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Today's offensive linemen are bigger, brainier and more nimble than ever

Offensive linemen are a big deal. That much we know. But what does it take to be a good one? For starters, you have to be, well, big. • The days of the 200-pound high school lineman are virtually extinct. Now 300-pounders, once considered an anomaly, are becoming the norm. Consider that 40 of the 79 football programs in the Tampa Bay area have at least one lineman who weighs 300 or more pounds. • It is not just their waistlines that make offensive linemen the big men on campus. It is their height, too, with the top ones standing an average of 6 feet 5. • "I was just talking the other day about how big linemen have become," said Jesuit High coach Matt Thompson, who has three players in the 300-pound club on this year's roster. "When I was coaching at Armwood in 1996, we didn't have any linemen who weighed over 300 pounds and two starters who were 6-5 or taller. Mike Pearson was our biggest guy (6-7, 280). • Now they're like that across the board at just about every school."

East Lake's offensive line is one of the best in the business. This convoy in cleats, which weighs an average of 270 pounds, is a key reason the Eagles have made the state semifinals the past two seasons and are playoff contenders again despite losing a bulk of their skill players, including a pair of prime-time receivers in Artavis Scott and George Campbell.

This year's group is led by Julian Santos, a 6-foot-4, 290-pound guard ranked a three-star recruit by 247Sports.

"It all starts up front," East Lake coach Bob Hudson. "I've felt that way ever since I've been coaching. At any level, whether you're watching television on Sundays or coaching youth league, if you've got linemen who can block, you've got a chance. And we've been fortunate to have some pretty good ones here."

To stay with these behemoths, linemen have to pack on the pounds. Since becoming a starter three years ago, Tampa Bay Tech senior Qu'juan Spradley has seen his weight go from 250 to 280.

"It's just something I knew I needed to do to play with the big boys at this level," Spradley said. "I have to eat a lot. My family hates me. They keep saying I'm going to clean out everybody's kitchen. I eat three meals a day, and I have a big-boy plate. I can't have a little something here, a little something there. I need all of it. I make sure I go to sleep nice and full."

It is not enough to just be a Goliath. Though the perception may be that linemen must simply push over the players right in front of them (then push, push, push them again), a high level of sophistication is sought by the two tackles, the two guards and the center.

Offensive line chemistry is essential. Without it, the paths to the quarterback will be open and the paths for the running back closed. With it, both facets of the offense will run smoothly.

Plant High coach Robert Weiner knows how important a cohesive offensive line can be. In 2008, Panthers record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray went down with a season-ending injury six games into the season. Plant rebounded to win a state title thanks to a group of experienced linemen that made sure Murray's replacement, Phillip Ely, finished each game in a jersey that looked like it had just come from the cleaners.

"There's no question the offensive line is critical," Weiner said. "The first six games of that season we allowed nine sacks. We went through the next nine games with Phillip in which we had three total.

"That was love and respect for those quarterbacks and the team. They took it upon themselves that they were not going to let anyone touch Phillip. Of course that was tremendous group, with nine guys who went on to play college football."

Brains as much as brawn are required to process defensive formations and alignments, and calculate how to attack them while simultaneously obsessing about things such as footwork and leverage.

King High's Sam Stone carries a 5.2 weighted GPA and is one of three linemen in the school's International Baccalaureate program. Lineman Alex Caputo was East Lake's 2015 valedictorian.

There is athleticism involved in today's game. Linemen have to move to keep up with mobile quarterbacks in spread offenses that often feature the no-huddle. Most high schools in the state have adopted these lickety-split offenses.

"It's a different prototype these days," Weiner said. "You can't just have big, fat ugly guys. You have to have guys who are athletic and can run and can move."

Before, beefy offensive linemen cast big shadows for Florida's high schools. But even in this recruiting hotbed, that size was rarely enough to attract the attention of out-of-state colleges.

College coaches looking for an edge, particularly those in the Midwest or Northeast, flock to Florida in search of skill players who possess a valued commodity: speed.

The one thing colleges in those regions have in abundance is offensive linemen, especially massive ones. That had put linemen from Florida at a disadvantage. But with the game changing, recruiters are now attracted to the mobility linemen in this state display.

Last year, former East Lake standout Mason Cole became the first freshman to start on the offensive line for Michigan. Former Lakewood standout Isaiah Wynn is a starting guard at Georgia.

"There still is some stigma when it comes to linemen in this state," Weiner said. "Guys from Ohio are still coming here asking who the skill guys are. But in Florida, there are good players at every position, including linemen. People are starting to notice that."

If there is one place linemen are truly appreciated, it is within their programs.

Hudson, which has an offensive line that averages 304 pounds, allows the starting five to have lockers next to each other in the center of the fieldhouse so they are closest to the air conditioning vents.

There are barbecues if linemen reach certain offensive goals, and the skill players have to cook and feed them.

River Ridge also holds its linemen in high regard, especially after they opened holes for Chris Schwarz to rush for a Pasco County-record 2,689 yards last season.

The Royal Knights make their skill players carry the linemen's equipment on occasion. They also have days when the linemen are the only ones who get Gatorade.

"I don't mind carrying the equipment for those guys at all," Schwarz said. "They mean everything to me."

East Lake has summer retreats strictly for linemen, and the coaches take them out for dinner once a month during the season.

"Big guys need love, too," coach Bob Hudson said. "We like to reward them by going out to eat with our 'hog night.'

"Buffets are our friend."

Contact Bob Putnam at bputnam@tampabay.com. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.

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