Otsego's offensive line includes all returning starters - from left, Adam Thomas, Cale Swanson, Nick Horen, Caleb Clark, Todd Wilson and Ryan Moser.
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TONTOGANY - On most football teams offensive linemen play in relative anonymity compared to the guys who carry, throw or catch the ball.
But at Otsego this season, it is actually en vogue to play on the offensive line. In fact, the Knights up front even share club membership with the defensive interior.
It is called the Linemen's Club, its founder is third-year Otsego assistant coach Dale Bernard, and its slogan boils the job of a lineman down to the bare essentials - "Eat, lift and knock people down."
Three games into the 2004 season, that formula has helped the Knights to a 3-0 record heading into their Suburban Lakes League opener tonight at home against Gibsonburg.
Otsego has defeated Wood County rival Bowling Green 28-21, and beaten two teams from the Green Meadows Conference - Wayne Trace 36-13, and defending GMC champion Tinora 37-13.
Much of the success, according to 25th-year coach Dan Cocke, has to do with a balanced offense, which is averaging 221 yards rushing and 142 passing per game.
Much of that balance, Cocke says, has to do with an improved offensive line, which has returning starters at all five spots and an abundance of intelligence.
"He just wanted those guys to really get into it," Cocke said of Bernard's efforts. "He knew that would be a good motivator for those kids."
"Number one, they're a lot stronger," Cocke said. "We had a really good off-season in the weight room and conditioning."
At center is 6-1, 216-pound senior Nick Horen, a 4.0 (grade-point average) student who is expected to be class valedictorian. At left tackle is 6-1, 234-pound junior Adam Thomas, a 4.0 student who is the likely valedictorian for his class.
"It pays off," Horen said of the intelligence factor. "Our whole line is smart. Sometimes we overthink ourselves, which isn't good. But we're always prepared."
At right tackle, 6-2, 236-pound senior Ryan Moser, a 3.5 student, splits time with 5-9, 211-pound senior Todd Wilson. Both players are full-time at the defensive tackle slots.
"It shows how we all stick together," Moser said of the effect of the club. "It's made a difference. We talk more on the line, and it's helping out in the games. We're a lot stronger than we were last year, and our technique is really good."
"Coach Bernard wanted to start the club so we'd get more serious about it," Thomas said. "He thought we weren't strong enough or quick enough and didn't have good enough technique. So, we met, and we weightlifted through the off-season.
"Last year we kind of got pushed around in some games, and lost a lot of games in the last half of the year. This year, so far, we're doing well and accomplishing our goals."
Bernard admits having smart linemen makes his job easier.
"Those guys are always talking and working with each other," Bernard said. "It's tremendously beneficial for us to have such smart kids up front. During the game, from the sideline, I can see a little bit. But I can't see how those [opposing] interior guys are playing them.
"They come off after a series, we grab the [play] board, and we can make changes. It's like having an extra coach out there with these guys."
Being able to make quick adjustments has been a key factor.
"If you know what they're giving you and you block it right, you should get positive yards on every play," Thomas said. "We didn't do that very well last year and we lost games."
The starting guards are junior Cale Swanson and sophomore Caleb Clark, both of whom started all 10 games at those positions last year on an all-underclassmen Otsego line, which had to grow up in a hurry during a 5-5 season.
Profiting most from improved offensive line play have been junior quarterback Matt Mills and sophomore fullback Cody Donald.
Mills has completed 28 of 43 passes (65 percent) for 427 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Donald has rushed 46 times for 354 yards and scored seven TDs.
"With them improving, we can do about anything we want to do," Mills said. "They block great and they're a lot faster, so their downfield blocking is better.
"We've come a long way from last year. We take everything seriously and try to get it right, and it's a lot easier to run the offense now."
Bernard pulled off what Cocke feels was a major accomplishment in June when he got 26 Knights to attend a linemen's camp at the University of Toledo. Otsego's group represented nearly one-third of the 81 in attendance at that UT camp.
"It's hard to convince 26 kids to go to camp like that all at once," Cocke said. "But he has a great rapport with those kids. They got a week of technique, and that all adds up. It tells you how serious they are about football."
"Peer pressure has a lot to do with it," Bernard said of the camp commitment. "The older guys are leaders and they're encouraging the younger guys all the time."
The big step for the revamped Knights will be tackling the meat of their SLL schedule in weeks six through nine. Otsego is favored to beat its first two SLL foes - Gibsonburg and Genoa - as it did last year en route to a 4-1 start overall.
But the Knights then face Woodmore, Eastwood, Lake and Elmwood in succession, all of whom beat the Knights in 2003.
"We haven't had too many down years, so 5-5 is kind of a down year for us," Cocke said. "We took our lumps, that's for sure. But I think playing all those younger kids last year is paying off now."
Next season holds perhaps even more promise.
"That may be," Cocke said, "but we're not looking that far into the future. We're looking for this year. We really hope to compete for a league title this year."
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