BEMIDJI -- If Paul Bunyan played football, he’d look a lot like Tom Naig.
Listed at 6-foot-5 and 335 pounds, Naig is the largest Lumberjack on the Bemidji High School football team. The senior center is part of a dominant offensive line that often stands head and shoulders -- in skill and stature -- above opposing defenses.
“You need a good O-line to be a good team,” Naig said. “Without one, you can’t run the ball, you can’t set up the pass game, the quarterback’s going to get sacked. Nothing works.”
Quite the opposite has happened for BHS this season. At 6-0, the Jacks are one of six undefeated teams remaining in Class 5A behind an offense that racks up 39.8 points per game, good for fourth in the state.
“Quite honestly, without an offensive line, you can have all the talent in the world and it’s not going to matter,” Bemidji head coach Troy Hendricks said. “So when you have guys who understand the scheme and the system and take pride in it, it’s a wonderful thing.”
With the spotlight always directed on the quarterback, the running back, the defense -- or, frankly, anybody else it can find first -- the offensive line operates in the shadows. But the difference they’ve made is as big as the holes they create in the trenches.
“They’re physical, and they can create big holes easily,” said junior wideout-turned-running back Noah Leffelman, who had three rushing touchdowns in Week 6. “If the O-line is not good, the running backs won’t get any yards at all because they’re going to have multiple people on them. They give running backs an opportunity.”
Such was the case during last week’s 66-0 walloping of Big Lake at Chet Anderson Stadium, Bemidji’s highest score and largest margin of victory since a 68-0 shutout over Roseau in 1971. BHS scored 10 touchdowns on the day, including seven on the ground.
And it started up front.
“We have a lot of chemistry on the line,” Naig said. “We communicate well, and we know what we’re doing every time. That’s a big key to playing offensive line: knowing what you’re doing. When you have five guys who are on the same page, it really works.”
Did some digging tonight, and it turns out last week's 66-0 victory for @BemidjiFB was the program's highest point total and its largest margin of victory in 48 years, a 68-0 win over Roseau in 1971. It was also tied for the school's 10th-largest shutout in program history: pic.twitter.com/gzbfoHR6Hd
Did some digging tonight, and it turns out last week's 66-0 victory for @BemidjiFB was the program's highest point total and its largest margin of victory in 48 years, a 68-0 win over Roseau in 1971. It was also tied for the school's 10th-largest shutout in program history: pic.twitter.com/gzbfoHR6Hd— Micah Friez (@micahfriez) October 8, 2019
Though it’s not a flashy position, Hendricks is happy with the character and the willingness his linemen show.
“They take pride in other people having success,” Hendricks said. “We talk about being selfless all the time, and I don’t know that there’s another position in sports like offensive line, where it’s a selfless position. You just have to give it up for your teammates. Those kids do a great job of it.”
That feeling, much like his size, comes naturally to Naig.
“Being 6-5 and 340 helps to be able to move kids around, get people from one spot to another spot so our running back can run right behind me,” he said. “It’s the best, seeing all the skill players score touchdowns and celebrate.”
A celebration this week may even mean a little more to the Lumberjacks. They’ll meet Sauk Rapids-Rice in a rematch of last season’s 38-37, rain-shortened loss. Bemidji had a first-and-10 on its own 47-yard line and 5 minutes, 16 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, but a two-hour lightning delay ultimately nixed the potential game-winning drive.
“We lost by one point,” Naig said. “That game is one I wish I could get back and play those last (few) minutes. Playing them this year, we want to take it to them and show them that we would’ve won that game.”
Though last season has come and gone, a new year has brought new opportunities for BHS. On the doorstep of the section’s No. 1 seed with two weeks to go -- and a shot to return to the state tournament -- it’s been a long time coming for the unit on the front line.
“They make their hay by committing themselves to football 12 months out of the year and taking pride in not being the glamorous position,” Hendricks said. “They’ve done a great job this year. They’re a quality offensive line, one of the best we’ve had.”
Running back revamp
Bemidji’s backfield has taken some blows lately, losing running backs Will Falldorf to a concussion and Nick Snell to a foot fracture. Both injuries came during the Week 5 win over St. Cloud Tech.
Hendricks said Monday that the team should know later in the week whether Falldorf could be cleared for the regular season finale against Moorhead on Wednesday, Oct. 16.
Hendricks also said that Snell had surgery and is likely to be sidelined “until maybe state semis, state finals, if we get that far.” The Class 5A semifinals are scheduled for Nov. 16, while the state championship will be played Nov. 30.
Meanwhile, Lumberjack fans can expect to see junior James Williams and Leffelman featured in the backfield on Friday.