COLUMBIANA-Before the 2013 regular season began, the biggest question facing the Crestview offense was how to break in an entirely new cast of skill position players around star quarterback Collin Gilbert.
It was a transition the Rebels felt comfortable with for one major reason, they knew that whoever stepped forward would have the luxury of a rock-solid, experienced offensive line.
Fast forward to this week, and that assessment appears to have been right on the money. Senior running back Trevor Cope and senior tight end Josh McDade each stepped into the holes left by Nick Blower and Dimitri Gregory and flourished, while Gilbert only built upon his special mention All-Ohio season from a year ago.
While much of the credit for another prolific offense deservedly goes to those three, the Rebels wouldn't be preparing for a sixth straight home playoff game without the foundation of left tackle Clint Linhart, left guard Nate Stelts, center John Radman, right guard John Kacenski and right tackle Christian Kinder. All but Stelts are seniors and all but Stelts have more than 20 games of starting experience.
"It's a unique situation, something that's only happened once or twice for me," Crestview coach Paul Cusick said. "Having that much experience on the offensive line definitely helps because you see a lot of different defensive fronts over the course of a season. Our offense runs a lot smoother if the line can pick up defensive schemes and other things on their own. For the most part these guys have been doing that. What sticks out the most is that it would be easy for that group to be complacent with all they did last year, but they've kept trying to get better every week."
To quickly open lanes for their up-tempo, spread offense, the Rebels use a scheme that features mostly zone blocking. The emphasis is on coordination, athletic ability and technique rather than size and muscle. Impressively, the group has had to make do in 2013 without the player who best embodied those traits.
Before the season, McDade-a first team All-Ohio left tackle in 2012-was asked to fill the hole at tight end in order to better utilize his special blend of size and athletic ability. The departure created a minor shuffle, with Linhart being moved from guard to tackle and the line's lone new starter, Stelts, sliding in at left guard.
"I started on the jayvee team last year, but coach Cusick came to be during camp and said they needed me to step up and fill a hole," Stelts said. "At first it was tough to get acclimated. In this offense, the linemen have to be able to make a lot of quick adjustments and it was tough for me at first."
Having four starters who had already been through a full season, though, quickened Stelts' development, and the unit hardly missed a beat from a record-breaking 2012 season. With McDade developing into a dangerous pass-catcher and Linhart adapting well at tackle, the Rebels finished atop the Inter-Tri County League upper tier in both rushing yards and total yards.
"It was huge having those guys to learn from," Stelts said. "Eventhough I was new, none of them put me down when I messed up or said I wasn't good enough. When I screwed something up they were right there to pat me on the back."
"Nate is someone who played very little last year, but worked hard in the offseason to get himself ready," Cusick said. "He's a smart kid who is very coachable and is also a perfectionist. That's a good combination for an offensive lineman."
With the arrival of the playoffs, and a rematch with non-conference foe Liberty looming, Stelts and the rest of the line look to keep their cohesion going a little longer.
"Overall, I was really pleased with how it all turned out this year," senior tackle Christian Kinder said. "It's been mostly the same group of guys for the last couple of years. We've become friends and bonded with each other. This year, Nate really stepped up for us which was huge for the offense because of what McDade has done at tight end."
"The first time we played Liberty it was early in the year and it was a growing up game for me," Stelts said. "They are more quick and physical up front than most teams we have played. At this stage of the year, I think I am much farther along and much more comfortable with how things are supposed to run."