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CLEARWATER — The wind swirled around the stadium, carrying the first signs of winter.
The Class 5A region final was played in a steady rain on a sloppy field Dec. 4 against defending state champion Plant.
Mud was smeared across uniforms, and no players were muddier than the offensive linemen, who wear turf and sweat as badges of honor.
“The traction was a little tough, and it was a mess out there,” Countryside offensive tackle Tyler Moore said. “It was kind of nasty and not all that much fun to play in.”
The Cougars lost the game, but Moore won his own personal battle in the trenches. On every snap, he urgently plowed toward the end zone as if a buffet line awaited every score.
Moore was lined up against Plant linebacker James Wilder Jr., considered one of the nation’s top recruits. On a few plays, Wilder was left overturned, on his back, in what is known as a pancake block.
“(Wilder) didn’t talk to me too much during the game,” Moore said. “But I saw him a few months after that at a combine, and he said that is the most he’s ever been manhandled in a game.”
Last season, the Cougars, who reached the region final for just the second time in school history, built momentum largely on the sturdy back of Moore and his fellow offensive linemen. Running back Alton Taylor set a school record with more than 1,900 yards rushing and a county record with 30 touchdowns.
“The offensive line is the most important part of the football team,” Moore said. “You need to be able to run the ball and you need to be able to protect the quarterback.
“It all starts up front.”
No part of a football team is designed to work in such synchronicity as the offensive line, and nearly every team’s fortunes are dependent on how well that unit is put together. Of the county teams that made deep runs into the playoffs last year, nearly all of them had one thing in common, a solid offensive line that had been together for at least a year, an eternity for such a unit.
“A good offensive line is absolutely essential, especially at this level because the running game is so important,” Countryside coach Jared Davis said.
If offensive linemen had a say, they would run the ball, again and again, and then run it some more. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find an offensive lineman who would rather pass block than run block. If allowed to call the plays, every snap would be followed by a grunting forward surge.
But great offenses do not just run the ball. They throw it, too. To create that balance, a team needs a dependable left tackle.
The Cougars have it with Moore, who is considered one of the best in the country. The 6-foot-6, 280-pound senior had offers from nearly every major Division-I program before committing to Nebraska last fall.
“I feel pretty fortunate that I come into my first year as a coach and I get to work with probably the best offensive lineman I’m ever going to have,” Davis said. “Tyler’s not just about putting his hand on the ground and moving people. He’s a great person with a strong work ethic. He’s the total package.”
Linemen are a largely anonymous group. Taylor, for example, was candidate for county player of the year honors.
But Moore has made a name for himself, due in large part to his size — and performance. He will be counted on to keep the Cougars in playoff contention after they lost three linemen and Taylor to graduation. Moore and fellow tackle Tyler Pierson are the only returning starters on the line.
“I worked really hard in the weight room, the field, everywhere to get ready for this season and prepare for college,” Moore said. “We don’t want any drop-off, and we want to go as far as we did last year.”