ASHLAND Unbeknownst to him, Tony Love supplied a headline to any story that might be written about Willie Cline.

“He has the minister-of-defense kind of thing going,” said Ashland’s fifth-year head coach.

Feisty, gritty, tenacious and religious, Cline offers a well-rounded utility option for the Tomcats.

Inside the locker room, Cline isn’t a Bible thumper, but he makes teammates and coaches well aware of his beliefs.

Said Love, who is entering his 24th year on Ashland’s staff: “I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more spiritual kid.”

“I try to spread the gospel through football and stuff,” said the 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior. “I’d say, it’s like, my biggest concern.”

Since Aug. 20, 2016, the day Cline became a Christian, his thirst for connecting with a higher power is ever-increasing, he indicated.

“I’m motivated mostly just from reading the Word and keeping my eyes on Christ, not focusing on the problems of the world and complaining,” Cline said. “I try not to complain so much. I try to set the example. I don’t want to do nothing to ruin my testimony around them and all that.”

Cline became an integral component of last year’s defensive success. The Tomcats allowed 14 or fewer points in nine of their 13 contests with Cline, whom Love dubbed “a Tasmanian devil,” regularly among the D-line.

Cline used a Gideon-like approach out of the Old Testament to ultimately thwart any doubts based on his diminutiveness.

“You can make up some deficits by having great effort,” Love said. “We’ve had quite a few of those kids who, looking at them, they’re small. You wouldn’t know they’re a football player, let alone a lineman, but this is such a speed game. If you’re going to give 100 percent out there and you’re going to run the ball, then you can play defense.”

Cline will be prompted to play up front and in the middle as a linebacker this fall. He’ll carry out of the backfield, too.

Cline has a louder voice than he’s exhibited in the past, but he’s composed when delivering spiritually toned messages.

“He may not be quoting scripture, but he’ll sit back and he’ll talk about salvation,” Love said. “He studies the Bible, just one of those dudes. He’ll share what he knows with all of them. ... It’s kinda cool to listen in from around the corner.”

Fellow linebackers Vance Krueger and Marcus Daniels playfully poke, prod and pose questions, sometimes challenging ones.

“Willie’s my man,” Krueger prefaced. “... Last year, me and Marcus liked to play around with him with the Christian thing, have a little debate with him every morning when we got done lifting. Then he’d give us a ride over here to the school, so there was always a little bickering.”

At the end of the day, though, there’s “hugs and stuff like that,” Krueger said.

Krueger said they’ve discussed a variety of topics, including the Big Bang theory.

“He’s quick on the answers; it shocks me every now and then,” Krueger said.

They’ll often spark debates at sunrise and not settle them until nightfall.

“They’ll have some fiery debates, at times, which is good,” Love said. “It gets kids thinking something positive.”

Marty Gute, an assistant who serves as the team’s chaplain and always leads prayers, said preaching “could be his life’s calling.” Gute said he watched Cline preach to Ashland Baptist Church’s congregation on Facebook.

“He’s not ashamed of his faith at all,” Gute said. “He’s well-versed. Willie hit the ground running. It was like God transformed his life and he let everybody know about it.”

Cline daily clings to 1 Corinthians 10:31 (NIV): “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

“That’s what I try to live by,” he said.

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asnyder@dailyindependent.com