Palisade linemen understand their job: open holes for running backs
Call ’em The Backhoes.
They’re the guys who open up the holes in the trenches.
Any football team that has played Palisade High School this fall has realized that in order to stop the Bulldogs, the defense has to stop the running game.
With the exception of one team, no one has been able to do that.
The Bulldogs (9-1) open the Class 3A playoffs Saturday against D’Evelyn (9-1), with a 1 p.m. kickoff at Stocker Stadium.
Since the days when Joe Ramunno coached the Bulldogs to four consecutive state titles in the 1990s, Palisade has been known for its power running game.
No question, tailback Travis Fehlman, fullback Aaron Wagler, quarterback Jake Appling and backup running backs Jesse Brannon and Zach Adair have rolled up massive yardage this season.
Not all of that is because of their athletic ability, and they’ll be the first to tell you that.
It’s the guys up front who make it happen. As the offensive line goes, so goes the Bulldogs’ offense.
It’s not uncommon for the front six of Palisade to be lighter than their opposition. The line succeeds through execution.
Palisade head coach John Arledge remembers hearing Ramunno remark, “You know, you just make linemen.”
That’s an apt way to describe this year’s Bulldog line. Kyle Hatcher is typical of a Palisade lineman, starting his high school career at another position.
“I was a fullback last year,” the sophomore right tackle said.
One year in the weight room and 15 pounds of muscle later, he’s protecting Appling’s blind side on the rare times the Bulldogs feel the need to throw the ball.
Making the switch from a skill position to a front-line blocker wasn’t that hard for Hatcher.
“With a running back state of mind, you can understand what they need,” he said.
At the guard positions are a couple of junior twins. Nate Stephanus mans the left side, his brother
Nick the right.
Both are first-year starters. Nick, projected as a starter last year, never played a down after breaking an arm in camp just before the start of preseason practice.
“I’m pretty hungry,” he said of learning to appreciate the chance to play after being out an entire season.
Standing on the sidelines during games, he was nearly ready to jump out of his skin with his desire to get into the action.
“That’s a pretty good way to describe it,” he said.
Jacob Edmiston is the veteran of the interior. A senior, he’s in his second year as the starting center after playing tight end as a sophomore.
The Bulldogs’ lone loss, three weeks ago to Glenwood Springs, was an indicator for Palisade, according to Edmiston.
“It proved when we execute, we can be a good team,” he said.
While the focus is on the five inside blockers, one can’t forget the contributions of the senior tight end.
Matt Young gets his two or three catches a game, usually because Palisade has recognized a hole in the middle of the defensive backfield.
“We keep pounding and pounding,” Young said of the running game. “It gives us a chance to open up our passing game.”
The latter is not his primary focus, however.
“We’re a running team, so (a tight end) has to think you’re a lineman,” he said. “We’re Palisade; that’s what we do.”
Arledge is at somewhat of a loss to put a finger on the reason for the line’s success over the years.
“I think our weight program is part of it,” he said.
In addition, “Our coaches have done a phenomenal job,” Arledge said, citing in particular offensive line coach Pat Steele.
Arledge also noted that when the players come to practice, they come to work hard.
“I think our kids really have the team concept,” Arledge said.
Hatcher viewed it in another way.
“It’s just being tough,” he said.