If Lafayette football is known for anything other than Lawrence Taylor and rarely losing, it's the offensive line.
A big reason is head coach Andy Linn, who is in his sixth season at the helm for the Rams, has coached the group through 20 seasons of excellence unrivaled in the Bay Rivers District.
All the while the Rams' defensive line, while not suffering performance-wise, has toiled in comparative anonymity. This year, the defensive line is playing so well that when Linn was approached about the annual offensive line story, he said, "I think it's time people heard about this defensive line."
The folks Linn most wanted to know how good the D-line is — Rams' opponents such as Smithfield and Poquoson — got the message the hard way. With the defensive linemen leading the charge, the Rams (12-0) pulled away from Smithfield 21-13 by holding the Packers' vaunted running game to 58 yards, then rallied to beat Poquoson 28-16 by holding the Islanders to almost no yards the fourth quarter.
"The biggest reason for our success is that we're close, on and off the field," Rams defensive end Tyler Jump said. "Because of that, we trust each other to do our jobs."
Those jobs are not glamorous in the Lafayette system. A sign the linemen are doing them well is that all four could play Division I football someday.
Linn said West Virginia began recruiting junior defensive end Armonii Burden (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) before the season. Tackle Dion Bartlett (6-4, 280) has several D-I scholarship offers from state Football Championship Subdivision schools, while Jump (6-1, 240) will inquire about walking on at Virginia Military Institute, where he will throw the discus on scholarship.
At the moment, Elijah Washington is without Division I offers. At 6-3, 275 pounds and improving daily in his sophomore season, that's more a matter of age than size or talent.
"They still get some sacks, but I'll be the first to tell you theirs is not a fun job," Linn said. "We don't use them as much to get to the quarterback. We give those guys a certain job each week, which is to protect the linebackers and make those lines for the blitzes that Coach (John) Byron has come up with.
"They're why (middle linebacker) Liam Walters (Conference 18 and Bay Rivers District Defensive Player of the Year) has 100 tackles and why we're forcing quarterbacks to throw it up."
The Rams advanced to this week's 4A state quarterfinals by limiting Grafton to 5-of-16 passing for 51 yards, while intercepting two passes in a 27-21 victory in the 4A East Region second round. The Rams host Eastern View (12-0) at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Wanner Stadium.
If the Rams' linemen have not risen to local stardom, they don't lack for respect in their own locker room.
"I like that they're hard-nosed, amped-up and ready to go every single play," linebacker Tristan Packer said. "Tyler Jump will tough it out no matter what, like he did when he kept going, going, going against Grafton through his knee injury.
"Dion Bartlett just makes plays and will go and smack somebody out of nowhere. Everybody gets hyped when he does that.
"Elijah is young and learning, but if he makes sure to stay low he'll be great player when he gets older. Armonii is a big boy. That dude is strong."
Burden is among the most vocal of the group, barking or yelling "right here, man" when Packer asks, "Where my dogs at?" Linn says Bartlett is the biggest trash talker of the group but does it so good naturedly that he doesn't get himself in trouble with opponents or officials.
"He probably has the most fun of anyone on the line," Linn said of Bartlett. "For Dion, as big as he is, he's got a good motor. He gets off of the ball and pursues down the line really, really well.
"Elijah gets off of the ball, but is young and not as active yet as Dion. He is a good hole-plugger and we'll get him moving more as he gains experience.
"Armonii is strong and the best athlete of the bunch. He's done an incredible job of keeping tight ends off of our linebackers all season.
"Tyler plays with a chip on his shoulder. He's the guy you usually see get inside the tackle and flush out the quarterback.
"They've all played lights out this season."
O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.