Wesleyan, one of the smaller schools in Class A, has long needed its linemen to be quick and smart to compensate for a size difference.
They’re much bigger this season, adding to the savvy and speed. People have noticed.
“It’s not a surprise to them that the expectations and the outlook are very optimistic,” head coach Franklin Pridgen said. “But what I like about them is they always respond with something along the lines of ‘We’re only going to be as good as we prepare to be.’
“They’re not taking anything for granted. None of that’s going to their head. What it’s done, so far, is it has fueled their work ethic.”
The Wolves’ linemen, led by seniors Chris O’Sullivan, Josh Aspinwall and Collin Conduah, have been at every summer workout and leading by example.
“Every one of those guys is pushing themselves past a point of comfort,” Pridgen said. “When you’ve got guys who have potential and they apply a work ethic to it, then you’ve got something really special.”
Wesleyan played a deliberately difficult non-region schedule with Meadowcreek, a Class AAAAAAA program, Chattooga and Prince Avenue. They see all three again at the start of 2019 with Meadowcreek again first up. In last year’s opener, the Wolves grabbed a quick 3-0 lead before Meadowcreek scored a pair of second-quarter touchdowns.
“I’d say that the size of their line was daunting, especially with how hot it was and (playing on) turf as well,” Conduah said. “And it was a very drawn-out game. But it’s more if you have the toughness to do it, to beat them. Sure, they may be bigger, but they also think that you’re smaller than them, so I don’t have to work as hard to put this person down.
“It’s just about proving them wrong at every turn that you possibly can. Because the moment they think they own you, they do.”
Attrition started to effect Wesleyan’s ability to mount a comeback. Meadowcreek, a resurgent Gwinnett County program in the state’s highest classification, not only has a big line, it doesn’t need the same guys on both sides of the ball. Pridgen took note and is making adjustments with two months left before the opener Aug. 23.
“I felt like we went into our first three games and we were not in great shape,” Pridgen said. “We’re a Class A school, which means Meadowcreek has a lot of advantages over us. One of which being they have more depth.
“Last year we were ready for that for about 2 1/2 quarters. And then we weren’t. We’re determined not to let that happen again so we’ve changed our approach on how we coach these guys. They have ramped up the way they receive that coaching and the work ethic that they apply. That’s why (at the end of) June, we like where we sit.”
The three seniors are at the heart of the line, growing up, literally, shoulder to shoulder.
“What has happened this year, that is a little different that in years past, is that I think all three of them now are at a point where they are physically able to do all of the things that they have been training to do for so long, at a high level,” Pridgen said. “When they were sophomores, training to double team and training to reach block and pass protect, while they were developing skills, they were also not as athletically developed as they are today. Now they have the size and the strength and the footwork to couple with that experience, to really have, I think, a climactic season.”
In their third year playing together at the varsity level, being friends off the field just augments the relationship.
“We can sense what the other is thinking or how they’re feeling,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s being quick to realize he needs help or I need help, I need to look in the backfield and see if there’s any linebackers blitzing. Just a quick glance from the guard to the center and know what they’re thinking.”
Not taking criticism as a personal attack is another benefit of long association.
“It also helps that you can yell at each other,” Conduah said. “It’s that I know people are depending on me to do my job to the best of my ability. So I need to do everything that I can — of course, that is legal to do — to prevent them from stopping our progress.”
Juniors Tanner Bivins and Banks Merkl round out the starters up front with Vance Nicklaus at tight end.
“But what I like most about this group, not just those three, they are aware of their potential,” Pridgen said. “They talk about it. They know they have an opportunity as a group to do something special.”
Relying on their protection is quarterback J.C. French who started every game as a freshman for the playoff qualifying Wolves.
“I mean, after the second game, it wasn’t even like there was a freshman back there with the arm talent he has,” Aspinwall said. “Everybody just forgets he’s a freshman with what he can do with the ball.
“It’s been a little bit of a change, coming off a four-year starter with Banks (Ramsey), but we didn’t really skip that much of a beat. Our experience as a line, we can give him time to think and work out plays. ”
The trio is determined to give him the best chance to be successful. Because they’re driven to realize this team’s full potential.
“He’s just got to step in now because we’re in our senior year and we’re ready to go, to make it as far as we can, so he’s got to step up to the plate,” O’Sullivan said.
French threw for nearly 2,000 yards last season — only five other quarterbacks in the county had more — with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“For the less mature, the word ‘potential’ is some sort of a guarantee,” Pridgen said. “For those of us who have been around, for guys like Collin and Josh and Chris, they know the word ‘potential’ is anything but a guarantee.
“I love the fact that they’re motivated to live up to these expectations. They’re motivated to work and prepare now so that they can be as good, or better, as people expect them to be.”