Success starts on the line for Gatlinburg-Pittman football team

Aug. 21, 2014 @ 10:23 AM

 It all starts up front for Gatlinburg-Pittman.

With bruising 6-foot-2, 240-pound tailback Michael Muszik healthy again and an offensive line packed with veterans, the Highlanders will be one train that will be tough to slow down.

“With (the line) and Muszik, they’re going to have to set the tempo and be the leaders,” said head coach Benny Hammonds. “We know we can’t count on them every down because people are going to load the box and bring everybody at Muszik, but at the same time with their experience and as many games as they’ve got combined starting under their belt — I ought to figure that up — they should dominate.”

That ground game will be especially important after Highlanders lost playmakers like veteran quarterback Tanner Cox and speedy wide receiver Jeremy Odom to graduation. Hammonds said this won’t be an offense that can score quickly but one that can hold the ball and grind teams down. 

“We have all five linemen returning, so yeah, I’m pumped up,” Muszik said. “They were great last year. Most of them were inexperienced last year. This year they’re experienced. I’m excited for (the season).”

Muszik was plagued by a nagging hamstring injury last year but after a strong spring appears as healthy as ever. G-P will count on him to replicate his breakout season from two years ago. He’ll be complemented by the smaller (5-5, 140) but speedy Steven Russell in the backfield.

The duo will be taking handoffs from sophomore Albert Werner, who Hammonds said has looked good in preparing for his first season at quarterback. The Highlanders will need Werner to make some plays to take the pressure off Muszik and the line at times, with Blake Ogle, Zayquan Gillespie and highly-praised tight end Christian Moore being likely targets.

They’ll all play behind a veteran line that includes Mack Taylor and Andrew Noland at tackles and Gabe Gotshall and David Gauthier at guards. Will McMahon anchors the line at center.

“I remember when I was a freshman, I was a little pudgy guy,” said senior lineman Andrew Noland. “I’m still big, a big guy, but I can move a lot faster now. We’ve all formed together just from playing with each other over the years. We’re going to be a really solid unit.”

G-P’s biggest defensive loss was East Tennessee State’s Spencer Brien at linebacker, a player Hammonds said was as steady and dependable as anyone on that side of the ball. Gotshall returns at that position and Hammonds said Garrett Pack, John Thomas, Chase Taylor, Barrett Swift, Carlos Sweeney, Ryan Garza and Chad Ayers should all add to depth at linebacker.

The bigger concern for Hammonds is a young and inexperienced secondary.

“The longer I coach, I think the secondary is as important as anything on your football team,” Hammonds said. “Everybody’s gone to these spread offenses and throws the football so much, you’ve got to be strong in your secondary. You’re still going to give up some touchdowns because the odds are against you not to but you’ve got to have a good, strong secondary.”

Austin Cline, who also could carry the ball some on offense, will be back in the secondary with Gillespie, Russell, Ogle and Tyreese Draper. 

“We have good people back there,” Ogle said. “We’re young back there and getting used to it. It’s like learning new stuff every day in the secondary. ... You just have to know your job and know what you’re doing to understand everything back there.”

If the defensive backfield can limit those big, dangerous plays it should allow the Highlanders’ strong fronts to do plenty of damage. 

“Our offensive line should be, and can be, it has the potential to be the strongest part of our team,” Hammonds said. “Most of those boys on that line have been two-year starters. They’ve been around a long time. They’re the leaders of the team and know how to operate.”