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Unsung offensive line key to McKeesport's rushing success

| Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
McKeesport running back Mikell Moore squeezes his way through the Hempfield defense during their game Friday, Aug. 30, 2013, in Hempfield.

When George Smith returned to the football coaching reigns at McKeesport, Tigers senior Tomi McKelvey and his offensive linemates figured it was time to get down to business.

After all, McKeesport was going back to an exclusive way of attacking its opponents.

“Just having him as a coach is a whole new way of doing things,” said McKelvey, a 6-foot-2, 265-pound offensive guard for McKeesport. “It isn't like the guys weren't close before, because we were. We're all brothers on that line. But Coach Smith really prepares us for things, on and off the field. We have more confidence now.”

Smith, a master teacher of the intricate flexbone offense's technical aspects, who recently surpassed 200 career coaching victories — all at McKeesport — agreed to come back this year as the Tigers' coach after stepping down following the 2009 season.

McKeesport was a WPIAL playoffs team in all three years during Smith's absence but bowed out following first-round losses each time.

Smith has led the Tigers this season to a perfect record, along the way expressing overwhelming pleasure with the play of his offensive line.

“We never really know who's going to get the ball on each play, but those guys up front have done a good job of thinking on their feet,” Smith said. “You've got to think on every play because it's definitely a different mentality for linemen to be playing in this offense.”

McKelvey smiled over his coach's words and took things a step beyond.

“As an offensive lineman, you need to be tough, you definitely need to be in shape and you need to be smart,” McKelvey said. “You've got to be on the ball with your technique. You can't be one-dimentional, especially in this offense.”

Smith readily places a premium on the importance of a capable offensive line and points to McKeesport's dominating success as a direct byproduct of the group's sustained effort.

The mission continues on Thursday night for Class AAAA No. 3 McKeesport (8-0, 7-0), which will send its revered offensive line into a game for a final time during the regular season as the Tigers challenge No. 6 Gateway (7-1, 6-1) in what essentially serves as a playoff for the Quad East Conference title and helps to determine seedings for the postseason.

Gateway's 35-34 loss to unranked Penn-Trafford, however, skimmed a bit of hype from the game, which will be televised by Root Sports at 7 p.m.

A Gateway victory would give the Gators a co-championship of the conference with McKeesport and likely would provide them with a higher seed in the playoffs.

Regardless of what is to come, the offensive line, fresh from helping the Tigers to a 34-12 victory over Kiski Area, is a unit refined by weeks of repetition. But Smith knows it will never approach perfection.

“It's a work in progress,” he said.

Even as the regular-season finale approaches.

“The biggest thing we're dealing with right now is the snap,” Smith said, adding in a joking manner: “Jaylin Short is the center, and his arms are too short. He doesn't always get the ball cleanly to the quarterback. Our quarterbacks have to really lean in and accept the ball, and that messes with the timing. You never know if the play is going to get off the way it's supposed to. It's a lot to deal with.”

Smith doesn't believe in beating up his offensive linemen by requiring them to play both ways. He only makes them available for defense in cases of emergencies.

“But we have to practice in different situations,” he said. “We have to have those guys go through things as backups on defense while we're at it because, obviously, they've got to be ready at a moment's notice. Luckily, we've been able to keep the injuries to a minimum.”

Smith likes great athletes for the offensive line. He asked for volunteers, and he got many.

“They all have parts to play in this thing,” Smith said. “They all know their roles. If you can find five guys who are tough in attitude and mentality, you're going to succeed.”

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