It won’t be difficult for opposing defenses to spot Ellis’ Easton Smith and Brendon Brenner, but disrupting the quarterback and tight end’s connection will be significantly more challenging.
Smith, the junior quarterback, stands 6-foot-3 three, while Brenner, the tight end, stands above the rest of the Railroaders at 6-6.
Of Smith’s 101 completed passes in 2014, 28 found Brenner, more than any other Ellis receiver. Brenner also led the team in receiving yards with 516 and added four touchdowns.
The tight end is in line to see increased targets his senior year after Sean Lee graduated following his 27-catch, 481-yard and nine-touchdown season in 2014.
“Receiving wise, he uses that big body,” Ellis coach Craig Amrein said of Brenner. “He’s got a pretty good vertical for that size, and he’s able to jump up and snag balls.”
It doesn’t hurt that Smith was described as a heady quarterback with a strong command of the offense.
“He’s a very intelligent kid that knows where everybody’s at on every play, even down to the offensive linemen and their blocking schemes” Amrein said. “His intelligence allows him to know exactly what’s going on during the play and make good decisions.”
That decision making allowed Smith to pass for 18 touchdowns against 10 interceptions as a first-year starter.
Heading into their final season playing together, the duo has one goal, and it has nothing to do with individual milestones or statistics.
“Get our team to the playoffs, that’s our goal as a team” Brenner said.
The senior was in eighth grade during the Railroaders’ last playoff appearance. Making the state basketball tournament last season, only strengthened the desire to make the playoffs in football, Brenner said.
Both players feel more physically and mentally prepared to compete for a playoff spot after a lot of time in the weight room this summer. The Railroaders had summer-lifting programs in the past, but Brenner and Smith said this summer’s version was a more dedicated effort on the players’ behalf.
“I feel like I’ve gotten stronger and faster,” Smith said. “Just playing a year gives you more experience. Last year, I was really nervous going into the year. This year, I’m just ready to go.”
“I got a lot faster and stronger like he said,” Brenner added.
The tight end feels like he’s put on some good weight this offseason. When asked about the senior’s ability as a pass catcher, his coach took a moment to praise Brenner’s improved blocking ability. After all, an improved run game can also lead to more big plays through the air.
“Runs will open up the passing, so I’ll block anytime,” Brenner said.
Amrein plans to maintain a balanced offensive strategy, not forcing the action through the air or on the ground. He cited last year’s offense that passed for roughly 1,600 yards and rushed for 1,200. A speedier Smith could give opposing defenses more things to think about when he drops back.
“He’s gotten a lot faster and that’s going to be able to buy him time in the pocket,” Amrein said. “And if he has to leave the pocket, he’ll run the ball.”
The quarterback scramble or designed run wasn’t a big part of the Railroaders’ offense in 2014. Smith’s rushing totals ended up in the red because of sacks.
Barring a collegiate reunion, the 2015 season looks to be the last time the duo shares a huddle. The first time came in grade school, as Smith and Brenner have played football together since the pair was in fifth and sixth grade, respectively. Their time together started at a level when pass plays are almost non-existent, but the pair started connecting through the air in middle school.
“Junior high is where we mainly made our name,” Brenner said. “His seventh grade year and my eighth grade year, we just kind of destroyed the records in one season.”
While the on-field chemistry has been percolating for more than five years, the reason behind the pair’s success may not be as complicated as it seems.
“Easton’s a smart kid,” Amrein said. “He’s looking at the big targets that are open.”