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Vikings again get it done on the ground

Northeast will only go as far as its running game can take it.

So far, so good.

The Vikings are off to their third 2-0 start this century, and as usual they're doing it by handing the ball off.

Whether it's up the middle with fullback Joe Gamble or hitting the outside lanes with Jerrell Lamb or Sherman Clemons, Northeast's Wing-T is pounding the rock beyond even their expectations.

That's because the Vikings have four rookie offensive linemen surrounding center Kevin Koenig. They have to open holes for a five-deep backfield that includes Leon Wright and Lee Williams.

Those are the weapons Northeast hopes gets them through a monstrous three-game, 10-day stretch that starts tonight against Countryside, continues Tuesday with Class 5A, District 10 foe Seminole, then Saturday vs. Largo.

"It's going to have to tote us," Vikings coach Jerry Austin said. "It is going to have to tote us."

So far, it has. The Vikings are the top rushing public school in Pinellas County, third overall, after rolling up 498 yards in two games and also fifth overall in offensive yards gained with 665. Gamble has led Northeast on the ground and to the end zone. He is first on the team and fifth in the county with 236 yards, averaging 6.9 yards per carry. His team-high five rushing touchdowns is tied for second in the county.

Wright, who is questionable for tonight's game with a thigh bruise, is second on the team with 111 yards on eight carries, averaging a gaping 13.8 per carry. Lamb has 20 rushes for 109 yards and two scores. Clemons has 39 yards. The Vikings can't afford to squander a carry. Quarterback Chris Bench has completed 7-of-18 for 161 yards, but has thrown four interceptions.

It's too early for the running game to remind offensive coordinator Jay Austin of the great Northeast teams of the late 1990s.

But it's coming close.

"It's been a while since what I call the glory years from 1997-99, since we last had a backfield like this, where each back can kill you," he said. "But now we have three or four guys who can take it to the house."

No one doubted the backfield's talents. There was doubt about four new offensive line starters.

The only returning veteran, Koenig, was moved from weak tackle to center. But the four new starters, weak tackle Greg Morgan, guards Daniel Mallen and Amed Rahat and strong tackle Hody Hansen, have jelled around Koenig into a formidable unit.

But it all starts up front with the 6-2, 265-pound Koenig. He was too good to leave at tackle,Austin said, and now he's proving to be too good for opposing defenses.

Koenig is that rarest of offensive weapons: a center who can move. He can trap and pull, and when he's not leading the way the coaches aren't afraid to leave him one on one. The Vikings don't have to double noseguards, just let Koenig loose on them.

"It's great being able to pound everybody like that," Koenig said.

"He'll probably get the chance to play on Saturdays," Jerry Austin said. "He's just a hard-working kid and he's an excellent player. When you've got a real center you've got a star. I mean, that's the pivot right there."

After the block comes the handoff, and this season Gamble has made the most of his carries. The linebacker said he had no inkling he would be playing offense until he was switched last year.

But the coaches tell another story, of a fumble in practice that inflamed Gamble. "He was yelling, "I am the fullback, I am the fullback,' " Jerry Austin said.

Gamble has given Northeast a potent inside running game.

"If he softens up the belly, they're going to give up something outside," Jerry Austin said. "That's the rule. They haven't stopped him yet. But they're trying."

Ask Gamble about Northeast's perennial success running the ball, and he'll point to the guys wearing the headsets.

"I think it's coaching," he said. "Players come and go but the plays are the same and the coaches are the same."

So is the system. The Vikings' 3,334 rushing yards led the county last year.

"I think it is the system, but now we have the players to put in it," Jay Austin said. "It's the continuity we've had for 10 years. You'll see us run it and run it again. It stays the same. You'll see some schools bring in new offenses and sometimes the kids have to learn a new offense all four years.

"The kids' apprehension in high school football will kill you if you don't know where you're going on every play."

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