Members of the Snohomish football team’s offensive line practice a play Thursday at Veterans Memorial Stadium (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Members of the Snohomish football team’s offensive line practice a play Thursday at Veterans Memorial Stadium (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Tight-knit offensive line critical component for Panthers’ success

Snohomish’s powerful offensive line includes two brothers playing together for the first time.

SNOHOMISH — Derek and Drew Stultz have been playing football since their pee-wee days, but with Derek being the older brother by two years, never before have they played together on the same team.

Until now, that is.

The Stultz brothers are taking the field together on Friday nights, living out a dream as starters on the Snohomish High School football team’s powerful offensive line.

Derek, a 6-foot-2, 300-pound senior, is the Panthers’ starting center. Lining up two players over is Drew, the team’s 6-foot-2, 250-pound sophomore left tackle.

“It’s pretty unique,” Derek said. “It’s something that our parents have always talked about being a possibility. … It was one of my goals senior year — me and him to play on the line together. It’s pretty cool.”

The Stultz brothers team with seniors Carter Cole, Joel Bowlin and Cole Kelsey to form a physical offensive line that paves the way for Snohomish’s bruising rushing attack.

The Panthers have rushed for 1,031 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, averaging 6.1 yards per carry and 258 yards per game for an offense that’s scoring more than 35 points per contest. Speedy 5-foot-7 senior running back Tyler Massena leads Snohomish’s backfield with 448 yards and eight touchdowns, churning out a whopping average of 10.2 yards per run.

“I’m so very thankful that I have those guys in front of me blocking,” said Massena, who’s been running behind several of the linemen since youth football. “… I’m a small, shifty kind of guy, so I can hide pretty nicely behind those big bodies. I just find the hole and run.”

Panthers head coach Joey Hammer said the offensive line’s physicality helps set the tone for the entire team.

“Your offensive line (and) defensive line, they’re the tone-setters for everything,” he said. “When you’ve got that driving the ship, it’s pretty special.”

Snohomish offensive line coach Shane Zey and the Panthers’ linemen also praised Massena and junior running back Tyler Larson for their ability to erase any blocking mistakes.

“(Massena is) quick as a hiccup,” Zey said. “You might miss your block, and he still runs by (the defense). Tyler Larson is a hard runner (who) can make a lot of things up, too, with his power.”

In recent years, Snohomish (2-2 overall, 2-0 Wesco 3A South) had lots of success on the ground with running back Keegan Stich. After Stich graduated this past spring and Zey took over as the team’s new offensive line coach, the Panthers’ rushing attack has taken on a new look.

In an effort to take advantage of his offensive line’s size and physicality, Zey replaced the team’s zone-blocking system of years past with a gap-blocking scheme.

“We wanted to come off the ball and impose our will on people, because I think our guys are big enough and strong enough to do that,” said Zey, a former University of Idaho offensive lineman who spent the past four seasons on Monroe’s coaching staff.

“Then it was just a matter of changing (the players’) mindset. It was slow going at first. They hadn’t really ever done (gap blocking) a lot, but they’re picking up and they’re pretty seasoned at it right now. For the most part, we’re playing really well.”

The most highly regarded player on Snohomish’s offensive line is the 6-foot-3, 275-pound Cole, who was a first-team All-Wesco 3A South selection each of the past two seasons.

“As far as I’m concerned, (Cole) is the best lineman in the league and one of the best in the state,” Zey said. “I’ll put him up against anyone. … Often you see him driving people down the field and burying them (to) the ground.”

Cole didn’t start playing football until ninth grade. He began that season on the freshman and junior varsity teams, but ultimately worked his way into the varsity rotation and was a two-way varsity starter by the end of his first year of competitive football.

“That was pretty crazy,” Cole said of his rapid ascension.

Cole played center last year, but Zey said he moved him to right guard this season because he wanted his athleticism and finishing ability at that position. To fill the void at center, third-year starter Derek moved from tackle to what Zey said is a more natural fit on the interior.

“He’s a big, imposing guy,” Zey said. “In a phone booth, he’ll win a lot of those fights just because he’s big and strong.”

Zey described Bowlin as smart and “real athletic” at left guard, and Kelsey as an “unsung hero” and “sneaky tactician” at right tackle.

Joining the four seniors and manning the left-tackle spot is Drew, who has excelled after winning the position battle just a week prior to the season opener.

“The kid’s got a competitive streak in him,” Zey said. “He’s not afraid of a challenge and won’t back down. … He comes off and fights, and he’s playing as good as anyone.”

“We push Drew to be the best that he can be,” Kelsey added. “We want him to be a leader when we’re gone.”

Drew said he’s received lots of advice from his older brother. The two often talk football at home and study plays together.

“It’s just kind of cool around home being able to connect with him like that, (now that) we’re finally playing together,” Derek said.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Hammer said of the Stultz brothers sharing the field. “I have four brothers, and if I would have ever gotten an opportunity to play a down next to them, man, that would’ve been a dream come true.

“It’s pretty special to see two brothers out there going to battle on a Friday night and having each other’s backs and encouraging one another.”

While the five starting linemen aren’t all brothers in a literal sense, they described one another as close friends who have a tight-knit bond.

“These guys are my brothers,” Cole said. “We’ve had the brotherhood forever, and we’ve always been close. These guys are my best friends, so it’s cool being able to play by their side.”

“The camaraderie amongst all the (linemen) — it’s been pretty special to see how much each and every one of them are willing to push each other and encourage (each other) to grow,” Hammer said.

“I think that’s one of their biggest gifts — to genuinely know that they’ve got each other’s backs and … just really drive the best out of one another.”

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