Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2012, 9:23 pm

Mercer County's crew up front keeps Eagles' ``Cadillac'' gleaming and scratch-free

Comment on this story

By Terry Duckett, tduckett@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Mercer County fullback Zach Nelson plows into the end zone behind his talented offensive line during this past Saturday's 26-7 Class 2A semifinal win over Clifton Central.
ALEDO -- Mercer County football coach Nat Zunkel likens his standout senior quarterback Tanner Matlick to one of the most prized of luxury automobiles.

"One of the things I said after Week 1 is that we have a Cadillac at quarterback,'' said Zunkel, "and you don't drive a Cadillac through the back of the garage.''

However, the Golden Eagles have the crew to keep their Caddy gleaming and scratch-free as they make their final drive of the 2012 season -- down I-74 to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana and the IHSA Class 2A state football finals at Memorial Stadium. There, the Golden Eagles take on Belleville Althoff (10-3) at 1 p.m.

The efforts of the Eagles' offensive line is something Zunkel is quick to cite as the most improved element for a 13-0 Mercer County team that will be playing in its first state championship game since Aledo and Westmer consolidated just over four years ago.

"They're easily the most improved group that we have,'' said the Eagles' fourth-year coach. "We've only given up 10 sacks, and for as much as we throw, that has to be a record low.''

The starting unit of junior center Buddy Shaw, sophomore right guard Mason Weeks, junior right tackle Zeke Snyder, seniors Matt Zimmerman and Brandon Schroeder at left tackle and left guard, respectively, and senior ends Devin Morford and Jon Ricke are the unsung heroes in Mercer County's drive to Champaign.

"You've got to appreciate the offensive line,'' said Matlick, who has benefited from his protection to complete 62 percent of his passes for 1,884 yards and 21 touchdowns with just three interceptions. "They do all the dirty work up front. They don't get much glory, but they're what makes our offense tick. They keep me safe and open the holes for our running backs.''

For their part, Mercer County's men in the trenches hold their signal-caller in equally high regard.

"We hold Tanner pretty high, and we want to keep him protected,'' said Zimmerman. "No dents or dings.''

Zimmerman equally agrees with his coach's assessment about the line being the most improved part of the team.

"We've improved very much,'' he said. "I think we've worked together as a unit more this season, and our communication has greatly improved. Brandon Schroeder is easily the most improved player; he's stepped up week in and week out. He's next to me on the line, so I've seen him progress from Week 1 to Week 14. He gets the job done.''

Schroeder knew that his progress would be a key in how far the Golden Eagles would go this fall after going from back-to-back second round playoff exits in 2009 and '10 to the 2A quarterfinals in '11.

"I knew I'd have to step up and improve my performance, so I could start and be where I'm at today,'' Schroeder stated. "I remember being a little kid, going down to Champaign to watch the high schoolers play in the state finals, and I've always dreamed of playing there. It's going to feel like I'm in wonderland (Friday), but I've still got to focus, do my job and play the best I can.''

And when Mercer County hits the Fighting Illini turf, the Golden Eagles' front-line crew will do their best to keep their "Cadillac'' in showroom condition one final time.

"He's our gem,'' said Schroeder. "We've got to do our job to protect Tanner and keep him safe.''