Big time playmakers

Published 1:46 pm Saturday, October 17, 2009

GRAND MEADOW – Big plays can turn an average offense to a great one. They’re the difference between a good gain and a game-deciding strike.

The Grand Meadow football team has two players capable of making a big play at all times, and on both sides of the ball. Junior quarterback Caleb Leichtnam and senior running back Michael Gehling are both threats to score every time they touch the ball.

“They’re both very fast and they’re a good one-two punch,” GM head coach Gary Sloan said. “Caleb is one of the best guys I’ve ever had at cutting back and Michael’s a little bit bigger and a little more physical. It’s a good combination.”

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While teams may try to slow down the Superlarks (6-1 overall, 5-1 SEC) by focusing on one of the two playmakers, it’s very difficult to truly contain both of them.

While Leichtnam, who has 792 rushing yards (7.3 per carry) and nine touchdowns on the season, is dangerous as a runner in the open field, he is equally devastating in the passing game with a strong arm that can make defenses pay for swarming to him.

The Larks are averaging 35.6 points per game and they’re predominantly a running team, but they’re not afraid to let it fly when the game is on the line and the defense is playing to close to the line of scrimmage.

“I just try to keep everyone’s head in the game in the huddle. Then we just line up and pound the ball. That makes it pretty easy for me,” Liechtnam, who has completed 58 percent of his passes for an average of 17.3 yards per completion with 537 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions on the season, said. “If you keep breaking the pocket, the linebackers start coming up and you can go over the top.”

Gehling, a great runner in his own right, doubles as one of Liechtnam’s favorite targets. His 40-inch vertical makes him a tough matchup for most defensive backs. He has 18 catches for 353 yards (19.6 average) and seven scores.

But it is on the ground where he does the most damage, to the tune of 732 yards (6.8 average) and 12 touchdowns.

“I usually try to get to the outside and just turn it on,” Gehling said. “It all starts with the line and then maybe you break a tackle and take one long.”

If their presence on offense wasn’t enough, the duo also makes a strong impact on defense and special teams. They both play safety on defense, and Liechtnam is a major threat as a kick and punt returner.

Gehling has led the Superlarks, who allow 17.6 points per game, in tackles the past three seasons. He has 30 solo stops and 43 assists this season.

“You don’t like a defensive back to be your leading tackler, but in nine man football you can play in the middle and cover a lot of ground up there,” Sloan said. “It helps a lot to have his speed back there.”

Gehling is usually near the line of scrimmage as he’s trying to snuff out running plays. If he bites too hard on a play-fake, his speed usually helps him recover, which has helped him pick off 22 passes in his career, including six this season.

“They always tell me to play aggressive, but be heads up in passing situations,” Gehling said. “A couple of times I’ve been burnt, but I’m just trying to make tackles.”

Leichtnam is no slacker himself as a compliment to Gehling, he has good defensive ball skills and can deliver a hard hit with the best of them. He has 21 solo tackles, 39 assists, and four interceptions this season.

The strong communication between the two also boosts the defense as they are usually on the same page.

Besides their skill, the two also have shown the way to many of their teammates.

“They lead in different ways. Michael’s more the silent type who leads by example and Caleb’s more of an emotional leader,” Sloan said.

The Larks had their season end to nine-man champion Houston last season and the Hurricanes (6-1 overall, 6-0 SEC) handed GM its only loss this season when they won 23-14 Sept. 25.

But GM fullback and linebacker Killian Smith missed that game and the Larks, who feel they’ve improved a lot over their last four games, are hoping for a different outcome this time around.

“We’ll take it one game at a time, all the way to the dome,” Leichtnam said.

GM, which will likely have homefield advantage in the first two rounds of the Section 1 nine man tournament, and it will host LeRoy/Ostrander (0-7 overall) in the regulars season finale Thursday at 7 p.m.