Chris Pinaire’s mind is spinning as he looks down at his offensive line depth chart.
At the same time, you won’t find the position coach complaining as there is arguably a bigger challenge in deciding who won’t play versus who will.
“We were mentioning at our [July] camp that these current sophomores are the best class of linemen I’ve coached,” he said. “If we just rolled out a sophomore offensive line, they might be better than some of our previous varsity lines … it’s pretty neat having those young kids there.”
The position group returns four players with starting experience, including tackle Alex Conn (6-6, 280), guards Jaxson Davis (6-1, 280) and Jonas Vickers (6-1, 285), and center Kevin Washington (5-11, 315). A luxury for the group is the availability of Philip Icenhour (6-4, 280), who will be looking to wrap up his career healthy after two injury-riddled seasons.
Conn’s name shot up recruiting boards after his first year as a starter. Derby coaches said college recruiters caught wind earlier this year of a lineman who they believe is just scratching the surface of his skill level.
The senior committed to Nebraska on June 24, choosing the program over offers from Arizona, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, SMU and TCU.
Conn is ranked as the No. 59 offensive tackle in the country by 247 Sports. That site and Rivals both list him as a top 10 player in the state of Kansas.
It was never a matter of if but when for the skilled tackle. Stature was a given, but slowly he has evolved into one of the state’s best.
“When I first came into the program, I’ll tell you I was very intimidated and I didn’t think I’d see the field,” he said. “I was a bit down on myself, but with leaders like [graduates] Riley Cain, Peerlus Walker, Evan Clark, Jordan Renard and Gage Jones, they helped me become who I am. They told me, ‘hey, it’s not just going to happen overnight. It’s going to take some time for you to get stronger, faster or know the plays.’”
That maturation is what has made the process as fun as anything for his head coach.
“Alex has been a behind-the-scenes guy and worked hard,” Clark said. “[This summer], he led our breaks when we’d finish workouts. He’s stepped into a leadership role and it’s really cool to see these seniors step out and become leaders.”
The Cornhusker commit will be joined by Washington, Davis and Icenhour as seniors along the offensive front.
Both Pinaire and Clark praised Washington for his command of the line of scrimmage.
“I can’t recall a time that Kevin got beat physically,” Pinaire said. “He doesn’t make mental mistakes either … he has to call out the fronts and he’s an incredible natural leader.”
An injury opened Washington’s door to the starting job at center and his head coach said he took full advantage.
“He was an all-state player and he’s probably one of the best offensive linemen I’ve ever coached,” Clark said. “He’s not as tall as some of his teammates, but for a high school football player on the offensive line, he’s about as good as we’ve had here.”
Along with Conn, Icenhour joins his senior teammate as a tandem that Pinaire said passes the eye test.
“Those are two guys that definitely
look good getting off the bus,” the
position coach said, chuckling.
The biggest challenge for Icenhour will be health, who has only been able to play varsity games as a sophomore. With more repetition, coaches said his ceiling remains high.
“It was very disappointing when he went down with knee issues the last few years,” Pinaire said. “He’s a little rusty right now … hopefully he can stay healthy this year because he’s got that size like Alex. If he can stay with us this year, he’d get a shot a pretty decent scholarship.”
It’s easy for Clark and Pinaire to dive into their younger depth – and understandably so. In last year’s playoff win against Lawrence, Vickers became the first freshman to start for Derby in Clark’s 13 years at the helm. The Derby coaches said Dylan Conn, who is Alex’s younger brother, will be a factor alongside Alex Key and Jackson Walls.
“Those sophomores are really pushing the seniors, so we’ll see what happens,” Pinaire said. “The offensive line we start the season with might not be the one we end with. That’s good on all levels because it forces these guys to raise their game.”