With line aligned, Cats regain surge

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Jasper senior Nathan Leibering has moved all over the offensive line in his last two years, playing center and guard last season before switching to tackle this year. Likewise, several other Wildcat linemen have shifted positions this season, but the Cats feel like they’ve discovered the ideal balance on the line leading up to Friday’s Class 4A sectional semifinals. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Friday at Seymour.

Herald Sports Editor

It’s practically a universal principle in football — especially for the better teams. The offensive line could gash open ground wide enough to fit a Buick through, and coaches will still insist their offensive line can be better.

Add Jasper to the list of difficult to please. The campaign starts with the coaches, but the guys manning the line recognized the need to get up to speed, as well. With time, the Cats feel they’ve gotten there. Everyone took a bit different route.

Nathan Leibering just needed to mend. Austin Alles needed time to establish himself. Mitch May needed an avenue to best utilize his menacing frame. Evan Vonderheide needed a season to get settled.

After a season of experimentation, the Class 4A No. 2 Cats (10-0) finally feel they’ve got the right people in the right places. And with an offensive line providing the push for an attack that’s averaged more than 47 points over the last five games entering Friday’s visit to Seymour (5-5) in the sectional semifinals, the consensus is that the unit has finally begun releasing the brutish potential that, at times early in the season, seemed bottled up.

“After seeing our performance in a few of the games, we just kind of realized that if we want to do well in the postseason, we just needed to improve as an offensive line, because the defense were doing their part, and we just needed to step it up,” May said. “Just as a team, they need us to be playing well.”

That extends from one periphery of the line to the other, with tight ends Dillon Wagner and Austin Alles bracketing tackles Adam Klem and Leibering, guards Neil Rose and May plus Vonderheide, the center. There was an element of mystery with Alles, as Jasper coach Tony Ahrens said “you just don’t know what you’re going to get” from a sophomore at the position. Alles has rocketed to the high end of that range, as he’s second on the team in receptions (12) and first in receiving average (27.2 yards per game) and touchdown receptions (six) — though those are fringe benefits to Alles’ ability to block, which his compatriots along the line have also progressed at after being granted regularity at their positions.

The line was in limbo for more than a month to start the season, as May began at left tackle and Leibering initially inhabited the right guard slot. Then Leibering missed a month after an undercut from a tackler in the Southridge game left him with a dislocated left kneecap and tissue damage. May became the incumbent at Leibering’s old spot, and Rose jumped into the starting lineup after a few games at the opposite guard position.

Ahrens acknowledged everyone needed a few games to feel at home, which coincided with a midseason blip where the offense labored — at least by Jasper standards — gaining 105 rushing yards against Vincennes Lincoln and 145 against Heritage Hills. Leibering said defense by the Alices and Patriots should get its due for part of that. Still, the message to the line was that the thrust could be more potent.

“That just goes to show if we don’t come ready to play, our offensive line is just like anybody else’s offensive line, we can get beat pretty easy,” Leibering said. “That was actually a good wakeup call, I think. It helped us out and said, ‘Hey, we need to get better, we need to keep working hard and just keep getting after it.’”

That’s been the purpose since last season for Vonderheide.

A year ago, Vonderheide admitted that anxiety wrecked his confidence at the worst times. In big games, Vonderheide developed a tendency to send snaps hurtling too high, even too steep for 6-foot-5 quarterback Karson Nixon to handle. It happened a couple times in the sectional championship against Evansville Central. But Ahrens can’t remember the same thing occurring this season between Vonderheide and new QB Nolan Ahrens.

“I was probably nervous, being a little bit younger. This year, I feel like I’ve gotten it down better and I’m not as nervous at the games, not nervous about snapping it over the head anymore,” Vonderheide said. “I don’t think about it, which I did last year. Now, I just think about the block I have to execute, not about the snaps, so that helps.”

May has adjusted along with everyone else as the game of musical chairs on the line allowed the Cats to revisit the practice of pulling with their guards. At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, the May is the strength-meets-speed specimen who’s ideal for executing the practice. And it’s helped the Cats pile on even more zing to the run game; in the five games since Vincennes Lincoln, Jasper has rushed for 244 yards per contest.

“We feel like we can pull now and we’ve gotten a lot better at it. It’s just something we’ve improved at,” May said. “At the beginning of the year you have to work so much on fundamentals that you can’t really concentrate on that stuff right away, so now that we got all the fundamentals down and all the assignments, now we know we can add stuff like that.”

Friday could present Jasper’s line with another prime opportunity for forward progress, as Seymour permits nearly 35 ppg and allowed winless Evansville Harrison to rush for 529 yards last week.

At the very least, Tony Ahrens feels assured the right guys have found their way to the line. And fits the entire range of the job description, beyond just the strength, speed and technique.

“Every team has its different personality, and I think this team with the kids that we’ve got, they don’t want to let each other down. They understand they have to keep trying to improve so that they can uphold their part of the game. And they do a nice job of that,” Ahrens said.

“Now we’ve got some experience with these guys in their spots. Right now we’ve got a pretty good group of kids there that are willing to work with each other and try to get the job done up front.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.


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