Anybody that is a true football fan understands to be successful on offense, you have to win the battles in the trenches. To win these battles a player can't just rely on brute strength, he also has to use speed and be able to understand the concept of his blocking assignments.
Brentwood Academy (Brentwood, Tenn.) head coach Jason Matthews understands this more then you would think.
Matthews was drafted in the 3rd round of the NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts. Matthews spent the next three years protecting Peyton Manning while helping propel the Colts to the 1995 playoffs. He started all 19 games that season counting three in the playoffs, so he understands what it takes to play championship football.
Matthews believes he sees some of the same attributes in a player on his Brentwood Academy team, junior offensive lineman Graham Shuler.
"The type of individual is often going to dictate the type of team you're going to have," said Shuler's coach. "If he's the indication, we are going to be a pretty good team. One of those rare combinations of skill, intelligence, desire, size, speed and we are real fortunate to have him playing with us. We look forward to him leading. He has been starting for us for two years going on three his senior year."
Shuler stands 6-foot-5 and weighs in at 265 lbs. He has been timed in the 40-yard-dash at 5.00.
"There are few kids that embrace the offensive line so soon in their career," said Matthews. "He was a kid that wanted to learn and knew it was a skill. It is no longer the hands to the chest with the elbows out and drive the man in front of you. Now there's a lot of strategy involved and a lot of position. He wanted to get with me early his sophomore year to go over that stuff. I remember thinking, 'If he's asking these questions now, what's he going to be like his senior year?'
"I told him this last year when he was a junior, 'I'm going to treat you like a senior', and we made him become one of the leaders of the team. It was a requirement that he learn every position on the offensive line and learn how you block it. He accepted it with really no hesitation and now that he is a senior, the first offseason of his senior year, I told him, 'You have to be held to a higher standard then everyone else,' and he willingly accepted that."
Shuler knew to be the influence his coach wanted him to be, he had to gain the respect of his team especially only being a junior.
"I think one thing with me is I'm pretty level-headed," claimed the offensive lineman. "I stay composed, I don't get rattled, I'm sure of myself and I go in and do what I'm suppose to do. I do what I can to prepare myself to be in the best situation that I can in the game.
"At this level of high school, I try to lead the best I can. I feel that's something I really have stepped into this year, the leadership role on my team. I'm going to get the opponent off the ball for you, you can run behind me and gain yards. That's something I'm pretty confident about as a player."
Coach Matthews saw the Brentwood star grab hold of the responsibility he put on him, and he not only proved himself worthy. He also showed just how unselfish he was.
"He's definitely an offensive line leader," said the coach. "You can be a leader at quarterback and people will listen to you because you are calling the plays. The offensive line, for you to be a leader, first of all you have to be physically dominant and he is definitely that.You also have to be someone respected in the locker room and I think that is a key he has improved on. Not that he had to improve, but the fact that he was a junior he was leading some of the seniors. The academic part of it, to learn the schemes, only solidifies his role. If anyone needs to know what happens they ask him.
"He's a big kid that can play tackle for us in our league, but what's very telling about Graham is he comes to me this year and wants to learn center. For me, when you are a starting left tackle and protect the blind side of our quarterback and you want and come and help us because of a injury that means something to me.
"Three games left in the season and our guard goes down he's the first one to step up and say, 'I'll play it.' We were deeper at tackle than we were at guard so he gave up his job at left tackle and played guard for us. That type of unselfishness and the purpose of the sacrifice doesn't go unnoticed. I have other players that could play guard but what kind of player would volunteer to give up their comfort zone to help the team. Those are intangibles that you can't teach."
The success he has been having on the field and in the locker room has also started to draw interest from some of the college elite.
"I haven't received any offers," said Shuler. "But I just sent my tape out a little over a week ago and I've gotten some really, really strong feedback from some schools. So I haven't received any offers yet but I hope that changes soon. I hear from Texas, Notre Dame, Miami, Virginia, Auburn and Georgia. It's a pretty long list but those are pretty much my top schools, at least the ones off the top of my head.
"I'm being recruited at offensive tackle and offensive guard. I pretty much played all three positions (tackle, guard and center) at my high school. Wherever they want me to play, I'm athletic enough to play tackle, but some schools want guys who are 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8 or what not. I can play tackle, I feel very comfortable at tackle, but I can also play interior line. It's just really up to what they want."
Coach Matthews believes he understands why colleges are showing so much attention to the offensive line standout.
"We do everything he would do in college," claimed Matthews. "We do inside zones, we do outside zones, we do drop back, we do quick aim, we even do option. So if he goes to a school running the option, we do the option. We run spread, we run double-tight, we do it all here.
"He's in a situation where he is getting all these things, so he's well-versed. We're not a running school and we're not a passing school, but I think he's definitely getting an idea on what it's going to take to get to become an athlete at the next level. We're very blessed to have a number of coaches who played on different levels that's going to be able to tell him what it takes."
Shuler has a genuine interest in the Irish. He had a chance to experience the campus this year, and thanks to the game day atmosphere and a good friend, it left a big impression on him.
"Notre Dame is a special place," said the offensive lineman. "First time I saw anything about Notre Dame was watching Rudy as a little kid. You can see it's a special thing they have going up there. It's almost hard to describe, but I love the tradition there, the football up there and just what the environment is like. I would be honored to receive a offer from there, I would be excited about that, but I'm just sitting here seeing how things are going to fall into place.
"I made it up a couple weeks ago for the Stanford game and really liked it. I was impressed with everything from the facilities to the coaches. One of my best friends, he was actually my mentor, we went to school together, Alex Bullard is up there playing and I saw him and stuff. He took care of me, showed me around, but it was good to go up there and spend some time I really liked it."
The offensive lineman could also see himself fitting in Brian Kelly's offense.
"The thing I love about his offense is it's spread out," he said. "Which for me as a offensive lineman means I don't have to play 365-days-a-year trying to overpower guys. I mean there's a place for that but this offense is for big, lean offensive linemen that are athletic and can move. We run a similar spread offense in my high school so I'm pretty use to that and it won't be to big of a leap for me from our offense to his."
Shuler's coach also has some memories of the Irish.
"Well I'm a little biased," explained Matthews. "I went to Texas A&M, and when I was playing there we lost to Notre Dame twice in the Cotton Bowl. So immediately I disliked Notre Dame. Then I realized that we lost to a really good team that's a really good school. I was drafted by the Colts (1994, 3rd round) went and played up there for awhile became real familiar with the Notre Dame people and the fans up there. Then I became a fan of Notre Dame.
"I enjoyed the fans and enjoyed the tradition. Obviously we have a kid from here, Alex Bullard, that goes to school up there at Notre Dame. He loves it and he speaks highly of it. I've become a Notre Dame fan, kind of displaced but a Notre Dame fan at that. Obviously, the school has great tradition and great heritage. The honor to play at a school like that is sometimes thought as unattainable.That being said it looks like they are moving in the right direction and building the program where it needs to go. Any kid that's not eyes glazed over when they hear from Notre Dame is probably not a big football fan."
Though Shuler likes what the Irish has to offer. There is another fan base that hopes he follows in his fathers footsteps.
"My dad actually played football at Auburn with Bo Jackson back in 1981 to 1985, so I grew up a Auburn fan," he said. "I try to make this clear, my dad did his thing in college, but he is very open to letting me go where I want to go. That's the way I am too, I'm wide open, locked and loaded and not trying to follow in my dad's footsteps. I want to do my own thing. I grew up a fan of Auburn, but this year have become way more neutral and I'm trying to enjoy all aspects of college football."
Picking his next destination will have to meet the criteria he's looking for.
"One of the main things for me is just getting that gut feeling," said the Brentwood Academy star. "What's it like for me? What's the vibe I get? Another big thing is academics is really important to me. I want to go to a place where I can contribute, but at the same time I want to really prepare myself for a great future. It starts with getting a great education.
"Also just going someplace where the environment is really positive, a high football fun environment, that's kind of the tradition pitch. Where everyone is into it and has a strong fan base. The coaches are a plus, but I'm not trying to rely on that to much because that's never guaranteed."
When it comes times to make that decision Shuler believes he already has a plan in place.
"I could definitely see myself committing early," he said. " I don't think it would be much of a distraction for me, but I feel that if I felt it was the right place I'd go ahead and pull the trigger. I'm a pretty loyal guy and I'm pretty decisive so if I feel comfortable somewhere I feel like I'd know right away where the place was for me. I'm not saying I would commit the first couple days of getting the offer, but after a few calm and thoughtful days I could probably pull the trigger.
"I'm just really outgoing and laid back, so that would be my thing, wanting to help put a class together that I feel could get along with each other. I'm definitely going to try to come up in the late winter to early spring or maybe on one of their junior days even maybe the fall. We'll have to see how it all plays out but I really enjoyed my time up there."