by WES FERGUSON
They call it a battle in the trenches, but really an offensive lineman’s job is equal parts force and finesse. Larry Zierlein has spent a lifetime perfecting that balance, culminating in a Super Bowl win in 2008 as a coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now his latest project has brought him to Kyle, where he barks orders and encouragement to a pair of bulky brothers who are working to extend their football careers beyond the Lehman Lobos.
“Atta baby! Good shot,” Zierlein yelled one afternoon last week as Johnny Limon plowed into his younger brother Bobby at a Lehman High School practice field. “Make sure that’s an uppercut, Johnny!”
Training the teens on positioning, footwork and other technical skills, Zierlein kept an eye on small cues when Bobby Limon slipped into pass coverage and tried to cut off his brother from sacking an imaginary quarterback.
“You’re actually taking one too many steps,” the coach told him, noticing the extra stutter step as the lineman shuffled to his right.
Bobby Limon took one fewer the next time.
The individual attention and specialized instruction are rare for high school offensive linemen, the brothers and their father John Limon said, and Johnny Limon added that he wished he had gleaned some of the knowledge when he was still a Lobo.
“It would have been so much different,” he said. “I remember getting beat last year because I didn’t have the power and I was caught off balance. This (training) has helped me keep my balance, stay square and get to defenders faster.”
Johnny Limon, at 6-foot-1 and 295 pounds, graduated high school in May and plans to walk on at Texas State University this fall. Bobby Limon is a little bigger at 6-foot-2 and 304 pounds. He’ll enter his junior year penciled in at the Lobos’ left tackle slot, a position he earned during spring drills after starting at guard as a sophomore.
“My pass protection has gotten way better,” Bobby Limon said.
Protecting the quarterback’s blind side will be crucial as he and the other Lehman players adjust to new head coach Todd Raymond’s spread offense after playing in previous years in the run-first power scheme of former head coach Steve Davis.
Raymond said he has watched Bobby Limon’s game improve during team drills, and he gave partial credit to the extra work with Zierlein.
“What we’re doing now is so different than what we did in the past,” Raymond said. “He’s really developed a lot of confidence this spring, and he’s become so much more patient and confident in what he’s doing. We’re hoping he continues to get better when fall rolls around.”
With Limon at left tackle, Raymond plans to slide returning starter Kenny Higgins into the left guard position. Though Higgins is more of a true tackle, he missed spring drills with a torn ACL and was unable to work on the nuances of the new blocking scheme, putting him at a disadvantage as the season approaches.
The Limon brothers aren’t the only ones who have benefitted from Zierlein’s tutelage. Over the years, Raymond said he has attended several coaching clinics led by Zierlein, and this spring he has also picked the elder coach’s brain about the craft.
“Some of the techniques we teach are the exact same things,” Raymond said. “The kids are hearing it from multiple people and from someone who obviously has a lot more experience and knowledge than I have or probably ever will have. It’s good to have it reaffirmed, even for me personally in having conversations with him from time to time.”
Zierlein, 66, coached for 30 years at the NFL and college levels, spending nine years in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers, where he led the offensive line for the 2007-2009 seasons. Now semi-retired and living in the Hill Country west of New Braunfels, he’s been driving to Kyle since February to work with the Limon brothers, whom he met through their cousin Brandon Gonzalez. Gonzalez is also a coach and played for Zierlein’s son Mike at Akins High School.
“He’s working for gas money,” father John Limon said. “For a dad to get this kind of tool for his sons, it’s phenomenal.”
Raymond and Zierlein agree that Bobby Limon is a better fit at guard at the college level, and Zierlein said he will most likely be recruited by Division 1 programs. The coach also has high hopes for the older brother when Texas State tryouts begin.
“It’s an opportunity for him to get out there and show them what he can do,” Zierlein said. “I’d like to think he has an excellent shot.”
In some ways, Johnny Limon’s shot with the Bobcats is also a shot at redemption. He was removed from the Lobos midway through last season for insubordination following the loss to Canyon, and after sitting out a week he declined an invitation to return to the team. John Limon blamed himself for the problems, being one of those football dads who hover around the team and don’t shy away from yelling at coaches about their decisions.
“The coaches and I butted heads, and I think they took it out on Johnny,” Limon said. “I truly believe he was removed because of my actions towards them, not his.”
Johnny Limon said he’s gotten off on the right foot with Texas State’s coaches. Working overtime with Zierlein has made an impression on them, too.
“They actually complimented me on my technique,” he said.