SCIOTOVILLE, Ohio — With just 125 students, East is one of the smallest public high schools in the state of Ohio. But don’t tell that to the Tartan offensive line.
With nearly a ton and a half of muscle and brute force combined in the offensive front five, the East offensive line will be the focal point of perhaps one of the best rushing offenses in the area.
“We’re going to depend on our offensive line. No matter what season it is, every coach will say every game is won or lost on the offensive line. It’s not going to be any different with us this year,” East head coach Todd Gilliland said. “There’s no doubt we’re going to run the football, and win or lose.”
When you have a left tackle like Tyler Gerald, it makes it easy to run the ball. An Ohio State commit, the junior has both the size (6-foot-5-inch, 310-pounds.) and the speed (5.02 second 40-yard dash) to clear defenders out of the way for sophomore running back Akia Brown. An honorable mention All-State selection last season, Gerald will hold down the left side of the line with senior Nick Basham, who has been receiving some college looks of his own.
“He has several D II offers,” Gilliland said. “Some MAC schools have contacted us. No official offer there, but they’re very interested in him.”
Seniors Austin Kazee and Taylor Appling add experience and more size to right size of the line, while freshman Blaine Scott leads in a position battle of the center position. The wealth of size and experience in the trenches should do wonders for Brown, who gained over a thousand yards rushing and an All-Southeast District honorable mention in just six starts in his freshman year.
While the Tartans offensive game plan was “three yards in a cloud of dust” in 2013, Gilliland hopes to be more creative with his play calling in 2014.
“This year we may try and mix it up a little bit more than we have in the past, just because we have some athletes that can get the ball in space and make some plays one-on-one,” he said. “There’s going to be some times when we spread Akia Brown out along with Michael Stiltner, who’s going to be playing slot a little more this year.”
In addition to Brown and Stiltner, senior tight end Jeremy Toller and sophomore receiver Eli Eaton will be viable targets for Tartan quarterbacks. The real question is who that quarterback will be.
According to Gilliland, the race is down to two: Sophomore Drew Lowe and freshman Ethan Gifford. Lowe, a pocket passer, brings the threat of the deep ball with a strong arm. However, Gifford offers the advantage of making plays with his feet.
“Right now, they’re pretty equal. We’re excited about both of them,” Gilliland said. “We’re going to look at the scrimmages and see how it plays out.”
Like the offense, the line will be the strength of the Tartan defense. Though Gerald and Basham will be the anchors, East will have a luxury not available to many schools its size: depth.
“We’re really excited that we have six or seven D-Lineman that can rotate in and out to give each other breaks,” Gilliland said.
The Tartans will hope to confuse opposing offenses by showing different looks in a multiple front defense. The East coaching staff knows that they will need to rely heavily on the leadership of the linebacking corps to make sure the defense is aligned correctly. Luckily, they have transfer student Richard “Nashville” Barkely at middle linebacker.
“He’s going to offer a lot at Mike linebacker and he’s going to play some fullback too,” Gilliland said.
In the secondary, the Tartans are led by cornerback Deshaun Martin. Though only a sophomore, he’s playing beyond his years thanks to valuable playing experience last season. Martin’s situation is a common one among East football players, which certainly bodes well for the team’s future.
“We’ve had a lot guys that have played as freshman and sophomores that are stepping up,” Gilliland said. “They’re not babies anymore and they have a lot of game experience.”
The East special teams are led by, who else, Tyler Gerald and Basham. Both have experience kicking off, while there continues to be a battle for the punting spot.
The Tartans will look to play giant-killers in 2014, with an beefed-up non-conference schedule that includes larger schools like South Point in week two.
“We feel like playing these big schools are going to get us ready for our conference schedule a little bit better,” Gilliland said. “At the same time, you have to beat them. If you play them and just get knocked around, it doesn’t help you any.”
The Tartans hope a tough non-conference schedule prepares them for a much improved SOC-I tilt that includes Northwest, Symmes Valley and, of course, two-time reigning champions Oak Hill.
“Oak Hill is the team to beat. Until someone knocks them off, they’re the team,” Gilliland said.
If the Tartans can take care of the ball and control the tempo with their outstanding ground game, anything can happen.
Alex Hider can be reached at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter