The 60-point performances, the gaudy numbers, and Nolan Swofford’s record-breaking performances led to the Winlock football team’s return to the state stage in just its second season playing 8-man football.
But this time around, the focus for the Cardinals isn’t on the backfield. It’s on the group in front of the rushers.
“What’s nice is that I have 18 here today, and nine of them are linemen,” head coach Ernie Samples said, as the Cardinals broke their first day of fall camp on Wednesday. “And the majority of the guys on the line are returners and have experience.”
With only a center and two guards in the formation — and heapings of points generally going up on the scoreboard — the offensive line can be overshadowed even more than it is in the 11-man game. But for the Cardinals, that’s where their experience lies.
It starts with the longtime pairing of Xavier Barragan and Kyle Akin, who earned second-team all-league and honorable mention honors last season, respectively.
“We’ve been on the line together since middle school, so we know each other,” Akin said. “We’re able to read each other pretty good.”
From there, Winlock adds a big body in Austin Allen, suiting up for the Cardinals after a couple years on the sideline.
Allen’s addition has given Samples and the coaching staff a downright embarrassment of riches up front. With that in mind, Jay Crow — who earned a first-team all-league spot in 2021 — is set to make the sort of change you only see in the 8-man game, moving to tailback to carry the ball himself.
“It’s definitely a little more fun for me personally,” Crow said. “I loved being on the line, it’s fun to put my hands on people. But making some plays might be cool this year too.”
Beyond Crow, that line will be tasked with opening holes for quarterback Payton Sickles, who comes back as the main leader with experience. The senior saw time under center for the Cardinals during the 2021 winter season, before moving out to the end while Neal Patching took over running the offense. Now, it’s back to Sickles, and this time he’ll have the line ahead of him but not Swofford or Patching to bounce off of.
“Everything starts with him,” Samples said. “It might be to the point where he gets more carries than the tailback does. That could be the case. And he had a pretty decent spring, so he might be throwing the ball a little bit.”