The thing about the offensive line is you kind of have to have one brain. It's like five guys all with the same brain controlling them.
After early adjustments, offensive line paving way to Cape Central football's success
The turning point for Cape Central's offensive line, and possibly the offense or even the team, came in a loss. Not a win.
Five weeks into the season, Central fell 36-34 at Class 5 Poplar Bluff. While the Tigers dropped below .500 with the defeat, coach Arlen Pixley was satisfied with a new-look offensive line. The unit opened holes as Central's offense piled up 548 total yards, including 404 on the ground.
After rotating lineman consistently during the first few games, the Tigers settled upon a formidable combination. Following a 2-2 start, the Tigers have gone 5-3 since switching up the offensive line. All three blemishes came against Class 5 schools. And after scoring 35 points or more in only one of its first four games, Central has equaled or eclipsed that total in five of its last eight contests. Heading into the home Class 4 quarterfinal against Ladue Horton Watkins at 7 p.m. today, a unit that was once an issue is now a strength.
"The Bluff game is when we kind of solidified, 'Hey, these are the guys that are going to have to play for us,'" offensive line coach Bob Sink said. "Because I think the week before we got beat by Sikeston, and we knew we had do something, make some changes, or if not it would be a long season."
The mid-season offensive line improvement was evident a couple weeks ago in the district semifinals against Farmington. In Week 3, Central squeaked by the Knights 28-27 in overtime and gained 323 yards on offense. In the semi, the Tigers had 435 offensive yards and cruised to a 35-14 win.
"I knew the second time around with this offensive line versus the offensive line we had [the first time] against Farmington they would probably be in some trouble, and the score was pretty indicative of that," Pixley said. "... When your offense can keep the ball and keep you on the field and keep you out there it limits the number of plays that can be ran against your defense, and our defense at that point of the season was being really stressed with the amount of plays that were being ran against them. We were giving up a lot of points.
"Our offense is our defense's best ally and so forth."
Central entered the season without All-Southeast Missourian lineman Casey Vaughn and the togetherness of a unit that had mostly been playing together for the past two seasons.
Entering this season, there was a wealth of upperclassmen among the unit -- four seniors and a junior -- including two returning starters, left tackle Hunter Limbach and center Colt Sweet. The players didn't click, though. Linemen sometimes didn't know what their assignment was on a play, Sweet said.
Looking for a fix, Sink tried a variety of combinations. During the first few games, as many eight lineman played in a single contest. Then, after a 26-23 home loss to Sikeston, Pixley held a meeting with his offensive staff. They decided to put freshman Julian McBride at left guard and junior Michael Ward at right guard. Right tackle Coby Reavis is the unit's fifth starter.
"They had been repping together in practice before then," Pixley said. "It was just that combination that sometimes looked really good in practice and other times didn't look as mentally polished as what it was the week before, so we'd go back with the lineup we had the week before."
The revamped line has helped Tigers totaled 4,700 offensive yards in 12 games (391.7 per game), including 512 in last week's 63-24 win over Hillsboro in the district championship. The unit has opened holes for two 1,000-yard rushers, running back Aaron Harris (7.3 yards per carry) and quarterback Kway'Chon Chisom (8.3 yards per attempt). The signal caller also has 32 total TDs (16 passing and 16 rushing) with just three interceptions.
"If you can match up on the line of scrimmage with the people you play you have a good chance to win football games," Sink said. "Now, it's very helpful you have someone like Kway'Chon Chisom and Aaron Harris and kids like that."
There have been some tough times since the Tigers' coaches committed to this group of five midway through the year. Central lost 55-21 to Jackson and 46-3 to Chaminade, but the linemen grew from facing top-level competition, according to Limbach and Sweet. They also developed chemistry and got used to playing alongside one another.
"The thing about the offensive line is you kind of have to have one brain," Sink said. "It's like five guys all with the same brain controlling them. It's being able to play together, It's a cohesiveness. They're your best friends, and that's the way you have to face things day to day.
"Once we find the five that we like we don't sub a lot of people in and out because the more repetition they can get the better they're going to be."
Developing a close relationship sometimes involves ribbing -- "We make fun of each other in a good way," Limbach said -- and nicknames. The nicknames often are a play on first or last names. Sweet is called Sweetness. McBride, first name Julian, is Ju-Ju.
The youthful McBride caught the eye of Pixley early. The first-year coach likes to see what a lineman's pounds of strength per pounds of body weight is, and the freshman's ratio was promising. Plus, he had the athleticism to move laterally or get upfield and block linebackers or safeties.
"His feet are so good," Pixley said. "Julian can play tight end, Julian can play fullback. Julian can probably be a tailback in short-yardage situations. He's a very, very athletic kid. He's a very, very intelligent kid."
Next year, McBride will be back along with Ward and Reavis. That trio could develop a chemistry similar to what the Tigers had last year with Vaughn and two other seniors.
But for now Central is focused on Ladue. For Limbach and Sweet this is the last run. They said it probably won't sink in until the season concludes. For now they are simply enjoying the ride and look to make a fourth consecutive Class 4 semifinal.
If the Tigers can continue that streak with a win tonight, the offensive line will likely need to play at a high level and open holes for Chisom, Harris and junior Joe Baker plus give Chisom time to throw.
Early in the season that might have been a tall order, but not now that the line has coalesced.
"We now all know the plays by ourselves and aren't asking questions," Limbach said. "It's just simple. It's all clicked."
Ladue (11-1) at Cape Central (7-5)
Last week: Ladue 37, MICDS 29; Central 63, Hillsboro 24
Last meeting: Ladue 38, Central 35 (2015 regular season)
Ladue: 4,401 yards
Central: 4,700 yards
Ladue: 2,223 yards
Central: 1,201 yards
Ladue: 2,178 yards
Central: 3,499 yards
Leading rusher: Ladue Chino Davis, 884 yards; Central KwayChon Chisom, 1,524 yards
Leading passer: Ladue Jordan Jackson, 2029 yards; Central Chisom, 1,191 yards
Leading receiver: Ladue Zach Bush, 574 yards on 32 catches; Central Austin Parker 484 yards on 25 catches
Leading tackler: Ladue Davis, 56 tackles; Central Aaron Harris, 104 tackles
From staff reports