September 12, 2013 10:31:00 AM
Adam Minichino - email@example.com
For Luke Ellison, the growth process started in the fifth grade.
That's when many of the current Heritage Academy football players first started playing together. When you're an offensive lineman, playing together with teammates for that long is going to translate into some serious chemistry.
Through three games, Heritage Academy's offensive and defensive lines have aced their lessons. On offense, the Patriots (3-0) have rushed for more than 200 yards in each of their victories. Meanwhile, the Patriots have allowed only 27 points en route to their first 3-0 start since 2009.
"We knew when we came into the season we were going to try to make a run for the playoffs, and that has been our main goal the whole time," Ellison said, "so if we stay focused on that goal we can win a lot."
Heritage Academy will try for its first 4-0 start since at least 1994 when it plays host to Jackson Academy (3-0).
The Patriots' success up front with the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Ellison, the 6-foot, 230-pound Thomas Glenn, Douglas Kilarski, Brady Clark, and Hunter Ferguson has translated into rushing totals of 214 yards against Caledonia High School, 276 yards against West Lowndes High, and 272 yards against Winston Academy.
The Patriots' defensive front has been equally successful. Clark and Ferguson are the only linemen who play both ways all of the time. Cayden Upton and Josh Foxworthy join them as starters. The other three offensive linemen will rotate in to give them a breather.
Ellison credits coaching, team chemistry, and the relationships many of the players have built since the fifth grade, when he started playing, for allowing the Patriots to build on their Class AAA, Division II state title last season.
"We're all talented players, but the blocking schemes are all really good and easy and they work," Ellison said.
Glenn feels the schemes have allowed each player to maximize their skills so everyone can complement each other and form a cohesive group.
"I think we have played exceptionally well," Glenn said. "Our line is not extraordinarily oversized. We have had a good game plan and we are executing it well."
Heritage Academy second-year coach Barrett Donahoe credits coach Ryan Deer for getting the offensive linemen to play at a high level. He said Deer has helped that unit create a "core unit feeling" that only the offensive line group has.
"At this point, I think they have taken it to another level," Donahoe said. "We are so much further in front of where we were last year at this time, and it shows with the results on the field. I am a firm believer that you win football games with the offensive and defensive lines. Do we have some handicaps with size and some guys who are inexperienced? Yes we do, but those guys have worked extremely hard to come in and have success in our system."
Donahoe knows an effective ground game will be a key against a Jackson Academy team he expects to run a two-platoon system. Even though the Patriots don't have that kind of depth, Donahoe said the offensive line has done a solid job and is still a work in progress.
"We have been able to run the football," Donahoe said. "We still have some things we have to get corrected in our pass protection. We haven't been 100 percent the way we would like to be there, but a lot of that has to do with our backs and protection. The offensive line has done a pretty good job.
"Are where we want to be with the offensive front? Not 100 percent, but the guys that are playing have a good understanding of what we're trying to do.
"We're not an offensive line that is a big, bruising, power offensive line, but our guys have executed and maintained their blocks well enough so we have been able to get positive yards. There still is a long way to go for those guys to what they could become."
On defense, Donahoe said Foxworthy and Upton, a player he considers one of the best defensive linemen in the league, have anchored the front and been "difference-makers."
The Patriots will need that kind of effort from everyone if they are to make history. According to Jackson Academy Athletic Director Bobby West and former Heritage Academy coach Ray Wooten, Heritage Academy is winless against Jackson Academy in varsity football. Dating back to 1998 when the teams first faced off as Class AAA foes (the Patriots were a Class AA school prior to that), Heritage Academy is 0-11 in the series. Jackson Academy has won those games by an average of more than 28 points per game.
As fas as Donahoe is concerned, Friday's night matchup is just another conference game.
"There are challenges to everybody you play, whether it is numbers, motivation, motivational factors that drive the other team, speed, strength," Donahoe said. "This is going to be a challenge. JA has tremendous depth, and they are as fast as any team we are going to play, but it is a conference game, and we are going to approach it like it is a conference game. Are we an underdog? Sure we are an underdog. Everybody that plays them beside their counterparts down there on Lakeland Drive are underdogs when they play them. We are fine with that. We will relish that role. I expect them to be very well prepared. They are very well coached and they will be in the right positions.
Defensively, they have transitioned from a 5-2 to a 3-4. They are just flying to the football and are so fast to the football at all of those spots that it is going to be a tremendous challenge. But, at the same time, I feel like we have athletes, and we have athletes who haven't touched the ball a lot lately because of some of the things we have done to have some success against some of these other teams. We are going to try to get the ball in their hands this week and see what happens. If we can create yards after contact this week, we will be able to move the football and score."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.