Big offensive line paving way for Predators' explosive offense

posted Aug. 12, 2016 12:14 a.m. | updated Aug. 12, 2016 12:14 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Austin Mai

Blood, sweat and tears is the typical phrase describing the hard work someone puts into their daily lives. This phrase is often used by football players and is an especially apt description of the Chippewa Valley Predators’ offensive line this season.

However, not all aspects of the phrase were shed on the field.

Through the air, the offensive linemen shed blood handling opposing defensive attacks and protecting quarterback Keldric Stokes. Because of their efforts, Stokes was never sacked in five Northern Elite Football League games and threw for 10 touchdowns and nearly 800 yards.

At a combined weight of more than 1,600 pounds, the offensive line opened holes through the defense for running backs Vince Furby and Herschel Brazell. Furby was the league’s second-leading rusher and Brazell finished as the third-leading rusher. The two combined for 914 yards and 12 touchdowns in six Northern Elite Football League games.

First-year Predator Branden Schmude said, like many offensive linemen, he would rather run the ball all day. But the starting left guard described the line’s ability in a way that backed up the line’s pass protection production.

“We’re the most physical line in the league and no one can compete with us,” Schmude said. “This is the best offensive line I’ve been a part of. We communicate together really well and we have confidence in each other.”

Schmude, who joined the Predators with left tackle Michael Kodl in 2013, said the offensive line’s comfort level with one another is what makes this team so much different than his previous teams.

He feels like they are a family, and with that comes a real sense of love.

“No matter the situation, we’re always there for each other,” Schmude said. “In game or not, we’re not going to quit on each other.”

Offensive line coach Zach Brunner found that this family atmosphere extends past the players. In his second year coaching, Brunner said the comfort level across the entire team is at a higher level. He said after he earned the players’ respect, they were able to get to work, and this season’s success is the evidence.

“I feel like we’re a much more focused team,” Brunner said. “You have to use (last year’s) experiences to connect and work for the next season. We did that.”

Right guard Stoney West said the offensive line’s accountability this season is one of the major differences from last season.

West said last season’s offensive line was flawed. Despite making the league championship game last year, the line’s play hurt the Predators, and West knew it was something to be addressed before this season.

Now, with consistent starts all year and production all around, West said he’s realized this has been the most fun he’s ever had while playing football. The fun starts with the sweat they shed when putting in their training.

“We do everything like a family,” West said. “We’ve lifted together, we’ve practiced together. If you have trust in the line, it’ll go a long way.”

West has been playing next to right tackle Chris Garner since he came to the team in 2010. Garner and West are an example of the tears shed by these offensive linemen.

Most of the tears are good, coming from stupid jokes during spaghetti dinners or nights out on the town. Garner and West’s relationship has developed well beyond the field. Some of the tears aren’t so good and they’re because of looming departures.

“From the day he was brought in, we’ve been like brothers,” Garner said. “I’m going to miss all of it, but the Choo Choo Brothers will live on.”

The Choo Choo Brothers is a running nickname traditionally for the right side of the offensive line. Once West joined the team, he replaced one of the original “brothers” and it’s been him and Garner since then — until this year. After his nastiness was seen, Schmude was welcomed to the brotherhood.

Garner and Schmude will play in their last game for the Predators on Saturday, while West’s future is undetermined.

“There are always those what ifs, but I wouldn’t change a thing,” Garner said. “I’ve had so much fun with the Predators. The fans are amazing and I’ve met so many people and had a lot of fun.”

“I hate that it comes to an end on Saturday,” West said. “This will pretty much be the best Preds team you will see in a while.”

The Predators host the St. Paul Pioneers at 6 p.m. Saturday at Carson Park in the Elite Bowl, which is the NEFL title game.

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