Franklin Regional football team laying success on the line
Franklin Regional football coach Greg Botta experienced a first in his 20 years of coaching earlier this season.
Each week, offensive line coach Chris Capozzoli grades his players on keeping their heads in the right position, stepping correctly and staying on their blocks on each play. Linemen who accomplish all three facets on 85 percent of the offensive plays in the game are considered to have “graded out” for that week's game.
Early this season, that wasn't happening.
“Not one person graded out (on the offensive line), and that was for the first two or three games,” Botta said. “Then we had one person, I think, the fourth game who finally graded out. One.”
Times are changing. Thanks in large part to a much-improved offensive line, Franklin Regional (7-1, 6-1) will enter Friday night's game at Derry (0-8, 0-7) with a chance to clinch at least a share of the Greater Allegheny Conference title.
Botta said in the past two games, a 54-7 victory over Hollidaysburg Oct. 11 and a 33-12 triumph over Hampton last week, the majority of offensive linemen have graded out.
“I don't care what level it is — it could be high school, college or pro,” Botta said. “You've got to have an offensive line. You have to. (Our running backs) are running better — (Paul) Emanuele, (Dom) Giannengeli and (Brett) Zanotto — because of what the offensive line is doing.
“In the first few weeks, it was tough because they weren't in synch. They just weren't working together. Now, there's an attitude about them, which I really like (and) which we have to keep playing at.”
Franklin Regional's starting offensive line consists of left tackle Charlie Mazon, left guard Josh Sabo-Pediconi, center Matt Babbit, right guard Jake Pickup, right tackle Sam Sedivy and tight ends Jake Lauer and Dylan Wallace. While Babbit gained some varsity starting experience last season, all seven are full-time starters for the first time.
“The guys last year were really good, so we've been challenged a lot and had to face some adversity,” Sedivy said. “But I think we've taken a good role to it and transitioned pretty smoothly.”
The offensive line has faced significant challenges this year, with injuries posing the biggest problem. Wallace went down with an injury during a scrimmage against Kiski and missed the beginning portion of the season before returning. Adam Mihoci, the starting right guard at the beginning of the season, went down with a season-ending injury in Week 3 against Highlands. Sedivy also missed some time because of injuries.
But while the injuries posed a challenge, replacements stepped up in Lauer (for Wallace), Pickup (for Mihoci) and Nick Fazio (for Sedivy).
“It was pretty hard the first game against Greensburg (Salem), but I've started getting used to it,” Pickup said.
“It's just a good light at the end of the tunnel (that) we have young guys stepping up and everybody's filling roles,” Babbit said. “We had Jake Lauer step up the first week after Dylan got hurt in a scrimmage. Everybody's doing a great job for us, and now we're starting to get people back at the end of the season.”
Along the offensive line, the Panthers start three sophomores in Lauer, Mazon and Pickup and four seniors in Babbit, Sabo-Pediconi, Sedivy and Wallace.
“This is my first year playing high school football, (and) it's tough for me,” Mazon said. “I'm getting used to it. All the seniors are helping me out, and I like it.”
Aside from Sabo-Pediconi, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 287 pounds, Franklin Regional doesn't boast a ton of size along the line. Pickup weighs just over 200 pounds, and Sedivy weighs about 210.
That can make life difficult against some of the bigger defensive fronts in the Greater Allegheny Conference.
“There's definitely some big boys there,” said Sedivy, whom teammates nicknamed “The Technician” because of his ability to use technique against bigger players. “You just have to keep your head up and really try to work as hard as you can.”
Franklin Regional's zone-blocking scheme also takes some of the pressure off the smaller linemen, as it allows to players to block defensive linemen at the line of scrimmage before moving on to linebackers.
As the season has gone on, the offensive line's overall improvement includes better footwork and communication. Botta credited the work of Capozzoli and assistant line coach A.J. Strum, as well as the hard work of the linemen, for the improvement.
And the improvement is bearing tangible benefits. After managing a season-low 65 rushing yards against Highlands, Franklin Regional churned out 346 yards on the ground against Greensburg Salem in Week 4 and 395 against Hollidaysburg. The team is averaging about 203 rushing yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry on the season.
“It gets everyone excited,” Sabo-Pediconi said. “Running the ball down someone's throat, that's the best feeling you can have in football.”
With the Panthers about to head into the playoffs for the 10th straight season, the offensive linemen know how much they'll be counted on. They're looking forward to this latest challenge.
“It's definitely an honor to be part of that, to be part of the tradition and keep moving things forward,” Babbit said. “Hopefully, we can break a little tradition this year by going further and further and make a run at (a WPIAL championship).”