Photo by Brian Paglia
Union Grove senior Nick Davis (center) has taken a primary leadership role on the offensive line this season. “I think we’ll look better than last year,” Davis said.
Union Grove at a glance
Last year: 5-5
Summer progress: It was all on the line. Through a new weight room philosophy and summer camp at Mercer, the offensive line transformed from a question mark into the team’s biggest strength. Now, the Wolverines love the look of Nick Davis, Matt Ivey, Tyler Vaughn, Lane Henderson, Grayson Fuller and Kenneth Cousins taking on defensive fronts.
Work to do: Picking a quarterback between sophomores Eric Forest and Jonathan Slade is paramount, but so is getting a big group of inexperienced sophomores and juniors ready for varsity competition.
Emerging player: If Slade wins the starting quarterback job, he could keep it for the next three seasons. He’s 6-foot-5, has a cannon of an arm and is sure to start climbing the national prospect rankings.
What happened to Union Grove’s offensive line that transformed them from a huge question mark to the team’s biggest strength in just one summer was not a matter of schemes, assignments or personnel.
It had more to do with a place that had become a mere detail of their day — the weight room.
“I like going to workouts every day now,” senior Nick Davis said.
“That is true,” added senior Tyler Vaughn. “I love going to workouts.”
And Union Grove has loved the impact.
“I thought in the spring it was a big question mark,” Wolverines head coach Paul Burgdorf said. “But then I thought they gelled pretty well together.”
After going 5-5 and returning just three starters on offense, the Wolverines were looking at breaking in a new quarterback with an inexperienced offensive line. Looking for ways to get the unit prepared, Union Grove overhauled its weight-training program for lineman.
Players said the program didn’t involve new fitness techniques. Instead, the team tore down its approach and replaced it with one focused on increasing intensity.
“There’s no new moves,” Davis said, “it’s just the atmosphere’s completely different. It’s a lot quicker. The coaches are on you the whole time. The atmosphere’s amazing now.”
“It all starts in the weight room,” Vaughn said. “We got the new workout, and it’s just making everybody bigger, faster and stronger.”
It’s also helped develop the kind of chemistry that players say Union Grove lacked as a whole last season. That could’ve been an advantage in three games that the Wolverines lost by a field goal. That could’ve been the difference between Union Grove’s season ending at 5-5 or in the playoffs.
But players say that won’t be an issue this season. Not after all the work in the weight room. Not after several players went to an offensive lineman camp at Mercer University, where they won the tug-of-war and came back with an infusion of confidence.
“They came back more as a group,” Wolverines offensive line coach Chad Kollert said. “They came back fired up. ... I think more than anything just the competition and the camaraderie that they got to get together and learn a little bit about each other.”
Kollert by now has learned that he can rely on Davis and center Matt Ivey, another senior, for leadership.
Indeed, as Kollert chatted between drills during a recent practice, he was a few seconds late to the offensive line’s agility station.
He arrived to find Ivey and Davis had already gotten the drill started.
“We’ve got two of them that are going to be real good for us,” Kollert said. “[Ivey] and Davis have kind of taken ownership of that group and become leaders.”
The leadership and cohesion came in use on several occasions this summer, particularly when Isaiah Spencer, the team’s expected starter at quarterback, transferred. The Wolverines offense had been tailored to feature Spencer’s unique dual-threat abilities, which called for the offensive line to play a certain style.
With Spencer gone, coaches scrambled to make adjustments to the offense. Sophomores Eric Forest and Jonathan Slade have been battling all summer for the starting quarterback job.
But Kollert said the offensive line handled the transition.
“They were ready,” he said. “We change a couple things up, taking advantage of a little bit of athleticism, get them on the edges a little bit more and let them run a bit more. Most offensive lineman are stuck down in the trenches. We’ve got some kids who can move.”
Davis, Ivey and Vaughn form the senior core of the group, with Vaughn splitting his time between the offensive line and nose guard on defense. Juniors Lane Henderson, Grayson Fuller and Kenneth Cousins complete the unit.
Together, they make for a beacon of leadership on a team full of youth.
“We’re going to be young experience-wise all over the place,” Burgdorf said, “but we feel like that part has the opportunity to be real solid.”