Two giant 16-year-old sophomores who didn't play tackle football until they reached high school have discovered that smashing their smaller opponents to the turf can be fun and rewarding.
Chris Ward, 6 feet 4 and 285 pounds, and Matthew Jakubiec, 6-8 and 275, are important contributors for Santa Ana Mater Dei (7-1) and Anaheim Servite (7-1), respectively, and they've become the anointed successors to All-American offensive linemen Khaled Holmes and Matt Kalil.
Each is participating in almost a mentorship program because every practice and game, they watch, listen and learn from Holmes and Kalil, two big-time college prospects.
Ward started the first five games for Mater Dei at guard next to Holmes before suffering a partial tear of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee against Corona Centennial on Oct. 4. He was part of an offensive line that didn't allow quarterback Matt Barkley to be sacked through 20 quarters.
"He reminds me of my sophomore year," Holmes said. "He has a lot of natural strength."
Jakubiec is one of Servite's tackles, along with the USC-bound Kalil, and the fact the sophomore is an inch taller than Kalil provides a clue to his immense size and potential.
"He's probably not sure how much ability he has, but I think he can be a great player," Kalil said.
Both first-year varsity players grew up not knowing that football would become such an important part of their lives.
Jakubiec's parents are from Poland and knew little about the sport. His father taught him how to sail, but football had to wait until high school.
"I always wanted to play tackle but was always too big to play," he said.
Once he put on pads, Jakubiec had to develop the aggressive, nasty nature of a dominant blocker. He's still learning. "It's not always comfortable," he said.
Having the 6-7, 285-pound Kalil in the huddle provides a valuable role model. "He's such a good football player," Jakubiec said. "He's everything I want to be as a football player."
Servite Coach Troy Thomas is convinced Jakubiec can be a standout. "He's had moments he's looked very good and others he's looked like a sophomore," Thomas said.
Ward's discovery of football came late in his youth days. He was a basketball player. "I never even followed football," he said. "My grandfather said it would be a fun thing to do."
His older sister, Jennifer, played volleyball at Mater Dei and told him, "The football games are the best."
"Most of my friends from grade school were into football, and I just wanted to play with them," Ward said. "Once I got onto the field, it was so much fun."
And having Holmes beside him for at least one season is something he cherishes.
"I learn from him every day," he said. "I watch him in practice and see what he does. I learn his intensity, how he goes 100% every play, his quickness. . . ."
Mater Dei Coach Bruce Rollinson said Ward has all the qualities needed to succeed.
"He's coming out of that sophomore shell," Rollinson said before Ward's injury. "He's playing a little bit more nasty every week."
Ward thrives in his role of blocking for Barkley.
"The coaches say every pregame, 'No one touches 5,' " Ward said. "That gets us pumped up."
Ward returned to the field last week when Mater Dei was upset by Orange Lutheran, 31-12.
The highlight for Ward thus far has been playing against Centennial in a game Mater Dei won, 51-37, after the teams combined for a state-record 1,303 yards.
"It was phenomenal," he said. "It was awesome. It was one of the best chances to play in my life with Khaled Holmes next to me."
Tonight at Angel Stadium, when Mater Dei takes on Servite, with the Trinity League championship at stake, the two sophomores and their senior mentors will face off in what could be that rarest of moments in which four future NCAA Division I-A offensive linemen are on the same field.
Break out the camcorders and have sympathy for the linebackers, who could be spending lots of time smelling the grass.