By Nate Thompson

MUSKEGON TOWNSHIP – Of all the position groups in the state of Michigan, regardless of division, there may not be one more dominant than the offensive line at Muskegon High School.

There are plenty of facts to support the argument that no other o-line matches up to the Big Reds starting group, which consists of senior right tackle Anthony Bradford, senior right guard Marquis Cooper, junior center D’Andre Mills-Ellis, senior left guard Daquarius Johnson, and senior left tackle Evan Towers.

Consider the following:

The line, which returned four of five starters from a year ago, helped the Big Reds score a school record 722 points a year ago, and could realistically crack over 600 points this season if Muskegon advances deep into the Division 3 playoffs.

Muskegon offensive line is led by No. 75 Anthony Bradford, No. 76 Marquis Cooper, No. 74 D’Andre Mills-Ellis, No. 78 Da’Quarious Johnson and No. 67 Evan Towers. Photo/Jason Goorman

Together, the five have started a combined 119 games at the varsity level.

Their average size is 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, with Louisiana State University commit Bradford being the largest at 6-5, 358 pounds.

They helped pave the way for former Muskegon quarterback La’Darius Jefferson to rush for 2,095 yards and 33 touchdowns a year ago. Now that Jefferson is at Michigan State, new starting quarterback Cameron Martinez is following suit with his own gaudy stats – 908 yards and 16 touchdowns through seven games.

“It’s something different,” Martinez said about the offensive line after the season-opening victory over Warren De La Salle, in which he scored five touchdowns. “It’s like a college, pro line. Whatever you call it, they’re the real deal. Without them, this would have never happened.”

The Big Reds, 7-0, are ready for another showdown against unbeaten rival Mona Shores on Friday at Hackley Stadium, with the O-K Black conference title on the line.

The Big Reds’ O-line is one of the biggest reasons – literally and figuratively – why Muskegon is again unbeaten and on a path to defend its Division 3 state championship.

No. 78 Da’Quarious Johnson on the line for Muskegon in its Week 1 game against De La Salle. Photo/Jason Goorman

Muskegon head coach Shane Fairfield believes that the line is the best in the state.

“They’re extremely coachable,” Fairfield said. “They communicate and work together as a unit extremely well. I know I sure wouldn’t want to defend against them.”

Fairfield said one of the biggest misconceptions about offensive linemen is they’re just really big kids who throw their weight around at defenders in front of them. That’s not the case at Muskegon, where agility is just as important as size.

“With us, running a triple option offense, we tend to pull our guards and tackles, so there’s so much importance stressed on footwork and agility,” Fairfield said. “I’d rather have a 240-pound kid who can move over a 290-pounder who can’t pull, can’t get to the second level, or can’t kick out. We like to give our kids the opportunity to showcase their athleticism.”

Fairfield said it took several years to develop the line. He said the coaches try to identify potential linemen at the eighth-grade or freshman levels, and are looking for “pitbulls.”

“Someone who’s fierce,” Fairfield said. “Someone who works hard in the weight room, takes care of their body and watches the food they eat.”

Some, like Bradford and potential Division 1 commit Cooper, struggled early to match that criteria.

“Bradford and Cooper as freshmen, they were just a couple fat kids on the line who just stood there and played patty cake,” Fairfield said with a laugh. “For a kid like Anthony, who’s been that big for so long, and he’s out playing with his friends and family, what is he always going to be told? Play nice. We finally helped him realize it was OK to get mean and use what God has given you.”

No. 75 Anthony Bradford give No. 2 Johnny Martin III a high-five after earning the first down in the Big Reds Week 1 game. Photo/Jason Goorman

Now Bradford can dunk a basketball and showcases jaw-dropping strength while manhandling opposing defensive lineman.

“I’ve seen him lift up a player with one hand and throw him down like ‘Boom!’” Cooper said. “It’s like, ‘He just did that?’ He’s a great football player and the kids look up to him.”

Cooper agreed that it took some growing up before he started to thrive.

“Playing as a freshmen, it wasn’t as intense, so you don’t take it as seriously and you don’t work as hard,” Cooper said, who is planning an upcoming recruiting visit to Eastern Michigan University. “As a sophomore, I was on varsity, and you realize you just have to work hard and work to win games.”

The work, Fairfield said, includes five days a week over the summer doing weight, flexibility and agility training that “separates the pitbulls from the sheep.”

“It’s like a full college layout of workouts, but we’re utilizing it at this level,” Fairfield said.

That workout regimen helped develop players like Johnson, who Fairfield calls the “runt of the litter” at 250 pounds. He’s added 20 pounds of weight the last two years and wins battles by relying on technique and angles.

“What he lacks in weight, he makes up for in technique and tenacity,” Fairfield said about Johnson.