RIO RANCHO – He’s probably never been referred to as “Big Ben” Linfoot, but he’s at least 20 percent of the reason opposing defenses haven’t been able to sack Cleveland High quarterback Jordan Hatch too many times this season.

And Linfoot – at 5-feet, 7-inches, 220 pounds, how can he be big? – and his fellow OL mates have been stellar in opening holes in the line for Harris Mbueha to run through.

Linfoot said the secret to his success – not letting defenders past him – is not to pretend it’s quarterback Jordan Hatch behind him, awaiting the snap.

“Coach Darlington tells me, ‘Protect him like your mom’s behind you. You don’t want to get your mom hurt, so pretend Jordan’s your mom (Kellie Linfoot, who hasn’t missed a game).’”

Thus, Linfoot said, “We take a lot of pride in keeping (Hatch) clean.”

Storm offensive line coach Brandon Darlington, who knows more than a little about the OL, having been a tight end at Syracuse University, said, “the first word that comes to mind when you talk about Ben is ‘strength.’ Ben is an absolute animal in the weightroom – he loves to lift weights.”

Darlington, whom Linfoot termed his “right-hand man,” didn’t need to say that; the proverbial proof is in the pudding there. Linfoot won a state powerlifting title last winter, after placing second as a sophomore.

“I think the secondly is ‘leader.’ Ben has embraced the leadership role, being the center the last two years of this offense, what comes with that, what details come with that job position,” Darlington continued. “Seeing him grow and be mature and overtake that role the last two years has been pretty good.”

Also up front for the Storm are tackles Robert Sabado and Moses Sparks, and guards Mason Jones, the other senior on the OL, and Gabe Marquez.

“I like it a lot,” he said of his teammates on the line. “Lats year, we were real young, but this year we’re mature. Having a senior at center is good; I’ve got two, big nasty guards and I’ve got two tackles who know how to play real good technique.”

Assignment errors? “Very seldom he’ll make assignment errors,” Darlington said. “We ask a lot from Ben to direct fronts and defenses and blitzes. … If there’s an assignment error, he’ll come to me and say, ‘I missed this, I missed that.’”

“I’ve been watching football, playing football, since I was real young,” said Linfoot. “I’ve been playing football since I was 6 years old.”

A lifelong resident of Rio Rancho, he played for some Raiders teams and then in YAFL, with Storm teams.

“I played running back and lineman, but mostly lineman. I’ve always been kinda in the trenches.”

Linfoot’s been playing football since he was 6 years old, on youth teams, and still remembers watching from the stands when the 2015 Storm won the state title for the second time.

“I loved that era – I said, ‘I want to be one of those guys,’” he said. “They came to my elementary school (Vista Grande) l when I was younger. … I remember bringing them Storm guys in – I was like, ‘Those guys are my idols. I want to be like them one day.’”

And now he is. He got into a game for the first time as a sophomore (in a 54-0 blowout of West Mesa), then became the starting center last season, so he’s been a part of two state championship teams.

He likes watching pro football games but prefers the college game.

“When I watch the NFL, I like watching (OL) Jason Kelce … I’m a Seahawks fan,” he said. “When I watch college (football), I watch the O line: their technique, how they approach run and pass and I just take notes down.”

He takes defensive coordinator Eddie Kilmer’s motto to heart: “You either get better or you get worse; you never stay the same.”

With 20-plus starts, he’s gotten better and gained a lot of confidence. Day-in, day-out, it’s a lot of hard work,” he said. “This year, I feel a lot faster off the ball, more powerful.”

Like so many student-athletes will tell you, their teammates are like family members.

“My brothers around me, this whole team, this whole group of guys, they pick me up,” he said. “Sometimes it gets emotional; you’re in the moment. But the guys around you help you.”

Despite two losses to Texas teams and a loss at Artesia, Linfoot says, “This season’s going good. We’ve faced some adversity. It comes down to little things, like little details: hitting your gaps and blocking.”

Although in the back of his mind he’d like to play on Saturdays, education is more important. “I think maybe I’ll go try to play somewhere; I’m not sure yet,” he said. “What I really want to do is get a good education at a good college,” and he’s thinking about schools like the University of Texas, where he’s already applied.

“Oregon’s a good school; I like Washington,” he said. “I want to get a degree in business and marketing.”

In 10 years?

“I want to be successful, either running a business or being in a higher part. I want to have a wife and kids,” he said.

“He’s figured life out,” head coach Robert Garza said. “As a freshman, he was a guy we always knew who could play – if he could keep his head on straight. He found himself in some situations that were not ideal, but, honestly, Ben’s a great kid – he’s a true Storm kid. … He’s the strongest kid we’ve got on the team.”