Spalding running back J.D. Izon couldn't help but laugh at the reporter's question: How important was Shayne Sullivan?.
Mine as well have asked how important water is to a fish. Without Sullivan, Spalding's 6-foot-6, 270-pound junior right tackle, Izon probably wouldn't have had near the season he did last year.
"Shayne's pretty much the best lineman I've ever run behind," said the speedy scat 'back, who rushed for over 1,000 yards and averaged almost 9 yards per carry. "Before we even got into the huddle he'd tell me, 'Hey man, just run behind me. I got you.' Then he'd go out and clear a hole wide enough to fit a truck through."
Izon was only slightly exaggerating. It's no accident Spalding ranked among the top rushing teams in Maryland last year, averaging a mind-blowing 281 yards per game and 7.74 yards per carry. As a unit, Spalding running backs totaled 3,655 yards and 44 touchdowns, much of that over top their big right tackle.
For his efforts, Sullivan earned Second Team Small School All-State honors and a nod to the Super 22 team as one of the top rising seniors in the Baltimore-metro area. He recently received his first scholarship offer to Temple University.
"For him to come this far," said Spalding offensive line coach Gilbert Davis, "has been absolutely incredible."
Indeed, Sullivan's rise is a relative surprise to the Spalding faithful, who, despite lauding his determination and work ethic, never expected this kind of performance. And who could blame them? Although Sullivan has been digging in the trenches since he was 4 years old, he never quite looked the part. To put it bluntly, he had more in common with a garden hose then a hulking offensive lineman.
"I weighed 140 pounds as a freshman," Sullivan said. "Even on jayvee it was a big adjustment because I just wasn't very big."
Ironically, Sullivan's size (or lack thereof) helped him become a more technically sound lineman. Instead of relying on brute force to win his battles, he had to concentrate on footwork, leverage, hand placement and, most importantly, quickness off the ball.
In Spalding's wing-T offense, the linemen start almost a full yard behind the center, which makes it easier to trap and pull. But if the trenchmen falter at the snap, the defense gets an extra step.
If that happens, the running back eats dirt.
"Quickness off the ball is incredibly important in this offense," Davis said. "What Shayne was able to do cannot be understated."
Sullivan has never run a true 40-yard-dash before, but he thinks he's clocking at just under 5 seconds. That's a solid time for a lineman, but 40s are not indicative of how quick a lineman really is.
"For a lineman, it's all about that first step," Sullivan said. "If you can get that first step down before the defensive guy gets his down, it's all over right there."
Sullivan did so well getting that first step down his freshman year he actually made the final varsity cut as a sophomore. But before releasing the roster, Davis rethought his decision. He just couldn't see how a sub-180-pound tackle could survive on varsity, no matter how good his speed and technique were.
"I had to send him back down," Davis said. "I was hoping he was going to fill out, but with his size he just wasn't going to have an opportunity to be on the field."
Sullivan was noticeably disappointed, but he realized he'd never make the varsity unless he gained weight and built up muscle mass. So after dominating the jayvee as a sophomore he began training like a bodybuilder for the World's Strongest Man competition (without steroids of course).
Sullivan downed Whey protein shakes several times a day, stuffed himself with steak and "pretty much ate everything in site." That, coupled with natural growth, helped him gain over 60 pounds, leaving him right in the 250-260 range.
But just to make sure all that extra weight didn't bog him down he joined a special workout group. The personal trainers had him jogging, jumping boards and running wind-sprints everyday. On top of that he played rugby, where the non-stop action guaranteed he'd run some 10 miles each game.
"Not only was I bigger, but my quickness was unbelievable going into summer workouts," Sullivan said. "When I showed up in August the coaches were saying they might have one of the fastest offensive tackles around."
His teammates can vouch for that. Izon, who mainly took the ball on pitches and reverses, said Sullivan never failed to make an open-field block. The senior speedster specifically recalled a key play against Spalding's top rival, Boys' Latin. Izon received a quick-pitch and ran around right end. In front of him, Sullivan was clearing the way by mauling a pair of linebackers.
"The hole was just wide open," Izon said. "I went 70 yards for a touchdown. It broke the game open."
Pulling out in space may be Sullivan's forte, but it would be a mistake to say he got by on speed alone. He could hit a little, too.
Spalding defensive tackle Malik Johnson, who weighs upwards of 290 pounds, squared off with Sullivan in Oklahoma drills last year. These one-on-one showdowns are pure brute versus brute, strength versus strength.
Evidently Sullivan, who benches 300 pounds and squats around 500, got the better of his teammate on more then one occasion.
"It's a real challenge going up against him," Johnson said. "If you're not prepared Shayne's going to knock you on your butt."
Just ask St. Mary's, who bore the brunt of Sullivan's strength. On a counter play he pulled around to the right and pancacked two defenders with a single blow. Fullback Steve Manders ran right over the pummeled pair and rumbled for 20 yards.
"Shayne can deliver a blow," Davis said. "There's no doubt about that."
Moreover, Sullivan's field awareness improved exponentially from his freshman year. He began to recognize defensive schemes and even helped make the line's blocking calls. The latter responsibility usually falls on the interior linemen, but Spalding started an inexperienced right guard last year.
"Shayne interacted with the guard and really helped him out," Davis said. "[Shayne] became a football-savvy lineman. His football IQ just grew and grew."
Sullivan would like to do even more growing this offseason. At 6-6, 270, he's plenty big for high school, but he'll need to pack on the pounds for college. He also needs to improve his pass blocking since he didn't have much practice in Spalding's run-first offense.
"When we did pass it was all zone blocking," Sullivan said. "I haven't had much work at all with man blocking for pro-style offenses. I need to work on that big time."
That shouldn't be too difficult. At least, not as difficult as building yourself from a 140-pound runt into a Division-I lineman.
"It's been amazing to watch him progress and to see him become the player he is now," Davis said. "He's going to be a special lineman for a long time."