Central junior offensive lineman Trevor Darling is hard to miss — he’s easily the biggest player on Rockets’ roster this season.
Yet, when the game begins, few pay the 6-5, 310-pound University of Miami oral commitment much attention.
Everyone is focused on junior running backs Dalvin Cook and Joseph Yearby, waiting to let out “oohs,” “aahs,” and “wows” as they make long run after long run.
But it’s Darling and the rest of Central’s young offensive line who are paving the way for Yearby and Cook and will be relied upon to continue doing so when the Rockets face long-time rival Northwestern on Friday at Sun Life Stadium in a big District 16-6A showdown.
Central coach Telly Lockette, a former running back, knows the importance of a good offensive line and is pleased with what his line has been able to accomplish, especially considering its youth.
“When you’ve got all juniors across the line, all you can do is smile,” Lockette said Thursday after his team’s 49-32 win over district foe Carol City. “We’re jelling up front right now. They’re beginning to really come together and do a good job of setting the tone for us. For all those guys to be 15 and 16 years old — they’re going to be pretty good when they become seniors.”
They’re pretty good now.
Darling and his linemates have opened up — at times — massive running lanes. Through six games, Central (4-2, 2-0) has amassed 1,385 total rushing yards and 18 of its 23 touchdowns this season have come on the ground. Both Cook and Yearby are on pace to eclipse the 1,000-yard and 10-rushing-touchdown marks.
After the win over the Chiefs, Cook said he and Yearby treat the offensive line to lunch following games in which they get more than 100 yards.
“We have to feed the line,” Cook said. “They do a good job every week, so we have to take care of them and keep them happy. They make everything go.”
Central was able to rush for 360 yards on Carol City’s much-improved defense — with a number of the most productive runs coming off the right side, which Darling anchors at right tackle.
Baby-faced but man-sized is a strong way to describe the junior.
“I’m happy when the coaches call a play to the right side because it means they have faith in me to do my job,” Darling said. “Once Joe or Dalvin get past me, the only thing I’m thinking is, ‘Get to the second level and crush somebody else.’ That’s the most fun.”
The games are fun because the Rockets practices are so tough — especially for the offensive line.
Central offensive line coach Michael Ross, an All-Dade and All-State offensive lineman at Northwestern in 1991, puts his line through a rigorous regimen of weightlifting, agility exercises, hand battling, sled pushing and tire flipping.
Ross, who is referred to as “Coach Chop,” said that he knew Darling — or “Big Smooth,” as he calls him — would be something special right away.
“Big Smooth played for me as a freshman [in 2010],” Ross said. “I threw him into the fire early to see how he would respond to battling with some of the older defensive players we had then — Miles Pace (UCF) and Dwight Jackson (Cincinnati). He’s responded well and has become the leader of this offensive line.
“After last year’s state game, I told him in the locker room, ‘I’m handing the reins over to you,’ ” Ross added. “He’s just a great kid. If I had a daughter, I’d let him be around her. That’s how highly I think of him.”
Central’s offensive line will have its work cut out for it against Northwestern (6-1, 1-1), though.
The Bulls defense has only yielded a total of 467 rushing yards (on just more than 2 yards per carry) through seven games this season. And Northwestern has extra incentive to perform well Friday, as its chance at earning one of the coveted district 16-6A playoff spots will be at stake.
“It’s going to come down to wills,” Lockette said. “Because the rivalry is so intense, we just have to show our mental toughness and impose our will.”