Montini quarterback John Rhode (17) returned to the lineup in Week 6 from a broken thumb.
Mark Black | Staff Photographer
John Rhode kept a safe distance from the carnage right in front of him.
The Montini quarterback recently joined his offensive line for dinner at a Downers Grove steak house. He kept his hands to himself lest he lose a finger or two.
"I don't eat much compared to them, but I'm there for support and to see them put the fork in their mouth," Rhode said.
Since Rhode returned from a broken thumb in Week 6, the Broncos' meat and potatoes its spread passing game has clicked with marvelous precision.
Supporting Rhode has been an offensive line that's remained basically intact the entire season, leading into Saturday's Class 5A championship game against Joliet Catholic at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
From left to right tackle David Sarkan, guard Tate Briggs, center Brian Piper, guard Brady Powers and tackle Jim Lowery have provided Rhode the protection that's allowed him to pass for 2,447 yards and 35 touchdowns.
"I'm very secure," Rhode said.
"I feel like we've really gotten used to each other, with great chemistry," Rhode said. "I feel like we've got that whole unit, even (running back) Dimitri Taylor. He's like a fullback, he picks up the extra man when I roll out. He's really helped me this year."
The line's chemistry is forged in off-season training and practices, hopefully to solidify between the lines. They're a unit but also individuals.
The 6-foot-4, 280-pound Lowery, aka The Leprechaun due to his Irish ancestry. Broncos coach Chris Andriano assigned him another name.
"Baby Face," the coach said. "He still doesn't shave."
At 190 pounds the lightest of the five, Powers is the grinder of the group.
"We call him The Nosebleeder," Rhode said. "He always has a piece of tissue stuffed in his nose."
"You could punch him in the mouth and he would come right back," Andriano said. "He's not intimidated by anyone or anything."
There's the newcomers on the left side juniors Sarkan and Briggs. The same size as Lowery, Briggs is the strong, silent type.
"I've never really seen him smile," Rhode said. "He doesn't show pain or emotion at all, but he's a great offensive lineman. I wouldn't want to see that guy mad."
Piper is the third of three brothers to have played line at Montini. Ben Piper was a reserve guard, then came along Rob, who started at guard on Montini's 2009 title team and at center for the 2010 champions.
Piper, the quarterback of the offensive line, points out blitzing linebackers, indicates if there's a problem on blocking schemes before the play is called. He doesn't get taken advantage of when the ball is snapped.
"Some of the hits he makes," Rhode said, "I wouldn't want to be on that end of it, that's for sure."
Under the direction of offensive line coaches Gary Raike and Mark Placey, these disparate personalities have united to form a wall.
"I think we had a really good summer and worked really hard," Lowery said. "Then each week we've been able to grow and develop as a unit, and just kept getting better and better.
"It's trusting each other and being able to understand the concepts more and more. Having John back there at quarterback is awesome. I know we trust him and he trusts us. It's a great combination."
Saturday comes the supreme test of this trust. Against an unbeaten Sacred Heart-Griffin team that had averaged 45 points, Joliet Catholic won the semifinal 49-7.
Joliet Catholic's defensive front four is not huge, Rhode said, but plenty strong and quick off the snap. A linebacker will blitz occasionally, but with Taylor helping out Montini has allowed only 2 sacks in the playoffs and none in the last two games. Blitzing takes a defender out of pass coverage, giving Broncos receivers more room to operate and Rhode more read options.
"Communication is going to be the key," Lowery said. "I think establishing the running game will be huge, and just controlling the line of scrimmage and making sure John has time to throw the ball."
Going in only one thing is assured this quintet will give it their all.
"They're tough kids, they're responsible kids," Andriano said.
"What you're looking for in offensive linemen are guys that don't need to be glorified," he said. "They're hard workers. They take pride in what they do. They're salt-of-the-earth guys. No job is too big or too small. It just has to be done right."