High School Sports

Gutsy guards: Tumwater linemen Clark and Keller are big hits

TUMWATER - In a game where size rules, where 300-pound linemen are now the prototype for blue-chip high school recruits, James Clark and Chantz Keller are a pair of undersized linemen with a knack for nasty.

Both are size-deprived. Clark is 5-foot-9, 175 pounds. Keller is 5-11 and 190.

Yet these two senior Tumwater guards are returning all-league linemen who are two big reasons why Tumwater went 11-2 last season and are again considered playoff contenders.

Little is big with Clark and Keller on the field.

"In the Wing-T, your guards need to be like fullbacks," Tumwater coach Sid Otton said. "Strong, agile and compact. And they need a mean streak in them."

Clark and Keller, who both run 40 yards in 4.8 seconds, use speed, strength and an affinity for "big hits" as an equalizer when they're blocking opposing linemen with a 100-pound weight advantage.

Being one of the smallest linemen on the field every game doesn't dissuade Clark and Keller from contact.

"Football is a collision sport," Clark said. "You don't want to hurt anyone, but contact is part of the game."

They've both seen the same look of surprise from the linemen lining up across from them.

"You can see it in their face," Keller said. "They've got this big smile. They think they're going to come right through us."

Opponents' perspectives change as the game progresses. With the misdirection of Otton's Wing-T and with the angle blocks the offense provides, the game evolves into more a battle of wit than strength.

"I'm pretty good with leverage," Clark said. "It's a matter of getting lower than the other guy."

Being smaller is an advantage when the game is getting lower.

"The bigger guys are always higher. They're trying to see where the play is going," Clark said. "It's kind of good when you're going against a 300 pounder. They're slower and they get tired."

With Tumwater's quick-hitting running game where backs hit the holes fast, it's not like the blocks need to be sustained for long counts.

Being one of the smallest linemen on the field every game doesn't dissuade Clark and Keller from contact.

"They both have the same hit factor in them," Otton said. "They aren't afraid to hit."

Clark and Keller, who have started at guard since their sophomore years, have Tumwater football in their blood. They're both second-generation T-Birds. Clark's uncle, Tony McNamara, played guard for Otton in the 1980s. Keller' dad, Terrel Keller, played cornerback for Otton in the early 1980s.

Being an undersized lineman runs in the Keller family. His brother, Justin, was an undersized guard/linebacker for Otton, graduating in 2001.

"I tell people what position I play in football and they laugh," said Keller, who will also likely start on defense with Clark. "But I seem to be doing all right."

Because Clark was big for his age in grade school, he was switched from running back to guard in his first year of football as a sixth grader six years ago.

"I stopped getting bigger," Clark said.

But Clark didn't stop playing the line. He was too good.

It was Keller who first convinced Clark to turn out for football. They were both in sixth grade when they turned out for the Pepsi Stars in the Thurston County Youth Football League.

"We all thought James was a little crazy," Keller said with a laugh. "He was pretty big and strong. So, I asked him to play on the team."

They've been the "bash brothers" every year since. Clark and Keller played on the line together that team six years ago, with each getting an occasional chance at running the football on short-yardage situations.

"Every lineman dreams of running the football," Clark said. "But I've always like playing the line. You get some good shots on people."

Clark and Keller both know this is their last year of football. College recruits aren't exactly knocking down their doors.

"I don't look the part," Clark said.

Unless they're wearing T-Bird green and pulling on a pitch sweep. Because this is their final hurrah, Clark, Keller and the other seniors on the team have been staying after practice to run more sprints.

"We know this is our last shot," Keller said. "We're going to give it everything we've got."

That's what they've always done.

Gail Wood can be reached at gwood@theolympian.com or 360-754-5443.