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Placer's unconventional o-line

Front six may not look the part, but pave way for major yardage
By: Todd Mordhorst, Journal Sports Editor
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Brandon Pope admits he sometimes thinks about how sweet it would be to tuck the football under his arm and motor through the secondary or take off on a post pattern and haul in a touchdown pass. But he’s happy to his get his thrills by thwarting would-be tacklers and letting guys like Asher Gotzmer and Josh Turney claim the glory. Pope would probably be a skill position player on many teams. He’s usually just a step behind Placer’s speedy backs and receivers when the team runs wind sprints. Pope played safety and receiver as a freshman and tight end as a sophomore. In the spring, he’ll run hurdles for the Hillmen. But with his speed and athleticism, he’s a perfect fit at guard for the Hillmen, who will host Calaveras in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV quarterfinal game tonight at 7. “He’s one of the fastest guards I’ve ever coached,” Placer head coach Joey Montoya said. “He doesn’t move like an o-lineman, but he sure plays like one.” Placer’s offensive front could easily be mistaken for the secondary on most teams. Senior tackle Jake Styler, who stands 5-10 and weighs around 250, and tight end Josh Klem (6-4, 205) are the only players that fit the typical offensive lineman mold. But what they lack in size, the Hillmen make up for in quickness and sheer will. Seniors Conner McKenzie and Jake Turney are converted defensive linemen who have been stellar on the offensive side. Senior Ethan Halbert (5-10, 170) often gives up 20 or 30 pounds to his defensive counterpart, but gets the job done with leverage and strength. Junior Conor Gray has filled in nicely at center, though his natural position is linebacker. It’s tough for linemen to explain what they do to the casual football fan. They keep tabs on individual progress by collecting “Beasts” – stickers that are given out when they knock a defender onto his back. “Basically our job is just keeping tacklers off our running backs,” Pope said. “It’s hard to explain it to people if I’m not getting the ball or making tackles.” Montoya is well aware of his blockers’ success. The offensive line was one of Placer’s main question marks coming into the 2009 season. Four starters left via graduation from last year’s team that played for the section title. Pope was the lone returner. “Any time you lose four of five starters up front you’ve got some rebuilding to do,” Montoya said. “Our kids have risen to the occasion. We’ve got a bunch of tough, scrappy kids who are a pleasure to coach.” Placer’s offensive front had a rough outing in the team’s lone loss of the season. Lincoln’s defensive line got to quarterback Collin Burnett for six sacks. Since then, the Hillmen have protected Burnett like personal bodyguards while blowing open big holes for Gotzmer, Jake Turney and Dalton Dyer. “We felt there were a few things to change schematically after that game,” Montoya said. “And our kids were frustrated with the way they played against Lincoln. They’ve taken the challenge and played really well since then.” Pope, who’s also an ace on special teams for Placer, said he’s relishing every moment of his senior season, especially in the postseason. “It was kind of surreal last year in the playoffs,” he said. “This year it feels like we worked harder to get here. Football’s done for me after we lose and I really don’t want to put away my pads yet.”