The play of the guys in the trenches has led to the Monroe City football team being an offensive juggernaut.
Last season Michael Ryan was new to the Monroe City offensive line. All-state lineman Josh Underhill took the Panthers junior under his wing and showed him the ropes.
This season, Ryan has returned the favor.
Underhill was lost to graduation, but younger brother Jaden is the new face on the line. Ryan is now the teacher.
“Last year I was new and kind of got baptized with fire,” Ryan said. “Josh was an amazing all-stater who poured a lot of knowledge into me. And for me to step into the same role this year and help Jaden, I was like ‘wow’. I know I was on his level too and I see a lot of potential in Jaden. And to see how much better he has gotten as the season has went on is just eye-opening.”
With Ryan’s guidance along with linemen Jon Saxbury, Alex Wilson, Brad Cheek and tight ends Dane Derksen and Dawson Shively, the Panthers offensive line is the focus point of every opposing team. Saxbury, Wilson and Cheek are all returnees from last season’s Class 1 state finalist, with Wilson and Saxbury earning all-state honors.
The play of the guys in the trenches has led to Monroe City being an offensive juggernaut. The Panthers have averaged just over 45 points per contest, including 56 points per game in the playoffs.
“Those guys have played a ton of football together and have started a lot of games,” Panthers coach David Kirby said of his offensive line. “They really understand what it takes to communicate and really get after people to be an aggressive front. They take pride in developing their craft to open up holes for some really dynamic backs.”
The Panthers offense possesses 1,000-yard backs in Zach Osborn and Cole Pennewell. But the damage to opposing teams’ defenses does not stop there. Quarterback Blake Hays can make plays with both his feet and right arm. Gage Bottoms and Keenan Batsell are two more options out of the Panthers backfield in addition to Nehemiah Batsell and Shively in the passing game.
The Panthers linemen do not mind taking a backseat to the plethora of playmakers when it comes to recognition.
“They understand those guys are going to get their names in the paper, but they also know it’s because they are doing what they need to do up front,” the Panthers coach said. “We always joke about (the linemen) being like mushrooms. They are stuck out back in the shade and only get talked about once or twice, but they absolutely love blocking for those guys.
“When you see Zach or Blake or anyone else make these big runs, you all of a sudden see the line running down the field giving hi-fives and celebrating together. They don’t always see the play, but they know what they did worked well.”
Ryan mentioned how big of a game the backs have is the measuring stick of how good of a job they did that night.
“I think it’s great to see how much success they are having each game,” Ryan said of the backs. “It’s how we gauge our performance. If they are not picking up yards, we know we have to take it upon ourselves to do a better job. Coach always tells us we should be able to open up lanes big enough you can drive a truck through. That’s what we try and do every play.”
Although the linemen do not get all the glory as the playmakers, Saxbury mentioned he knows they are appreciated.
“They actually make our jobs easier,” the all-state lineman said of the offensive playmakers. “We all know without each other we wouldn’t be as successful as a team as what we are. Those dudes are some great athletes and they give us our props and we give it right back.”
The line does more than just block and create holes for the backs to have 100-plus yard games. They also are given the flexibility and trust from the coaching staff to make checks on the fly.
“We have base rules we follow but we give the kids the liberty, in games, if they see certain things that they can change the way the want to block the play,” Kirby said. “We have kids who are very smart, they have a lot of intelligence. And their ability to recognize things the coaches can’t always see, allows us to be more successful and gives them ownership as well.”
Saxbury mentioned the line checks to a different blocking scheme a “couple times a game.”
“It’s really fun that coach gives us that liberty to change it up,” Saxbury said. “It’s nice that he trusts us that much and it also shows just how smart of a team we are. I think it’s just another thing that separates us from other teams.”
Ryan mentioned sometimes the defense knows what the line will be doing on the check.
“Sometimes we tell the defense what we are doing,” Ryan admitted. “But we just have confidence in ourselves that we can execute what we want to do good enough that it doesn’t matter. Coach tells us to stay in the moment, but other than that we just really respect and trust one another. We know the guy next to us is going to get their block and we all know and just do our role.”
The Panthers will try and keep their success going Saturday when they travel to Westran for a Class 1 state quarterfinal game. Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m.