Football: Is 2019 the year of the lineman?

That may be unlikely, but the often overlooked players continue to remain steadfast in their work

Holy Family High School left tackle ...
Daily Camera file photo
Holy Family High School left tackle Cord Kringlen, left, Skyline High School defensive end/ tight end Austin Robison, Legacy High School defensive end Hunter O’Connor, Mead High School nose gaurd Kaleb Lee and Fairview High School tackle Coe Johnson pose together for a portrait on Tuesday in Erie.

The start of the football season is around the corner. Another chance for fans of the gridiron to experience the things they love and cherish, and, well, endure the changes to their game they wish didn’t exist.

The sport’s fluctuation over the last 10-plus years goes deeper than basketball’s move to the 3-point line or baseball’s home run–strikeout trade-off. A morphed fanbase bought into the fantasy football phenomena, rule changes centered around concussions, the analytics —they’ve all provided a shift to how the game is now played and viewed.

And yet, some things remain.

Legacy defensive end Hunter O’Connor followed in the footsteps of his father, who played decades ago.

Legacy High School defensive end Hunter O’Connor

Like his dad, he moved to the defensive end position once he got into high school. The best part about it — “hitting people,” he said without hesitation.

Yes, the game has changed — but at its heart, some things hold true.

The game’s purest form can still be seen in the trenches, where offensive and defensive linemen fight for position on the field.

It’s where you’ll find O’Connor, who had 56 tackles and a 5A Front Range League-leading eight sacks in 2018. The all-region lineman played a crucial role as the Lightning were able to rebound from an 0-6 start to win five straight, including an upset victory over Mullen in the opening round of the state playoffs.

It’s also where you will find Fairview’s newest offensive weapon — 6-foot-2, 250-pound Knights’ offensive tackle Cole Johnson.

The son of the University of Colorado’s new offensive coordinator, Jay Johnson, moved to the area earlier this year and will be a part of Tom McCartney’s squad for this fall.

Among his duties, Johnson will look to keep high-profile quarterback Aidan Atkinson upright after the Northwestern commit threw for a state-record 55 touchdowns in 2018 before suffering a season-ending injury in the last game of the regular season.

“They’ve obviously done well, and they obviously have a history of doing well, so I’m just looking to jump in and help out as I can,” Johnson said. “Just give (Atkinson) some protection and let him throw that thing around, you know?”

Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer
Fairview High School tackle Cole Johnson

No, Johnson doesn’t seem to mind leaving the headlines for the quarterbacks and such. He knows — as most linemen do — headlines aren’t commonplace for the men up front, especially if they do their jobs well.

On the broad football spectrum — high school, collegiate and more so in the professional ranks — it’s the quarterbacks, receivers and running backs who get the most attention.

For starters, the touchdown-to-interception ratio is easier to understand than pancake blocks in the box score. The daily G.O.A.T debate, whether on sports network television or among the twitter inclined, goes a lot better with clips of game-winning throws and not the protection or pressure that set it up.

But that’s OK, Holy Family offensive left tackle Cord Kringlen said. The junior described those playing in the trenches as a “different breed” anyway.

“I think it’s just a sense that I want to be the first one in the fight,” said Kringlen, the team’s blindside blocker. “I like it. I like being responsible for it and I like having that pressure.”

Depending on schemes, many area offensive linemen will be asked to pass protect more than run block (see 2018 Fairview, above). For others, like at the throwback, smashmouth program at Mead, it’s flipped.

Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer
Holy Family left tackle Cord Kringlen.

Mavericks left tackle Kaleb Lee, who moved from center, will be arduously hitting sleds and linemen in one-on-ones in preparation for opening week. This is the kind of work needed for a team that rushed for 3,326 yards last season while only throwing for 575.

“When you’re working your butt off and getting after it, play after play, then you look up and see (running backs) Nathan Bailey or Jake (Wachter) running down the field scoring, you know the only reason that happened is because the five up front were working their butts off,” Lee said.

It doesn’t hurt when that work is noticed, either. Lee said quarterback Brady Veltien showed his gratitude by taking the O-line out for lunch over the summer.

On the other side of the ball, the D-line must adapt to the next week’s offense. How well it can do so will likely go a long way in deciding how the team’s season unfolds.

Skyline, which twisted the 4A playoff field into a frenzy last fall, held No. 1 Pine Creek well under its rushing average in an upset win in the second round. Then the next week, Falcons defensive end Austin Robison returned from a broken hand that kept him out for a long stretch of the season and helped the team shut out Ponderosa to get to the state finals.

With a padded cast on his right hand, Robison said his first tackle back came on a fake punt attempt by the Mustangs, forcing a turnover on downs.

“It’s just fun to get in the trenches, just you and the guy across from you,” Robison said. “That’s the mentality you have to have.”
So, 2019 — could it finally be the “Year of the Lineman”? Not likely.

Some things never change.

“If we don’t do our job, no one else on the field can,” Johnson said. “And while (some) fans, they might watch the ball and not really get that, I think everyone that knows the game, plays the game, understands it starts at the line.”

Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer
Mead High School left tackle Kaleb Lee
Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer
Skyline High School tight end/defensive end Austin Robison.