It didn’t take long for Bellefonte offensive linemen Dylan Houser and Jacob Frey to trade playful verbal jabs outside the team’s locker room before practice Tuesday.
Houser, the team’s left guard, joked he wished he was as good as the Red Raiders right guard. Seconds later, Frey made sure to set the record straight.
“I’m also the better one,” Frey said.
The exchange is typical for an offensive line bonded by its sense of humor, competitive nature and hardworking approach. The unit has paved the way for the Red Raiders’ record-setting season and dominant rushing attack.
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The linemen have consistently won the battle at the line of scrimmage this season despite being undersized, and as a result, they’re still joking around together on the football field ahead of the team’s first-round PIAA Class 4A playoff game against Selinsgrove on Saturday.
“They’re brutal to each other,” Bellefonte coach Shanon Manning said. “They are just brutal. It’s like siblings. It’s just constant.”
Houser is the leader who has started on the offensive line all four years of his career, while Frey is the “outspoken goofball” with the sarcastic sense of humor. Left tackle Luke Lambert is the more reserved, shy “big dog” of the group at 234 pounds. Right tackle Zach Matsko is known as the “dad” of the offensive line for his ability to calmly manage situations. And center Julian Emel seamlessly fit into the line with his toughness after the starter went down with an injury the third week of the season.
“I have four seniors to work with, and they all know their jobs and what they need to do,” said Emel, a sophomore. “I can fall back and trust these guys, knowing that they’re going to do their jobs.”
They’ve relied on a combination of effort, technique and speed to clear the way for quarterback Dylan Deitrich to rush for 1,509 yards and 26 touchdowns this season. They know where they need to be on every snap and communicate well as a unit. And they’ve shown why Manning stopped worrying about whether his linemen weighed 240 pounds and looked the part two years ago and started to look for linemen who were committed to playing the tough position.
So the 234-pound Lambert is surrounded by Houser (230 pounds), Matsko (186 pounds), Frey (185 pounds) and Emel (165 pounds). That’s how much each lineman weighs, according to the team’s roster for the district championship game last week. But those figures may not be exact — Manning said Lambert is the lone lineman who weighs more than 200 pounds and wondered if Frey weighed 170 pounds.
“I’m not sure,” Manning said. “If he does, it’s because his uniform’s wet — plays very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very hard.”
The coach’s repeated use of “very” — eight times — offers some insight into the mentality of Frey and the rest of the linemen. Frey said size doesn’t matter anymore to the Red Raiders linemen. They’ve outplayed opposing lines week after week during Bellefonte’s 10-2 season. Lambert and Matsko agreed with Frey.
“Everyone else is saying we’re so much smaller than everyone,” Lambert said. “We try so much harder than everyone — just go out and move ’em.”
Said Matsko: “It’s really how much you want to win. If you want to win more than the guy across from you, you’re going to end up beating up on him.”
The district championship game proved to be the latest example for the Red Raiders linemen, who were tasked with blocking Johnstown’s 6-foot-2, 285-pound defensive lineman Tishaun Carmichael and 6-foot-1, 270-pound defensive lineman Shamar Jones along with others who weighed more than 200 pounds. The Bellefonte offensive line did its job, as Deitrich rushed for 169 yards and four touchdowns in the victory.
“They’re animals,” Deitrich said after the district championship game. “They’re very physical. They’re not very big, but they are the most physical kids on the field in my opinion. They’re fun to goof around with. They can be funny, but can also be very serious.”
They’ve figured out how to balance joking around and getting to work throughout the season. During games, they’ve taken a more serious approach, especially after the Red Raiders shared too many jokes during their four-overtime win over Central Mountain in September. At practices, they’ll laugh at each other after a mistake while also knowing when to pick each other up and focus.
“I personally believe there’s nothing you can’t joke about,” Frey said. “Football’s a tough sport. To really enjoy it, you have to have fun with it. When we go out there and we spend two or three hours of our time outside of the school just practicing the sport — it’s hard work — and you have to have fun while you’re doing it somehow. This group does it.”
Before practice Tuesday, the Red Raiders linemen didn’t miss the opportunity to poke fun at Frey, who said he’s considered the “worst athlete in the weight room for all positions.”
“I can’t bench with my collarbones,” Frey said. “My squats aren’t overly impressive. My numbers aren’t good. ... They don’t match my performance on the field.”
Houser quickly chimed in.
“I’d say they match,” he joked, eliciting an extended “Ohhhh” from his teammates.
They reacted the same way after making claims that the left or right side of the line is better, showing how they’ve bonded to help the Red Raiders to one of the best seasons in school history.
“They play to the top end of their ability,” Manning said. “If we lose a football game at some point this season, it will not be because those kids don’t play as hard as they can. Someone’s going to have to be clearly better than us.”