By CHRIS EASTERLING
Independent sports editor
SUGAR CREEK TWP. It’s easy to get lost in the eye-popping numbers when it comes to Fairless’ offense. It’s easy to get caught up in the amazing ability the Falcons possess to light up the scoreboard.
It’s easy to see the sheer depth of offensive skill Fairless possesses. It’s easy to look at the record-setting quarterback, the 1,000-yard rusher, the half-dozen or so receivers capable of making plays.
It’s also very easy to overlook the five guys in the trenches who have helped the Falcons soar to a 7-3 record and a Division V playoff game Saturday at Black River.
“I think the outsiders, I think they look at it and I think they don’t notice us as much,” senior center Nick Schlabach said. “I think in the program, we know if our offensive line plays well, we can give our running backs holes to run through and our quarterback time to throw. That will make us successful.”
Schlabach is one of four seniors who have started from the very beginning of the season along that offensive line. He’s joined by guards Jarrid Bonam and Robby Shaffer, as well as tackle Jake McGrath,
There was a fifth senior in that group at the start of the season in tackle Zach Wyant. But the combination of injury and Wyant’s defensive responsibilities opened the door for the group’s lone junior, Adam Widder, to join the quintet.
All in all, that group has made it quite easy for the rest of the Falcons’ offense to move like a well-oiled machine.
“They’ve been incredible this year,” senior quarterback Hunter Wells said. “It’s the best I’ve had since I’ve been here. I couldn’t even ask for anything else. I can’t even count how many games they haven’t given up a sack. ... They do a great job of protecting me and giving me time to do what I need to do back there.”
What Wells has been able to do is shatter Stark County’s career passing record by throwing for 3,111 yards this season alone. While that has been accomplished by connecting with a deep pool of skill players, it’s also through the work of those linemen who have protected him throughout the season.
Last week’s rout of Tuslaw was just one instance this season where the senior quarterback was able to sit back in the pocket and pick and choose who he wanted to throw the ball to because of the time he was given. For much of the season, that has been the case, and those kind of games stand as rewards of a sort for the linemen.
“They don’t want anybody getting to our quarterback,” second-year Fairless coach Don Wilson said. “They take pride in not giving up a sack. When you have guys who are playing hard for that kind of recognition, I think it makes a difference.”
It also hasn’t hurt the group one bit they have essentially played together for the last few years. That time together, even with the relative newcomer of the group in Widder, has helped to develop a cohesion.
In a sport like football, where the “five-and-one” mentality is ingrained in each player and one player missing an assignment can make the whole group look bad, that has been a massive advantage for Fairless.
“I think it’s been perfect,” Schlabach said. “We have four seniors starting on our offensive line and one junior. We’re all a group that’s been together for a while. We’ve played together since the seventh, eighth grade. We’re all familiar with how or what each person is good at, and what each person needs help with. We’re there for each other.”
Another advantage that helps is the fact the Falcons, essentially, two-platoon along the line of scrimmage. All five offensive linemen — with Wyant now playing exclusively at defensive tackle — don’t play on the other side of the ball, giving them time together on the sidelines.
So while the Fairless defense is out trying to get the ball back for its high-scoring offense, its linemen can huddle with Wells and the offensive coaches to make in-game adjustments that can be the difference between a three-and-out and a touchdown drive.
“They work together great as a team,” Wells said. “That’s where it comes to me to, such as protections, changing it up, finding where they’re coming from. They talk at the line of scrimmage. They do a great job of communicating with me. We all come off to the sideline and draw up on the white board what they’re doing and figure out what protection we need to do and where we need to change things.”
Reach Chris at 330-775-1128
On Twitter: @ceasterlingINDE