit somebody,” said Brown. “Football is a great way to take out a lot of anger.”
Zeke Brown, the jack of all trades, has produced statistically while providing blocking for his team. Brown has 11 catches for 80 yards offensively. Defensively, he leads the team in tackles at 62.5, has 8.5 tackles for a combined loss of 31 yards, one sack for a loss of 10 yards, an interception with a return of 50 yards and a forced fumble. He also has a pass deflection and three kick returns.
“Honestly, I’m kind of a small part in what these guys do to help Payton accomplish what he accomplished. I’m really stuck on the end in most plays unless I am going to the second level,” said Zeke Brown. “I will communicate with Blaise, or Buddy Diehl if the end comes in or goes out. We have to know who taking who when we block. Most of the time, I am just kicking the end out and creating a lane for Shoe if he wants to take it and his read is right.”
Jacob Knight, Waverly’s offensive line coach, talked in depth about what the Tigers do all year long to get ready to be their best each season.
“Each group is special to me. We spend a lot of time together. In the offseason we spend a couple of days a week together. We (as coaches) can work with seven (players), so we take out seven and try and work on the pass set a lot. That’s when I can really break down how to teach them what to really do. We teach them the fundamentals of the pass set and the fundamentals in the run game,” explained Knight.
“We spend a lot of time understanding the angle we need to take on a run play. That’s something this group has done a really good job learning — understanding their angle and being able to work through their angle. We spend a lot of time on double teams in the winter, along with the pass set and run angles.”
In order to be successful, the Tigers have time in the classroom before school ever begins.
“One day a week we would spend about 45 minutes going through each defense and then going through each run — understanding how the runs fit what they are doing,” said Knight. “These guys spend a lot of time in the classroom. We meet twice a week in season before school at 7 a.m. in my room. We go through the scouting report, game plan and watch film. We try and make any adjustments on Thursday mornings.”
Knight said that each member of the group has a very cool story, and he told a little bit about each one of them.
Pollard had never played offensive line before November of his eighth grade year. Going into his sophomore season when he began starting at center, he had only played two games there.
“Spencer has embraced everything we do. He and I have a lot of the same personality traits, so sometimes we go at it a little bit. That’s just how it is. I’ve watched him grow up and change. I’m proud of the way he is able to play. He’s a little small, but it doesn’t matter,” said Knight.
“Spencer is the most fundamentally sound center that I’ve ever coached and probably will ever coach. I think he is one of the most fundamentally sound centers anywhere. I would put his fundamentals up against anyone.
“Spencer is really smart. Generally he has to mess something up to make it right. Once he messes up and figures it out, he usually is never wrong again. He worked during his whole eighth grade offseason and freshman season, knowing where he would be going as a sophomore.”
Andrew Welch, or “Jag” as he has been nicknamed, has been starting for two years beginning last year as a sophomore. In 2018, Welch started at left guard but didn’t finish the season because he tore his ACL in week five.
“Jag is really physical and strong. He is over a 500-pound squatter, and Brock (Adams) is as well. Both of them are really strong. Having them on the same side (of the line) has been huge for us,” said Knight.
“I am hoping Blaise can fill in that gap (in place of Adams). Blaise had never played football before he was going into his freshman year. He started in the eighth grade winter, acclimated himself and had some rough spots, but he has continually gotten better. Blaise is in a good spot right now.”
Knight and the coaching staff knew that Adams would be starting as a freshman.
“The expectation was never for him not to play. Brock was always going to be starter whether it was at guard or tackle with his size and strength. He found a home at left tackle,” said Knight. “I knew he wanted to get better, I knew I could push him a little bit, and he has gotten continually better. At the start of the season, Brock was one of our lowest grades every week. Now Spencer and Jag are usually one and two. Zack Brown and Brock are right there together. Diehl is just a little lower. They all grade very high.”
Diehl has really come on strong this season.
“Buddy Diehl is the most physical dude I’ve ever had on the front side of runs. A lot of times we run behind him. Basically in the Fairland game, we ran behind him most of the time. He has some things he needs to work on with his pass sets. Overall, he is really solid,” said Knight. “When he was a freshman, he didn’t take things seriously and didn’t care if he got better. The switch flipped for him going into his sophomore year. Buddy played a little bit last year. Then he went into this offseason and did an excellent job getting ready.”
Knight said Zack Brown was hurt during the preseason going into his junior year. He was out for the first five games. He returned for two-and-a-half quarters of the Valley game before getting hurt again. Then he was out the remainder of the season. Brown was hurt again in the offseason, suffering an ACL tear.
“We didn’t think Zack was going to be able to play this year. In September we saw him running on the track and doing his rehab. He said he wanted to come back,” said Knight. “Zack got cleared the Thursday before the Unioto game. He practiced for Fairland, played the second half of that game and has played ever since. He is physical, athletic and strong. He likes to pull and punish people.”
Knight also said Zeke Brown is a team player and has been crucial for the success of Shoemaker in the running game.
“Zeke is a lot bigger part than what he made himself out to be,” said Knight. “Zeke does a good job understanding his fit in the run. His fit creates everything. He probably doesn’t get the catches he wants, but he doesn’t really care.”
Zak Green was in the starting mix until Zack Brown returned to the lineup. Green will be one of the first players into the lineup when needed.
“Zak Green played a lot early. He is very physical and can play at both guard spots,” said Knight. “He still gets reps in practice. He just has some fundamentals that need to be cleaned up a bit.”
As a junior last year, Shoemaker rushed for 1,099 yards in 11 games. As a team, the Tigers had 1,484 rushing yards with then-senior Ethan Brooker having 360. This year, Shoemaker has covered 2,039 in 10 games.
“The biggest thing for Shoe was understanding the offense. It is a testament to him what he did in the offseason to learn the offense. Shoe didn’t play running back before we put him there last year. We put him there, because he was more athletic than anyone we had,” said Knight.
“Shoe missed three reads all year until the Wheelersburg game. Then he missed a couple against Wheelersburg, pressing a little bit. He’s been pressing the last couple of weeks. I think Shoe will really light it up come playoff time. It is a big relief for him (to get to 2,000 yards) because people kept talking about it.”
Shoemaker credits the physicality of the linemen in front of him.
“These guys are physical. They do a great job of setting a physical mentality for the whole game and for the whole season so far,” said Shoemaker. “They come out and set the tone on the first play of the game. That helps because a lot of times the other team just backs down. That makes everything else a lot easier. Then I can just run.”
Reflecting on a historic fourth-straight playoff appearance, the Tigers know they are in uncharted territory.
“It is really cool since no one else has done it. It makes you feel like you are doing stuff right,” said Pollard. “To earn a home playoff game means a lot. We worked really hard for that.”
That regional quarterfinal home playoff game is set for 7 p.m. Saturday evening at Raidiger Field against the Gallia Academy Blue Devils.
It means a lot to me, because as a freshman I was on that first playoff team, and now as a senior I’ve been in the playoffs every year,” said Brown. “Once we made it to the playoffs that first year, it was a goal I set to make it all four.”
“I feel like making the playoffs all four years is a testament to the culture we’ve established here. It isn’t necessarily a goal now, but it is an expectation — not just from the team, but from the community,” said Shoemaker.
“For us to be able to do it four straight years is big. Obviously we plan to do that in the years to come. Now we just have to build off that and win games in the playoffs and eventually our region. I think it is a big testament to the coaching staff and the culture that has been created.”