Despite lack of size, Franklin High football powered by its offensive line this season

·5 min read

FRANKLIN — They may not be the biggest.

They may not be the most intimidating.

But this fall, the offensive line of the Franklin High football team came up huge.

“They’re just this group out of nowhere,” Franklin head coach Eian Bain said. “Nobody five years ago would’ve said they’d be the starting line on a top-10 team in Massachusetts and here they are. I think it’s kind of a cool story.”

The offensive line – that goes by the nickname of “The Big 5” and a few other monikers – helped the Panthers go 10-1 and finish the season with a big Thanksgiving Day win over King Philip.

Franklin football offensive line (from left) Jack Pokorny, Ben Papa, Ethan Aiello, Jake McVicar and Tyler Rocco during practice on Nov. 23, 2021.
Franklin football offensive line (from left) Jack Pokorny, Ben Papa, Ethan Aiello, Jake McVicar and Tyler Rocco during practice on Nov. 23, 2021.

The five linemen of Jack Pokorny (right tackle), Ben Papa (right guard), Ethan Aiello (center), Jake McVicar (left guard) and Tyler Rocco (left tackle) allowed just five sacks all season long. The quintet of Panthers, who weigh in at an average of 214 pounds, helped pave the way for senior Mack Gulla to rush for 1,647 yards and 12 touchdowns through their first 10 games.

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“Obviously we’re not the most developed guys, we’re not the biggest guys but we always get the job done,” said Papa, who is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds. “We’re gritty.”

“We really showed that size doesn’t matter,” said McVicar, who is 6-foot-1, 215 pounds.

“We’re not big,” said Rocco, who is 5-foot-10, 200 pounds. “But we find a way to make it work and that’s what’s important.”

A special addition

Until he was a sophomore in high school, Rocco had never played organized football. He dabbled in basketball and baseball, but when he didn’t make either team as a freshman, Rocco decided to give football a try.

Two years later, he’s the starting left tackle on one of the top Division 1 teams in the state.

“(It’s) pretty mind-blowing,” Rocco said.

Wearing a Dan Marino jersey, Franklin's Evan Leffland catches a pass during practice on Nov. 23, 2021.
Wearing a Dan Marino jersey, Franklin's Evan Leffland catches a pass during practice on Nov. 23, 2021.

This year, Franklin added an experienced coach to its staff in Cole Popovich.

The former offensive lineman at Fresno State, who spent the past five years in the New England Patriots organization, joined the Panthers as an offensive line coach.

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“When you hear he’s coming from the Patriots, he obviously knows a lot of stuff but when you sit in a room with him and see how he interacts with our players and staff – he really is an incredible teacher,” Bain said.

Wearing jerseys from a wide assortment of sports franchises, the Franklin football team huddles during practice on Nov. 23, 2021.
Wearing jerseys from a wide assortment of sports franchises, the Franklin football team huddles during practice on Nov. 23, 2021.

On Tuesday, Popovich and his aforementioned linemen – including seniors Devin Cook and Mike Luccini – prepared for their Turkey Day clash with rival KP.

“So, let’s just think about this. What are you two doing?” Popovich asked his players as they went through blocking schemes at practice. “So how do you want to handle this guy and that guy?”

Franklin football assistant coach Cole Popovich follows practice, Nov. 23, 2021.
Franklin football assistant coach Cole Popovich follows practice, Nov. 23, 2021.

The collection of Franklin players enjoyed being coached by Popovich this season. And the proof was in the pudding – the Panthers averaged 29.2 points per game in their first 10 contests.

“He’s been a huge pickup for us, it’s crazy,” Aiello said. “We knew that if we listened to Coach Pop – and did everything that’s asked of us – we’d be all right.”

“Coach Pop really took us under his wing and he really made us into a really special group,” Pokorny said.

Franklin's Shane Kindred was about to be congratulated by his fellow senior Ethan Aiello after he scored the Panthers' first touchdown against Springfield Central, Nov. 20, 2021.
Franklin's Shane Kindred was about to be congratulated by his fellow senior Ethan Aiello after he scored the Panthers' first touchdown against Springfield Central, Nov. 20, 2021.

Not your typical linemen

A few nicknames tend to pop up when it comes to the group of Franklin offensive linemen.

“The Big 5. The Brutes,” Aiello said. “The coaches have their names for us. The Odd Bunch. It fits. We all have different personalities and different ways of doing things but when we’re together we’re one.”

“We’re kind of goofballs,” Pokorny said.

Franklin senior quarterback Jared Arone handed off to senior Mack Gulla for a touchdown run against Springfield Central late in the first half, Nov. 20, 2021.
Franklin senior quarterback Jared Arone handed off to senior Mack Gulla for a touchdown run against Springfield Central late in the first half, Nov. 20, 2021.

Despite the various appellations, Franklin embraced its “no-name” offensive line this fall, which stayed under the radar and out of the spotlight.

“They’re just a bunch of maniacs and don’t really care who lines up against them,” Gulla said.

“They don’t back down to anyone – no matter the size,” Franklin senior quarterback Jared Arone said.

Wearing a jersey from Drew Brees' high school, Franklin quarterback Jared Arone throws during practice, Nov. 23, 2021.
Wearing a jersey from Drew Brees' high school, Franklin quarterback Jared Arone throws during practice, Nov. 23, 2021.

“They’re a bunch of over-achievers that get a lot of stuff done because they’re tough and enjoy football,” Popovich said. “No one really thought those guys would be playing for them so I think they’ve worked really hard. They really get it done, basically, because their toughness and they really enjoy playing the game.”

Away from the gridiron, the Franklin linemen are good friends. They go out to eat together, give each other nicknames and attend each other’s musicals.

And on the day before each game, they eat Japanese-style hibachi at ‘Ichigo Ichie’ in Franklin. It’s a tradition they’ve started.

Franklin senior Mack Gulla, number 21, and junior Ben Papa celebrated Mack's touchdown against Springfield Central, which tied the score at 14, Nov. 20, 2021.
Franklin senior Mack Gulla, number 21, and junior Ben Papa celebrated Mack's touchdown against Springfield Central, which tied the score at 14, Nov. 20, 2021.

“According to the whole O-Line, I eat the most food there,” Pokorny said. “Apparently my bill is pretty big. It’s a large sum of money.”

Eating large – even if they aren’t large for linemen.

No matter their size, the offensive line of the Franklin High football team came up big this season.

The Franklin Panthers football team stood at attention during the playing of the National Anthem before they faced Springfield Central, Nov. 20, 2021.
The Franklin Panthers football team stood at attention during the playing of the National Anthem before they faced Springfield Central, Nov. 20, 2021.

“None of us are your typical linemen,” McVicar said. “But you just get a good group of guys, put them together and just roll with it.”

Pokorny said: “We like to have fun but we also like to get down to business.”

The Franklin Panthers head coach Eian Bain talked to his team after their 60-49 loss to Springfield Central, Nov. 20, 2021.
The Franklin Panthers head coach Eian Bain talked to his team after their 60-49 loss to Springfield Central, Nov. 20, 2021.

“They’re always going to have a special place in my eyes,” Bain said. “I’ll just remember them as the 2021 team but they all kind of bring a unique piece to the table and together they’ve done things that no other group of five – or really seven – has done here.”

Tommy Cassell is a senior multimedia journalist for the Daily News. He can be reached at tcassell@wickedlocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @tommycassell44.

This article originally appeared on MetroWest Daily News: Franklin High football lead by offensive line

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