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Nixa O-linemen 'definitely in the conversation' as the best position group in the COC


John Perry’s hire at Nixa four years ago didn’t quite match up with Sean Sample’s spectacular ‘King of Nixa’ senior season in 2019.

But the timing of Perry’s arrival for the 2020 season was still very good, what with the Eagles boasting elite athletes the likes of seniors Steven Ward, Riley Childs and Smith Wheeler, along with rising underclassmen Ramone Green, Connor Knatcal, Rylan Michel, Jayden Antonelli and Spencer Ward.

But Perry couldn’t help but still wonder if he made the right choice moving from Mississippi to Nixa upon getting his first look at the Eagles’ offensive linemen he inherited.

“First practice, I went home to my wife and said to her, 'I think we might have made a mistake,' because it was the worst offensive line (workout) I had seen,” Perry said. 

Sophomore tackle Jackson Cantwell was a seventh-grader during Perry’s first season here. He, too, recalls seeing the Eagles’ undersized O-linemen get pushed around on Friday nights.

“Watching games from the stands a couple years ago, we got out-massed a lot,” Cantwell said.

Perry routinely had to resort to gimmick plays on a weekly basis to keep drives alive.

“We’ve come a long way since then, no doubt about it,” Perry said. “We’re 30-40 or 50 pounds a man bigger now and this is the one place in the world in which big matters.”

“Mass moves mass,” Cantwell said. “It's great to have that on your side versus the other side.”

“Our overall size gives us a huge advantage," senior tackle TJ Eckert said. “We’re just bigger than (the opposition). We're also explosive and strong.” 

Nixa’s O-linemen no longer look up to their counterparts from Webb City, Carthage and Joplin. At an average of 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds, the Eagles’ O-line is the biggest and baddest in the COC.

Nixa (5-0) is averaging 281.4 yards rushing and 34 points a game.

Perry and offensive coordinator Dustin Baldwin can simply call off-tackle repeatedly and rest assured, the Eagles will move the chains.

Biased or not, a claim can be made that Nixa’s O-line is the best position group in the COC (it's actually not even close sports fans). The running backs room at Nixa, the wide receivers room at Neosho, the linebackers room at Webb City, the linebackers room at Branson and whatever room Joplin running back Quin Renro is in are also at or near the top of the league’s best position groups. 

“They’re definitely in the conversation,” Perry said of his O-linemen and their ranking in the COC. “It's a talented group. We knew we would have a chance to be really good up front. Their work ethic in the off-season and pre-season was great. What I enjoy the most is how hard they play and how they come to work each and every day to try to get themselves better.”

The O-linemen themselves have been mightily impressed with the work they have put in.

“Ever since early February, I knew this group would be good,” Oakly White said. “We’re so strong and big. Everybody we go against, they don't have (our) size and they're not as physical as us. We put in the work in the weight room and it's paying off.”

“Since January and February, we've come in before school putting in time on footwork (drills) and in the spring before and after school we were lifting weights,” Eckert said. “Our biggest plus is how well we work together and how much time we put in together.”

Nixa’s O-line has been so dominant that the Eagles have been credited with 120 pancake blocks, or an average of 24 night. They are led by Cantwell’s 39 pancakes, Jacob Lile’s 29, Ethan Cho’s 22 and Eckert’s 20.

Interestingly, these aren’t your typical strong and silent types. Cantwell’s ACT score of 33 has been well documented. His cohorts are also well-spoken and do well in the classroom. 

“A lot of these guys are crazy smart,” Eckert said. “It’s great working with them. We coordinate very well. We've learned how each other thinks, so we operate well as a unit.”

“We’re pretty good at communicating and executing against all (opposing defenses) throw at us,” Lile said. “We point out 'backers and different (defensive) fronts that they throw at us.”

“We've got a lot of intelligence here,” Cantwell said. “One way that's paid off is our communication on the field. We talk though a lot of stuff and we can adjust to pretty much anything.”

Cantwell, of course, is already one of the nation’s top prep prospects and will be suiting up for a Power Five team in a few years and perhaps eventually an NFL franchise. But he’s not looking that far into his future. He appreciates the linemen alongside him now and is anxious to see the further impact they can make.

“This is the best group I've been a part of so far,” Cantwell said. “We’ve got a lot of talent. I’m glad I can be a part of it. It's been a great ride to be on and I think we can push very far in the playoffs with this group. (The team is) going to rely on us to be able to run the ball and I think we can make that happen. I'm excited to see where it all ends up.”