MONROE — Heading into this season, the Monroe football team’s high-powered rushing attack seemed due for at least a slight decrease in productivity.
The Bearcats faced the daunting task of replacing standout running back JJ Jerome, who was the second-leading rusher in Snohomish County last year with 2,050 yards and 27 touchdowns. He had averaged a first down for every rushing attempt, churning out an eye-popping 10.3 yards per carry.
It was difficult to envision Monroe replicating that type of rushing success this fall.
“He (was) probably one of the greatest athletes in school history,” Bearcats coach Michael Bumpus said.
Yet with the return of a massive all-senior offensive line and the emergence of breakout star running back Isaiah Lewis, Monroe hasn’t skipped a beat.
Running behind a dominant line that totals nearly 1,500 pounds, Lewis has rushed for 586 yards and nine touchdowns through three games. The 6-foot, 200-pound senior is averaging 195 yards per contest and 9.9 yards per carry.
And with the Bearcats’ ground attack humming along, eighth-ranked Monroe has rolled to a 3-0 start while averaging 47 points per game.
“You’ve got (nearly 1,500) pounds running at you, and then you’ve got a back who I’d say is probably the best running back in our league right now,” Bumpus said. “It’s lethal.”
Big, nasty and best friends
The first thing that stands out about Monroe’s offensive line is the sheer size.
The starting lineup of left tackle Carter Habich, left guard Josh Jerome, center Nathan Mead, right guard Peyton McMahon and right tackle Elijah Tofilau averages 295 pounds per lineman. Four of the five starters weigh 285 pounds or more, topped by the 6-foot-4, 360-pound Tofilau.
“They’re big kids, man,” Monroe offensive line coach Scott Darrow said. “They’re monsters.”
Yet the unit’s collective mass is just one of several key aspects that makes the Bearcats’ line such a dominant force.
“Size, mental (understanding), work ethic and just tenacity — this is by far the best line that I’ve ever had the privilege to coach,” said Bumpus, who spent a combined four seasons in assistant-coaching roles with Redmond and Snohomish before taking over at Monroe in 2015.
All five of the Bearcats’ starting linemen, as well as versatile backup Austin Steltz, are seniors and have been playing together since youth football. Five of those six began playing on offensive lines together at age 7 or 8, while McMahon joined the group in seventh grade.
Mead and Jerome, an Eastern Washington University commit as a defensive lineman, have started on the varsity offensive line since they were freshmen. Tofilau has started since he was a sophomore, and both Habich and McMahon are second-year starters.
That experience and continuity pays major dividends on the field, especially given that Monroe runs a zone-blocking scheme that requires more collaboration than man-to-man blocking.
“When a lineman has to bump or slide over, it’s kind of like they feel each other’s presence,” Bumpus said. “They just do things without even communicating sometimes.”
Off the field, the six linemen are an inseparable group of best friends.
“We hang out almost every single weekend,” Habich said. “In the summer, we (practically) live at Nathan’s house. We’re basically just like one big brotherhood.”
During the season, those get-togethers often include film-study sessions at Mead’s house. For instance, one night prior to last year’s first-round state-playoff game against Sumner, the linemen spent four hours studying film together.
That extra work is in addition to their daily film study prior to practices.
“We have a culture of watching film here — of really working,” Darrow said. “We’re big and fast, but we out-work other teams, I feel.
“If (the linemen) don’t get to watch film for some reason,” Darrow added, “they’re furious.”
Coaches describe the senior linemen as a “goofy” group off the field. But when the lights come on, Monroe’s line wreaks havoc on opposing defenses.
“It’s hard to coach and teach aggression,” Darrow said. “These kids are nasty. … You watch these guys on film and it’s impressive. They’ve got a mean streak to them. They’re goofballs, but on Friday they can turn it on.”
Lewis puts in work to be great
Heading into team camp this past summer at Eastern Washington University, it was a two-man battle to replace Jerome at running back.
Lewis, who played receiver last year, wasted no time winning the job.
“By the end of the first day, Lewis was our clear-cut starter,” Bumpus said last month.
“At Eastern, he totally showed off his dominance,” Tofilau added. “He was making cuts I haven’t seen before and running through tackles. It was just amazing to see.”
Lewis played running back throughout his youth and during the early portion of his high school career before bouncing around to several different positions.
He played defensive end as a sophomore and was a receiver and linebacker last year. He then returned to running back this season, and also is playing defensive back.
“He’s probably one of the most versatile players on our team, and that I’ve ever coached,” Bumpus said.
Lewis’ journey to breakout stardom in the backfield began with a dedicated offseason of dieting and training. By cutting about 10 pounds, he gained considerable speed and is now one of the fastest players on the team.
“This didn’t just happen for him,” Bumpus said. “He was a guy who was in the weight room 100 percent of the time, doing extra work. He really transformed his (mentality) and his body to prepare him for this moment.”
After seizing the starting running-back role over the summer, Lewis opened the season with 283 yards rushing and four touchdowns in an exceptional performance against Meadowdale.
He followed that with 103 yards and two touchdowns against Sedro-Woolley, and then 200 yards and three scores last week against Kamiak.
“After JJ graduated, I wasn’t expecting to be blessed with an athlete like Lewis,” Bumpus said, adding, “He’s exceeded expectations.”
The two running backs are different in that Jerome was more of a bruising back, while Lewis excels with superb vision, speed and agility.
“When he sees a hole, he’s going to hit it hard,” Mead said. “And then he’s got that speed and just gets away from guys.”
Lewis is quick to deflect the credit to his line.
“If you watch the film, most of it is easy-breezy,” he said. “They’re all big dudes. It makes being a running back a whole lot easier, for sure.”
But Tofilau said it works both ways.
“He really sets up our blocks very well, so all we have to do is get our hands under a dude and just finish him,” Tofilau said. “We can trust Isaiah that he’ll make a cut off our block, and he definitely can shift a guy one-on-one.”
With his spectacular start to the season, Lewis is certainly no longer under the radar. He hopes the same will soon be true for his team, as the Bearcats take aim at the Wesco 4A crown and a second consecutive trip to the state playoffs.
“I just wanted to prove myself this season and show everybody who I was and what I could do,” Lewis said. “And I think that’s the same for everybody on my team.
“We’re still under a lot of people’s radars,” he added, “and (we) just want to prove everybody wrong.”