CLEARWATER — Jordan Niles stands a few yards behind them on every play. From his spot in the backfield, the Clearwater Central Catholic running back can appreciate the precision in which the offensive linemen in front of him perform.
As soon as Niles takes a handoff, he can see opposing defenders fall like dominoes. With the path cleared, Niles runs through a hole, untouched, the result of textbook drive blocking from a unit that is considered one of the best in the bay area.
“It’s amazing what they’ve done this season,” Niles said. “Those guys make my job a whole lot easier. They’re really good.”
Behind them, Niles has rushed for 1,663 yards and 23 touchdowns. Last week, Niles had his best game of the season, rushing for 249 yards and scoring four touchdowns in the Marauders’ 49-28 victory over Calvary Christian in the Class 3A region quarterfinals.
“We know that if we can get Jordan 6 or 8 yards untouched, he can do the rest,” senior lineman Cade Richards said.
The linemen do not just thrive in the run game.
Behind them, quarterbacks Zach Burrill and Anthony Colandrea face minimal pressure.
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 area teams that consistently make deep runs into the playoffs, nearly all of them have one thing in common: a solid offensive line that has been together for at least a year, an eternity for such a unit.
The Marauders’ linemen have been together even longer. Four of the starting five are seniors — Zac Elam, Cade Richards, Kayson Romaelle and Jared Pratt. Another senior, Cade Wunsch, started the first half of the season but is now sidelined with an injury.
Nearly all of them have played together for at least the past two years. And they’re not just teammates. They’re friends, too. On weekends, they have cookouts together. Or hang out by the pool and watch football.
“We’re really close as a group,” Elam said. “As the season goes on we’ve gotten more comfortable with each other and communicating up front. I mean we’re together all the time as a team from 7:45 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the football season.”
Besides cohesiveness, CCC’s linemen also are competitive.
“During the games we are always seeing who can get the most pancake blocks or which side is playing better,” Richards said. “If anyone asks, the right side is the strong side.”
A pancake block is when a lineman puts an opponent on his back. None of the starters can spout off pancake stats. But they all know who leads in that category.
“Zac — by far,” Richards said.
As a center, Elam is the first one to touch the ball on every play. He also is the last one to get his hands up to block. Once Elam makes contact, the defender winds up going in reverse, forcefully and repeatedly.
But it is more than brute strength that makes Elam stand out. He is acutely aware of defensive patterns, the play selection and the blocking schemes that are constantly evolving.
“Zac is like the quarterback of the offensive line,” Niles said. “He makes sure everyone knows what to do.”
The linemen also get plenty of practice facing the Marauders’ defensive line in practice every day. That group includes Johnny Newton, a Maryland commit who leads the team in sacks with 13.
“It’s good competition,” Newton said. “I never take it light on them. So we go at it every day. And just push each other to get better. They are a good unit and it shows in the game.
“We have the best defensive line and going against our offensive line just makes them better every day. I’ll take them over any other offensive line.”
Niles agrees. In fact, he wants to reward them once the season ends by taking them out for breakfast.
For pancakes, of course.
“I know it’ll be an expensive bill,” Niles said. “But I have to treat my boys right. They’ve done the same for me all season.”
High school football region semifinals
All games 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Class 2A, Region 3
• No. 3 Seffner Christian at No. 2 Northside Christian
• No. 4 Admiral Farragut at No. 1 Cambridge Christian
Class 3A, Region 3
• No. 5 Clearwater Central Catholic at No. 1 Berkeley Prep
Class 4A, Region 3
• No. 4 Clewiston at No. 1 Lakewood
• No. 3 Tampa Catholic at No. 2 Delray Beach American Heritage
Class 5A, Region 3
• No. 8 Chamberlain at No. 4 Jesuit
Class 5A, Region 2
• No. 4 Nature Coast at No. 1 Orlando Jones
Class 6A, Region 2
• No. 5 Clearwater at No. 1 Gaither
• No. 3 Lake Minneola at No. 2 Largo
Class 7A, Region 3
• No. 3 Manatee at No. 2 Mitchell
Class 7A, Region 2
• No. 5 Bloomingdale at No. 1 Armwood
• No. 6 Tampa Bay Tech at No. 2 Lakeland
Class 8A, Region 2
• No. 4 Steinbrenner at No. 1 Sarasota Riverview