When the Pahrump Valley High School football team takes the field tonight for its first home playoff game in years, fans easily will notice Nico Velazquez barreling through a hole and dragging defenders along for the ride. They will see Casey Flennory slice through a hole and race into the open field.
But what’s harder to see is the mass of bodies up front. It’s understandable, in a way, big bodies blocking the view of other big bodies blocking the big bodies on the other side of the ball can make it hard to tell what’s going and who’s doing what.
During the week off the Trojans earned from finishing first in the Sunset League, six of the seven linemen sat down in a corner of the school’s weight room to explain just what they do, how they do it, and why they do it so well.
Meet the linemen
They are four seniors, a junior and two sophomores. They range from 5 feet, 9 inches in height up to 6-foot-4, from 195 pounds up to 303, according to the Pahrump Valley roster on MaxPreps.com.
“They’re all individuals,” said line coach Fred Schmidt, who is fond of saying, “No line, no shine” about the offense. “There’s nothing cookie-cutter about this group. I’m impressed with every one of them.”
“The toughest part of their job is knowing the offense we run relies on them,” head coach Joe Clayton said. “Without them, this offense doesn’t run because it’s such a power run game. It’s not like some other teams that rely on one, two or three athletes and they try to get them the ball in the open field. It relies on all of them doing their jobs.”
That is most evident on the line, where, despite their obvious differences, the players often think alike when it comes to how they function on the field and what makes them so good.
“We’re always practicing fundamentals, the bare essentials we need to work on and perfect,” said senior Brandon Bunker, an imposing 6-foot-4, 268-pounder. “We’re all close friends. We all connect. We have real chemistry between us.”
“Since we practice together, like Bunker said, we practice fundamentals every day, and just being around each other we know what we do so we can work around that,” added senior Zach Trieb, who packs 303 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame and looks every bit like the proverbial immovable object.
The familiarity certainly helps, but the chemistry seems natural.
“We act like brothers,” said sophomore Anthony Pearson, the smallest of the group at 5-foot-9, 195. “We all just mess around, then when it’s time to go, we go.”
“We all hang out, have a good time, then go back to the grind,” agreed Caleb Sproul, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound senior.
“We all hang out together, we’re all friends, we all see each other around school,” added Trieb.
“We’ve been together for so long we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” offered senior Jakob Landis, a 5-foot-10, 298-pound center. “We work with each other.”
They will tell you that specific strengths make it easier to work as a unit.
“I think it’s our timing, the way we work together,” said sophomore Jacob Lopez, who stands 5-9 and weighs in at 198 pounds.
“Communication,” Pearson said. “You have to communicate on who to get.”
“It’s our footwork that makes us good,” said 6-foot-2, 287-pound Armani McGhee, the lone junior.
If footwork is not the first thing you think of when pondering the skills of a group that includes several people pushing 300 pounds — at least one from the other side — well, that’s why what they do needs to be explained.
The task at hand
It does start with strength, as physical force is required to open holes for running backs and provide time for quarterbacks. And holes do get opened: The Trojans have rushed for 2,280 yards this season, or 6.2 per carry. That includes an almost ridiculous 445 yards rushing in an opening loss to Lowry.
“Their size obviously helps, but not only that they’re really strong in the weight room,” Clayton said. “They’re really a big, strong group. They get a pretty good push off the line with their size and strength.
“With the amount of time we put in in the weight room in the off-season and watching how strong they are, it didn’t surprise us at all that we’d get a push. This is the biggest offensive line we’ve had, and that was a huge positive going into the season. They’ve stepped up and responded very, very well.”
But while brute strength comes in handy, more is required for the entire unit to function effectively.
“They’re intelligent,” Schmidt said. “We talk about techniques when they’re blocking, and they absorb it.”
“Coach Schmidt always puts it as they’re very cerebral,” Clayton said. “That pretty much sums them up.”
That quality helps them improve when they study game film and put what they learn in place on the practice field.
“We’re just looking at things we can improve on, are we stepping the right way, how fast we’re getting off the ball, things like that,” Bunker said.
“I watch my first step and my hand positioning,” offered Lopez.
“When I’m looking at film, like he said, the first step, getting off the ball quickly and just getting your body in the right place to make the good block,” added Trieb.
“I couldn’t agree more with Trieb,” said Pearson. “You have to look at your steps, you have to look at did I block this guy correctly, could I have done it better, and see what you can improve on.”
One other area of agreement: Five of them had the same answer as to who they would least like to face as a defensive player.
“Armani.” “Armani.” “Armani.” “Armani.” “Armani.”
“He’s an absolute animal on the field,” Pearson added.
“Armani, he’s got a little nasty streak in him, and I’d like to see that from all of them,” Schmidt said. “That’s something you can’t coach.”
McGhee’s presence is so commanding that taking his place for a key game against Cheyenne focused a great deal of attention on Lopez.
“Jacob Lopez has withstood his baptism by fire,” Schmidt said. “Jacob, standing at 5-8 and weighing in at approximately 185, was tasked with filling the shoes of McGhee at 6-3, 286. His debut on this varsity line put him against a defensive tackle that was rather intimidating at 6-4, 390. As a coaching staff we were very pleased with his effort and execution of his assignment.”
McGhee sat quietly smiling hearing how none of his teammates wanted any part of him as an opponent. For his part, he pointed to Trieb.
“He’s a heavier opponent, harder to move, obviously,” McGhee said of the 300-pounder to chuckles from the rest of the group. “But it’s the strength behind him that’s really hard to deal with.”
Landis, who was out sick that day, agreed with McGhee after the next afternoon’s practice.
“Trieb’s big and strong and he gets in front of you really well,” he said.
“Zach has become the strongest,” Schmidt said. “He’s a force to be reckoned with.”
A recurring theme of the season for the Trojans has been strength in the second half. They just don’t seem to wear down.
“I don’t even think about stamina. I’m just thinking play by play, just getting through, blocking my guy,” Bunker said.
“From our conditioning and everything, stamina really isn’t a problem any more,” Trieb said.
“During conditioning our coaches remind us about the fourth quarter,” added Sproul.
McGhee said the lack of depth on the Trojans’ roster meant stamina was basically a necessity.
“Knowing where we come from we have very few kids, so we kind of have to adapt to the situation of not having subs,” he said.
They have adapted well.
During the second halves of games, Pahrump Valley has outscored its opponents 160-86. In league games the difference is even more dramatic: 98-26 with two shutouts. The best examples? At Democracy Prep, a 32-25 halftime lead became a 48-25 win, and at Del Sol, when a 7-7 tie evolved into a 27-14 victory.
While the Trojans’ relentless ground game can have a demoralizing effect on opponents, the infrequent but effective passing game has stuck daggers into foes’ hearts at times. Pass blocking is a very different animal than run blocking, but the few times they are required to do it appears to be handled with ease by Pahrump Valley’s linemen.
“I wouldn’t say it’s harder,” McGhee said. “I would say it’s in the position that you’re in, and you have to adapt to it.”
“It’s completely different,” Bunker said. “You’re trying to keep them away from the quarterback instead of trying to push them in a certain direction.”
“You’re not trying to drive the dude 10 yards down the field,” Trieb explained. “You’re setting up trying to give your quarterback time so he can observe the field and get the ball down.”
Because the Trojans don’t pass much, defenses often are caught by surprise. But, rarely, a pass is in order, and they will be looking for it, which can make the job tougher.
“Most of the time, yes it does, but you’ve just got to do your job no matter what,” said Sproul, who according to Schmidt, has the best wheels of the group.
“If the linebacker is rushing in, you have to keep an eye out for him so you have to observe what’s happening while you’re blocking, so if there’s another person rushing you have to try and get both of them,” Pearson explained.
Linebackers also pose a potential issue for Landis.
“I’m a lot heavier than they are, so trying to catch up is sometimes a problem,” he admitted.
The fruits of their labor
Pahrump Valley heads into tonight’s playoff game against Boulder City with a 6-3 overall record. The Trojans are guaranteed just their second winning season in a decade, and one home victory is all that stands between them and the Class 3A state semifinals.
“I thought we had a lot of potential,” Pearson said. “We all worked really hard over the summer, so I knew we were going to make something good.”
“During the summer we put in some hard work, and then going to SUU (football camp at Southern Utah University) and doing what we did at SUU was definitely an eye-opener,” Sproul said.
“I knew we had something special here,” Trieb said. “Being with Bunk since freshman year, and them coming in … I always thought it was going to be a good year this year.”
The Sunset title has made this a special year, but to hear Clayton tell it, this might have been a special year regardless of the record.
“They’re nice guys to be around,” he said. “Their coaches enjoy being around them. They know each other really well. They’re friends. They’re dominating as a group and enjoying it at the same time. I don’t know if it gets any better than that.”
So how far can all of that take them? One by one, each of them had the same simple answer:
“All the way.”
Contact Sports Editor Tom Rysinski at email@example.com On Twitter:@PVTimesSports