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Line playing huge role in East’s success

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Andrew Laker | The Republic
East offensive linemen Rob McKee (75) and John Stephens (77) block Jennings County defenders Sept. 7 in Columbus. The Olympians face Franklin County in an IHSAA sectional championship game at 7 tonight at Columbus East High School.
Andrew Laker | The Republic East offensive linemen Rob McKee (75) and John Stephens (77) block Jennings County defenders Sept. 7 in Columbus. The Olympians face Franklin County in an IHSAA sectional championship game at 7 tonight at Columbus East High School.

When Mr. Football Gunner Kiel graduated, taking with him most of Columbus East’s passing records, the Olympians’ offense underwent a big transformation.

No longer is East a pass-happy football team. The Olympians have turned into a ground-and-pound force.

Think “seven-yards-and-a-clump-of-field-turf.”

“It’s a lot more fun to run the ball,” said senior guard Rob McKee, a three-year starter and the leader of an offensive line that has keyed an 11-0 record, a No. 1 ranking in Class 4A and a berth in tonight’s sectional championship game against Franklin County.

That offensive line has been dominant this season, paving the way for nearly 300 rushing yards and 42.2 points a game. East is averaging 6.7 yards per rush and 7.2 yards per play.

“We get a good push,” sophomore guard Devorous Lewis said. “We’re a pretty strong group. We work hard in the weight room and try to do the best we can to get a push on the down linemen.”

“I think they’ve just taken ownership of being able to line up and knock guys off the ball,” offensive line coach David Miller said. “They’ve taken that ownership of playing as a group and being an important role of the offense.”

Head coach Bob Gaddis said the strength of the offensive line is that the players play together.

“They’ve had a great year so far collectively,” Gaddis said. “I think the strength of the group is that they really are a group. They’re a tight-knit team. They play together, and they work together.

“Linemen are a different breed anyway,” he said. “These guys have done a great job accepting that role, and we’ve told them a lot of times that our game plan is to run behind them, and if they play well, then we’re probably going to play pretty well on offense. The pieces have kind of fit together because we have a running quarterback, we have a couple good tailbacks we can put in there and we have good blocking offensive linemen and tight ends.”

Junior tailback Markell Jones has run for 1,176 yards and 16 touchdowns in nine games. Quarterback Alex Cowan has run for 964 yards and 17 scores.

“We love that,” junior center Evan Kuhn said. “That’s the best part — knowing they got those yards off our blocks and our hard work.”

“If we get a running touchdown, that’s our touchdown, too,” McKee said.

The 6-foot-4, 280-pound McKee is being recruited by several Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) and Division II and III schools.

McKee isn’t the biggest lineman on the team. That honor belongs to 6-4, 310-pound senior tackle John Stephens, who sat out last season after transferring from Columbus North.

“Practicing every day and not getting to move up a spot or anything was pretty tough, but it was worth it,” Stephens said. “I’m glad I get to play under the lights this year.”

At 5-9, 180, junior tackle Seth Frownfelter might be confused for a wide receiver or a running back, his former position. Frownfelter moved to the line following a knee injury and started at the beginning of last season, only to see another knee injury set him back.

“He’s smaller, but he doesn’t play small,” Miller said. “He plays just as strong as some of those other guys.”

“I’m kind of undersized, so these guys help me a lot,” Frownfelter said. “Playing as a team is definitely our strongest suit, and that’s how we get down the field. Everyone does their part.”

Tight ends Cody Hempstead and Jared Whiteside also play a major role. Hempstead, a senior, has six catches for 157 yards and a touchdown.

“I played receiver last year, so I was used to catching more balls, but you have to do what you have to do for the team,” Hempstead said. “I think (running the ball has) made us tougher. Throwing the ball, we have to block for two seconds. Running the ball, we have to block until they get tackled downfield.”

Whiteside, a junior, has six catches for 123 yards and two scores.

“Running the ball helps us get open sometimes because they don’t expect us to go out for a pass,” Whiteside said. “The run sets up the pass.”

Miller, who also is the Olympians’ strength and conditioning coach, said this year’s offensive line is the biggest and strongest in his seven years with the program. He said most of the starting linemen bench around 300 pounds and squat around 500.

“We’re probably about as strong as what we’ve ever been, and that’s because those guys like to come in and work hard,” Miller said. “They get together, and they push each other on the field and off the field in the weight room, so really, it makes my job pretty easy.”

The bigger the better

Columbus East offensive line coach David Miller calls this year’s group the biggest he’s had in his seven years at the school:

Pos.    Player    Ht.    Wt.

TE    Cody Hempstead    6-2    185

LT    Seth Frownfelter    5-9    190

LG    Devorous Lewis    5-10    285

C    Evan Kuhn    6-3    240

RG    Rob McKee    6-4    280

RT    John Stephens    6-4    310

TE    Jared Whiteside    6-3    220

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