Ready to push back

Recruiting paying off for Scots up front

Scots coach Tony Lerulli puts the linebackers through their paces at practice.

Photo by Brandon Shinn

Scots coach Tony Lerulli puts the linebackers through their paces at practice.

Maryville quarterback Tim Conner looks for a receiver on Monday.

Photo by Brandon Shinn

Maryville quarterback Tim Conner looks for a receiver on Monday.

You saw it in Rommel Hightower’s declining numbers.

You saw it in the injuries to quarterbacks.

Maryville College needed a bigger line.

“It all starts up front,” sophomore Lane Dodson said. “If we can’t move the (opposing) linemen, if we can’t reach the linebackers . . .”

A year ago, that proved a real issue for the Scots. Hightower, the school’s career and single-season record holder, ran for better than 1,000 yards his sophomore season at Maryville. By his junior year, that number had dipped to just over 900. Last fall, it was down to 651, the Scots as a team slowing right along with him.

“Our rushing totals fell off because we just didn’t have the line we had in the past,” Maryville coach Tony Ierulli said.

Quarterbacks found the going tough as well. Opening day starter Derek Hunt was lost for the year when a concussion suffered in that first game proved one too many over the course of his career, doctors advising the Maryville High product to hang up his cleats.

Tim Conner didn’t miss in stepping in for Hunt, until slowed by injury late in the year. By late season, Ierulli was down to the fourth quarterback on his depth chart at one point.

Those things were legitimate concerns a year ago. As the 2010 opener at Huntingdon College looms Sept. 4, that doesn’t look to be a problem anymore.

Where’s the beef?

Check out Pearson’s Dining Hall the next two or three months. Here’s hoping the cooks and kitchen staff have been lifting. These boys are pretty big. Honest.

From the 6-foot-5, 280-pound Dodson, to 6-4, 265-pound freshman Alex Perez, the Scots will be a decidedly bigger team up front this fall. With players like 6-3 senior Kevin Walther and fellow senior Corey Brewer, 5-11, 250, at the guards, Maryville is also thicker.

It’s a welcome change, offensive coordinator and line coach Jim Elliot said.

Upon Elliott’s arrival six seasons ago, the Scots simply didn’t have the size up front, especially at the tackles, to run the offense Ierulli wanted. Hightower was a big, powerful back who could often make something out of nothing. By his second season at Maryville, however, when the Lenoir City native was no longer an unknown, the yards from scrimmage began a steady decline.

Recruiting plays a defining role in the success of a college football team on any level, but, at Division III, there’s a catch. You can’t just recruit big at a school like Maryville. It’s the rare lineman on a USA South Athletic Conference team who arrives from high school ready to play.

High school linemen slated to play at the Division I level tend to mature a little bit faster physically. It’s a big reason why they reach the level they do. At Maryville, Elliot and Ierulli are, more often than not, forced to recruit for what a player will look like in a couple of seasons.

Put simply, they need a little more time to fill out.

Exhibit A: Dodson.

Long arms and lean, tackles like Dodson and Perez can reach out and get his hands on people, Elliott said.

“That’s the kind of player you want,” he said. “We finally have tackles that look like college tackles.”

It’s a far cry from Elliott’s first season at Maryville when the Scots were one size fits all from tight end to tackle.

“They all looked the same,” he said, “about 5-10, 260 (pounds).”

“They all looked like guards,” echoed Ierulli.

Conner and junior receiver Wesley Idlette still were able to extract sterling seasons last year as the running game slowed. Conner threw for 1,800 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to finishing as the conference’s second-ranked passer.

Idlette turned in a monster season, finishing with a league-leading 99.4 yards per game average, as Maryville struggled to a 4-6 record and a sixth-place conference finish. For his efforts, Idlette enters 2010 as a preseason All-American selection.

Maryville’s finish a year ago hides a season where four losses were decided by a touchdown or less. Close, fourth-quarter games are most times won up front. The ability to get behind a big offensive line and hold onto the ball in the closing minutes could easily turn a 4-6 campaign into an 8-2 finish or better — and a whole lot more.

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