LAND O’LAKES — If you’re looking for a reason why Sunlake transformed itself from a 1-9 team into a playoff qualifier in three years, look no farther than a beefed-up offensive line that’s among the best on the North Suncoast.
The Seahawks’ commitment to the weight room has resulted in an explosion up front. Their offensive line averages 269 pounds per player and bullied defenses for almost 6 yards per rush during the best season in school history.
“It’s big because we preach it,” Sunlake coach Bill Browning said. “It all starts up front.”
And it all starts with Nate McCoole.
The 310-pound senior was a second-team all-North Suncoast pick at tackle last year before switching to center to improve the college recruiting prospects. The three-year starter has become one of the team’s leaders and makes the calls on the offensive line.
If recruiters look past McCoole’s 6-foot-1 stature, they’ll see one of the state’s strongest players. His 410-pound bench press was second best at last year’s Class A state weightlifting finals, and his work ethic has inspired the rest of the line.
“He’s got heart,” junior lineman Nick Hoffman said. “He doesn’t quit. I’m trying to get up to him.”
That means lots of time bulking up to shove opponents out of the way.
“Weight room, more weight room and then weight room again,” Browning said. “Those guys just know if they’re going to play here, they’re going to work out like they’re supposed to. Then it’s just a mind-set of being physical and fundamentally sound.”
Last year’s offensive line blew open holes for a rushing attack that racked up 2,000 yards. That unit’s top lineman, Matt Sanders, weighed 245. Every starter on this year’s team is at least that large.
Tackles Brandon Franklin and Canon Clark weigh 260 and 265 pounds, respectively, while guards Aaron Protch are 265 and Brian Walders 245. Few North Suncoast teams have been able to compete with their size and strength.
“We really strived this year to be the best in the county,” McCoole said. “And I believe that our hard work in the offseason really transferred over to the big and physicality that we portrayed.”
That size and strength has been a pivotal part of Sunlake’s transformation from pushover to postseason participant.
The Seahawks (9-1) finished second in Class 6A, District 6 behind a five-man rushing rotation that followed its blockers to more than 1,600 rushing yards. The line allowed only nine sacks all season, giving quarterback Cameron Stoltz time to throw 25 touchdown passes.
“Big, physical and just nasty,” receiver Jamal Jones said. “They want it.”
The Seahawks’ line faces one of their biggest tests this week in the program’s first playoff game. Ocala Vanguard (7-3) has a quick defensive line that’s averaging 2.4 sacks per game.
Sunlake senior athlete Rashaud Daniels said he’s not worried about how his blockers will fare.
“Yeah, they look good, but they can look better,” Daniels said of his line. “That’s the scary part. When they come to play, it’s over.”