It all starts up front for the Panthers

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Junior tight end Mason Herrin (#44) watches his teammate Jon Shannon (#22) outrun the Lions’ defense in the first half of the Liberty Hill versus Brownwood game Sept. 12 at Panther Stadium. (Kathy Canady Photo)

Junior tight end Mason Herrin (#44) watches his teammate Jon Shannon (#22) outrun the Lions’ defense in the first half of the Liberty Hill versus Brownwood game Sept. 12 at Panther Stadium. (Kathy Canady Photo)

By BOB VARMETTE

The game, of course, will be won on the line. They always are.

It’s just even more of a point to make when a team is facing the Liberty Hill Panthers.

Waco Connally Coach Mike Rabe talks about the discipline his defense will need when it goes up against the misdirection of Liberty Hill’s Slot-T offense, but what it will really come down to when the teams meet at 7:30 p.m. Friday is the battle on the line – specifically, the Cadets’ defensive front against the Panthers’ offensive front.

Liberty Hill (2-1) has been very productive on offense, and that means on the ground. Even in their first-game loss to La Grange, Liberty Hill moved the ball, just not as well as the Panthers had hoped.

And not as well as they have in the past two games. On Sept. 12 against the Brownwood Lions, the Panthers, boosted by a big second half from senior quarterback Nick Hernandez, rolled to 391 yards on the ground.

Fans focus on the running backs. When running backs do well, coaches focus on the offensive line.

“They’re really good at what they do,” Rabe said. “They play hard, they execute well. They’re very physical. It’s not a match-up thing. I think it’s pretty much going to come down to effort. That’s really the thing when you play these guys (Liberty Hill).”

Every high school football team is a work in progress, and even more so an offensive line. To be elite, an offensive line has to work together. Its members have to trust each other implicitly and know each other as well as they know family members.

The Panthers aren’t where they want to be. But the offensive line has made significant progress this season, even in just three games, said Liberty Hill Head Coach Jerry Vance.

“We’ve still got some work to do,” Vance said. “We’ve got to get more physical, but we’re getting there. Compared to last season, compared to three weeks ago, I think we’re way ahead there. Still got a ways to go.”

This Friday night, the Panthers will face a huge challenge — literally. The Cadets (2-1) have a big offensive line, with several players taller than 6-foot-5 and weighing more than 300 pounds.

That means staying low, getting under their pads and making sure they have the advantage in getting off the line, said Jake Sanders, a three-year starter on the Panthers’ offensive line and, along with fellow senior Colton Hall, one of the leaders of the unit.

“They’re huge,” Vance said. “It’s going to be a matter of getting on them and staying on them.”

The Liberty Hill offensive line has made strides in that area over the last two games. After the season-opening loss to La Grange, the Panthers, led by Sanders and his linemates, exploded for nearly 500 yards against Brenham in their 49-47 win Sept. 5.

Then, against the Brownwood Cubs Friday night, the Panthers’ offensive line opened the gates to the nearly 400-yard rushing onslaught. Senior quarterback Nick Hernandez led Liberty Hill with 142 yards and three touchdowns, and fullback Jon Shannon rushed for 116 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 10 carries before sitting out the second half with a hand injury. “In my whole career – Pop Warner, junior high, freshman – that’s the best game I’ve ever had,” Hernandez said. “If it weren’t for the line, we wouldn’t score anything. So all the glory pretty much goes to them. We’re just the ones who carry the ball.” Liberty Hill’s offensive line has made a lot of progress in the young season, Sanders said. They’re maturing and developing, and learning from their mistakes.

That’s always key in the progress of any unit. The offensive line’s progress just takes on more importance when the team is Liberty Hill.

As the offensive line goes, so goes the offense.

“I feel like we’re really coming together this year,” Sanders said. “We all love each other like brothers. We’re all real close. We got real close in the offseason and I feel like this is the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

Offensive linemen love it when their running backs look good – it makes them look good. And the running backs, as Hernandez said, know where all those yards come from, and where to look to assign credit. “They make big holes, block well, give 100 percent every play,” Shannon said. “I love them to death.”

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