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TAMPA — Every Thursday evening, they bond over burgers, beef fajitas, even Japanese cuisine when the mood strikes. They call it the linemen’s dinner.
Every Berkeley Prep Buccaneer who plays or practices on the offensive front is included in this regular excursion to a local eatery. Solidarity — separate checks aside — is the weekly objective. It’s a tradition inspired by their position coaches, who did the same thing when they played at Jesuit.
“The entire offensive line down to the third string (attends),” starting right guard Speros Theofilos said.
This week, it’s a safe bet the feed bags were strapped on a bit more forcefully. If ever a game called for some extra sustenance, this is it.
In south central Polk County, at a place called Battle Field, a super-sized challenge awaits the Bucs. Berkeley, ranked fourth in the latest Class A state poll, faces top-ranked Fort Meade in what essentially is the District 6 title game.
The consensus is that success hinges on how well this restaurant-hopping party of five — right tackle Chase Carmichael, Theofilos, center Jake Rosen, left guard Greg Tomlin, left tackle Charles Thomas — performs.
“They’re big, they’re strong,” said Carmichael, whose unit also will need an assist from blocking fullbacks Richard Klein and Schyler Miles. “But we feel as a unit that if we’re technically sound we’ll have a great chance at being victorious.”
That statement contains more bare fact than bravado. Six games into the season, the Buccaneers have mostly excelled in providing lanes for Division I-A prospect Nelson Agholor (70 carries, 721 yards, 12 rushing TDs) and keeping quarterback Destin Nichols unscathed.
Nichols said he doesn’t keep track of how many times he has been sacked, but estimates it at only four or five. In the Bucs’ district showdown last month against Clearwater Central Catholic, a 37-7 Berkeley rout, Nichols said he was “untouched.”
“They’ve been tremendous actually,” Nichols said. “Obviously we don’t have the biggest line (Berkeley averages 238 pounds across the front), but they rarely miss their assignments and the coaches do a great job making sure their steps are right and their strikes and everything are correct.”
Co-offensive line coach Cody Chajkowski, a lineman for Bucs coach Dominick Ciao at Jesuit in the early part of the previous decade, credits his unit with adhering to basics. Essentially, he says the Bucs adopt a meat-and-potatoes approach on Fridays after a more diverse calorific intake on Thursdays.
“I feel sometimes these kids watch college and pro and they’re trying to learn advance techniques. …when it’s high school offensive line play: just nitty, gritty coming off the ball hard, fast and low,” he said. “And I think we’ve done a great job with our basic fundamentals.”
Nonetheless, they’ll have to be even better tonight against a team that defeated them 50-22 in 2009. The Ciao modus operandi — control the ball and set up the pass with the run —will have to be followed.
It wasn’t in ’09. “We didn’t block them last year,” Ciao said.
Fort Meade, which likely will feature a four-man defensive front, possesses size and cat-like quickness throughout its defense. Senior rush end Brandon Fulse (6-4, 247) is a D-I prospect; juniors Maurice Russell and De’vante Clark will be the best linebackers Berkeley has faced.
“They’ve got a lot of speed and we really haven’t gone against anyone like that before,” said Miles, who will double at middle linebacker and likely won’t come off the field tonight. “They’ve probably got the most skill-position kids we’ll face all year.”
In that sense, the group that eats together must famish together.
Tonight, the Bucs will have to come in hungry.
“I feel personally that the O-line in a sense let the team down (in last year’s game), but not that drastically, if you understand what I’m trying to say,” Theofilos said.
“We have a little saying in our group that as the O-line goes the team goes, so I feel like to win this game coming up we are going to have to step up and do our job.”