Thomas Jefferson linemen pave way for strong ground game
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It's November and at Thomas Jefferson that means one thing: WPIAL playoffs and the chance to add to the program's laundry list of championships.
“Our coaches always said our expectations are above and beyond everything,” said Mat Nagy, a 6-foot-3, 255-pound senior offensive tackle.
The Jaguars are chugging along per usual, capturing another conference title before opening the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs last Friday with a trademark 39-0 domination of Hampton.
Nagy and linemates Jake Guinn (6-1, 255), a junior center; Garrett Pahanish (5-10, 230) and Cole Costy (6-2, 265), both senior guards; and senior tackle Jason Inks (6-5, 305) have set the precedent all year long, paving the way for Thomas Jefferson's ground-churning running game.
“They're all experienced. They work well together,” Bill Cherpak, the Jaguars' head coach, said. “That has a big impact on it. We put it on them.”
Cherpak, a former offensive lineman at the University of Pittsburgh in the late 1980s, has a simple philosophy when it comes to his offensive line's mission — win at the line of scrimmage.
“I think when you can control the line of scrimmage that allows you to do things that you want to do. That's more than anything,” Cherpak said. “If you can run the ball, you're going to have a chance to win all the time.”
And run the Jaguars have.
Junior running back Austin Kemp rambled to 179 yards and four touchdowns on 32 carries last week against Hampton.
Kemp leads the Jaguars in rushing with 1,048 yards and 17 touchdowns on 129 carries.
He is averaging 8.1 yards per carry, and 116.4 yards rushing per game.
Thomas Jefferson has amassed 2,814 rushing yards on the year, which is nearly two-thirds of the team's total yardage, an average just over 280 yards per game.
“I'm so thankful to have a line like that. I was in the locker room yesterday and I walked over to their area and shouted, ‘I love my lineman,'” said TJ quarterback Chase Winovich, who is a Michigan recruit at linebacker.
“Without them, I don't think anyone on our team would have that much success.”
Winovich, who has served as the Jaguars' wildcat quarterback while splitting time with Christian Breisinger on offense, has racked up 580 yards on the ground and 11 touchdowns.
He says running behind such a bulldozer line is a thing of beauty.
“It's awesome being able to run by and you see this guy go flying out of the way,” Winovich said. “You go to yourself, ‘There's the hole.' They pave the way.”
The front five average just over 6-foot-1, 260 pounds, and draws comparisons to the Jaguars' line that featured Lucas Nix, Pat Eger and Rob McCall in 2007.
With such a lineage of linemen, the bar always is high.
“I know Cherp expects us to dominate the line no matter what,” Nagy said. “Our expectation for the line is we're going to run the ball any way we can.”
The line's combination of size, skill, experience and preparation have made TJ's running game one of the WPIAL's best, which means the second-seeded Jaguars are one of the favorites to take home the WPIAL Class AAA title.
But for Cherpak's team, it's business as usual.
“No, not really,” Cherpak said of any game-plan adjustments he and his staff have made for the playoffs.
“For the most part up front, we're letting them come off the ball, be physical and pound the ball,” he said.
PLAYOFF NOTES: Thomas Jefferson (10-0) will meet Highlands (7-3) in the WPIAL quarterfinal round at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Chartiers Valley High School.
Highlands defeated New Castle, 24-19, in a first-round matchup.
Justin Criado is a freelance writer.
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