For much of the early part of the season, the Manhattan High Indians’ offense struggled.
The offense was unable to sustain long scoring drives and the normally-powerful rushing attack was resulting in more punts than touchdowns.
While defense always comes first at Manhattan High, the defensive unit was charged with winning each game more than in year’s past. After a Week 1 loss to Mill Valley, the Indians’ defense got almost all the credit in the 6-3 win against Emporia, and has played well in each of the games since then.
While the offense had to deal with some injuries and some shuffling around at quarterback, the real source of the problem was never a mystery to Manhattan coach Joe Schartz and his staff. The offensive line was not operating as a unit.
“Early on, it was a struggle to identify a strength,” Schartz said of his linemen. “But as of late, it’s just how well they work together. We’re not big, by any means, but their execution and their teamwork is their biggest strength.”
In the last couple of weeks, the line has gotten better. Center Brandon Nowlin shored up his issues with the shotgun snap, and guards Anthony Renteria and Wade Stroda and tackles Paul Bergeron and Seth Eckels have all improved.
The Indians moved the ball effectively against a pair of quality teams in Shawnee Heights and Topeka High, with the numbers on the scoreboard serving as proof. Combined with a defense that is still playing at a high level, Manhattan suddenly looks the part of favorite in District 5, especially after defeating previously-undefeated Topeka High last week.
“They did struggle early in the year to be a cohesive unit and to trust one another, and understand the concepts,” Schartz said. “But the last two weeks they’ve really come together as a group and are executing well.”
As it is most years, a constant size mismatch works against the Manhattan line. More often than not, they give up anywhere from 30-50 pounds a man all the way down the line. Facing Washburn Rural on the road tonight, they’ll have their hands full against some much bigger players, including 300-pound Earl Mariner.
But many Manhattan lines before them have thrived under similar circumstances.
So what made the biggest difference? Repetition certainly helps, but Schartz pointed to footwork.
“They know that if they do the things we teach them as far as technique, they’re going to have success,” he said. “Offensive line is all about footwork, so we spend a lot of time working on that. As long as they stay technique-sound, they have big enough hearts to overcome that size mismatch.”
Part of Manhattan’s issue this season has been depth. Some of them are two-way players, and there aren’t many capable replacements waiting on the sidelines to give them a breather. Junior Colton Wagner has seen some time on the line, and many of the starters can play multiple positions on the line, should an injury arise.
“We would certainly love for some underclassmen to show that they’re ready to play and step up, but that hasn’t happened up to this point,” Schartz said. “We have a number of junior linemen who haven’t showed that they’re ready to play on Friday nights.”
Schartz pointed to the unit’s work with offensive line coach Jesse Woodard as a big reason for the progress.
“Year in and year out Coach Woodard has done a nice job with our offensive line, and it’s always been a strength of ours,” Schartz said. “This year it took a little bit longer, but he’s done a nice job of bringing them around.”
Now that they seem to be playing better as a group, Schartz thinks the offensive can continue to reach its potential.
“If they execute up front, then we can put some points on the board as an offense,” Schartz said. “We’ve showed that recently as a total offensive unit.”
Manhattan travels to Topeka for its matchup with Washburn Rural tonight at 7 p.m.