By Paul Hines
MT. VERNON — Graham Henken knows what it's like to be a lineman.
He played for several years on the line during his junior football days. He brings the same physical toughness and style to his fullback position for the Mt. Vernon football team.
“It is nice to have a running back who's not afraid to go up and hit somebody or to get that extra yard by running through the tackler,” offensive lineman Eli Phillips said. “It really helps.”
Henken is one of several in a group of running backs who bring a variety of styles to this season's Rams rushing attack. The group along with the offensive line have dominated opponents over the last two weeks. Against Triad, just one Mt. Vernon runner was caught behind the line of scrimmage. It came late in the contest with the Rams up several scores.
“That's huge and in the past two years we have not been good at that,” Mt. Vernon coach Jared Shaner said. “Our blocking on the perimeter has not been as good. And I think there's a whole number of reasons. I think kids are more comfortable with what we're doing. I think our kids have worked hard in the weight room. They're a little more physical.”
The Rams have racked up more than 650 yards on the ground during wins against Mascoutah and Triad. The victories have led to more wins this season than the past two seasons combined.
The offensive line behind a trio of seniors – Tyler Bradley, Eli Phillips and Josh Bourland – along with two juniors – Alex Hopkins and London Marler – have worked to open holes for a deep group of runners.
“I would say right now our offensive line is doing a really good job of blocking, running some pretty good traps, and we're just getting great blocks on that,” Henken said. “It's giving me a great hole to run through.”
The Rams dominated time of possession in Friday's win over Triad, holding the ball for about 33 minutes on eight drives. Seven of the drives ended with touchdowns. Five primary runners helped the Rams control the game and finish with 462 yards. Demontez Miller-Gray led the group with 143 yards. Henken chipped in 119.
Against Mascoutah, it was Miller-Gray who led the attack with 91 yards. Henken added 43 yards. The Rams piled up 57 rushes for 197 yards.
Shaner, who is also the Rams offensive coordinator, keeps notes on his playing call sheet each Friday night. They include information about his running backs.
“They each have strengths and things that they're not as good at,” the coach said. “And each kid has a favorite play that they run too. So I try to keep that in mind when I'm calling plays.”
Both Henken and sophomore Drew Hester bring a physical style of running to the offense.
Demontez Miller-Gray and C.J. Lloyd have shown an ability to use their quickness to get outside. Many times Miller-Gray is able to stay on his feet when most other runners would be tackled.
“He's got kind of a combination of a little bit of power, some agility, some speed,” Shaner said.
“Joking after every game, I ask if Demontez got tackled. Because very rarely does he end up on the ground.”
Quarterback Dylan Reeves has played a key role in the running attack as well. The Rams primarily use him on quick hitting runs up the middle.
“He's done a pretty good job,” Shaner said. “At times, I get on him that I want him to run a little bit harder, get his pads down.”
Shaner said even the wide receivers play a big role in the Rams run game. Doug Gardner and Jacobee Marshall started in the receiver positions last week and didn't see many balls thrown their way. But the coach added he likes how they blocked aggressively all game long.
“That just says a lot about those two guys that they're willing to go out there and block their butts off for their teammates,” Shaner said.
The Rams run game gets another test Friday at Belleville Althoff.