Spring football preview for area teams

Spring football practices are underway at high schools across the state — though the first games of the 2018 season remain several months away.

Florida high schools are allowed a maximum of 20 practice sessions from April 23 to May 31, according to Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) guidelines.

Here are five points to consider as spring practices ramp up:

How does Academy at the Lakes follow last year’s championship season?
The Academy at the Lakes Wildcats capped off a remarkable 11-1 season by winning the school’s first-ever eight-man state football championship.

Academy at the Lakes won the FCAPPS (Florida Christian Association of Private and Parochial Schools) eight-man state title en route to an 11-1 season in 2017. (File)

What will they do for an encore?
For starters, the Wildcats will need to manage without running back/linebacker Daniel Gonzalez, one of the most dominant two-way players in the Florida 8-man ranks. Besides rushing for more than 1,000 yards and scoring 25 total touchdowns, the team captain was equally dominant on defense with138 total tackles and 7.5 sacks. Gonzalez isn’t the only significant departure. The Wildcats also must find reinforcements for other All-State players including wideout Isaiah Smith, kicker Zachary Moore and All-Conference center Evan Lutz.

But, the cupboard isn’t totally bare on either side of the ball.

Key returnees include sophomore quarterback Jalen Brown (684 passing yards, 19 total touchdowns, one interception); senior tailback Jamaal Johnson (725 scrimmage yards, nine total touchdowns); and a pair of All-State honorees in senior defensive lineman Dylan Price (98 total tackles, 15.5 sacks) and sophomore offensive lineman Andrew Kilfoyl.

Also working in the Academy’s favor is the return of head coach Shawn Brown, who was recently named Florida Christian Association of Private and Parochial Schools (FCAPPS) Football Coach of the Year. Many of his assistants are expected to return, too.

Chad Walker, a former college coach, is Land O’ Lakes High’s new varsity football coach.

Can Land O’ Lakes turn the corner with its new coaching staff?
With new head coach Chad Walker in place, Land O’ Lakes hopes to reverse its streak of four consecutive losing seasons. Even at just 34, Walker brings a wealth of experience as a former college coach and professional player in Europe — knowledge he’ll use to try to inject excitement to one of the county’s most historic programs.

The Gators — coming off a 4-5 mark last year under former coach Brian Wachtel — won’t require a complete rebuild; they likely will feature some different schemes and wrinkles under the new coaching staff. Working in the program’s favor is a sizable senior class that includes 1,000-yard running back Kyle Leivas, leading pass catcher Nate Howard (14 receptions, 202 yards, one touchdown), and top defender Myron Bloom (76 total tacklers, five tackles for loss, two sacks). The role of quarterback, however, remains a question because of Ethan Forrester’s transfer to Wharton High School. Forrester, a rising junior, threw for nearly 800 yards along with five touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Will Cypress Creek show improvements in the program’s second year?
First-year sports programs typically struggle.

Cypress Creek High went 0-10 in their inaugural football season in 2017. (Courtesy of Cypress Creek Football)

Such was the case with newer Pasco County programs like both Sunlake and Wiregrass Ranch high schools back in 2007, when those programs went 0-10 and 1-9, respectively.

The same was true, more recently, for Cypress Creek, which completed its inaugural slate of 10 games without a single win. A new, young coaching staff combined with a senior-free roster and a mix of challenging opponents made Year One a long one, in which the Coyotes failed to score in seven games.

But, don’t be surprised to see the tide to shift a little in 2018 under second-year head coach Mike Johnson. He’ll finally have a large group of seniors at his disposal, including a talented pair of offensive playmakers in Devin Santana (10 receptions, 134 yards) and 6-foot-4 target Trevor Maxwell (10 receptions, 75 yards). Of course, development at the quarterback spot will be key. Rising junior Jehlani Warren completed just 37 percent of his passes and threw seven interceptions last season.

Can Zephyrhills continue winning without Charles Harrison III?
Whoever is named Zephyrhills High’s next starting quarterback no doubt has big shoes to fill.

The Zephyrhills High Bulldogs must replace graduating quarterback and three-year starter Charles Harrison III. (File)

For the past three years, the Bulldogs were fortunate to have one the county’s most prolific athletes under center in Charles Harrison III. He guided the Bulldogs to three consecutive playoffs appearances, including its first 10-win season in more than 20 years. Along with his on-field leadership, Bulldogs fans won’t soon forget the left-handed quarterback’s flashy playmaking ability with his arm and legs. That was most evident in last season, when Harrison III tallied 47 total touchdowns and more than 3,100 yards — numbers good enough to earn him Sunshine Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year.

He won’t be the only major departure from the defending District 8-5A champions, however. The Bulldogs also lose 1,000-yard rusher Elijah Thomas and several key defenders, including Zac Masci, Myles Carter and Sterlin Williams.

Even so, don’t be surprised if Zephyrhills finds a way to notch an eighth-straight winning season. Besides a steadying coaching presence in third-year head coach Nick Carroll, the Bulldogs have arguably the county’s most talented and explosive receiving corps in Ja’Quan Sheppard, Tre’Pavis Mobley, Cartrell Strong and Tyrese Wigfall. Both Sheppard and Strong hold Division I FBS offers.

Is Pasco in store for a winning season?
The Pasco High Pirates are looking to avoid a fourth-consecutive losing season. They were on track early in 2017 winning their first two contests. But, they ended the season on a six-game losing streak — including a 42-13 sour defeat to crosstown rival Zephyrhills in the season finale.

Pasco High is looking to avoid a fourth-straight losing season in 2018.
(Courtesy of Pasco High Football)

On the surface, the Pirates have the offensive talent to find more success this time around. Experienced senior quarterback Dylan Wood should have ample help with senior running backs Early Knight (778 yards, six touchdowns) and Jacquez Mobley (551 scrimmage yards, four touchdowns), along with one of the county’s most lethal receiving threats in junior wideout Darrion Robinson (25 receptions, 577 yards, eight touchdowns) — who’s also a threat in the defensive secondary (four interceptions, three passes defensed).

Defense as a whole, however, could once again pose issues as the Pirates graduate its top 11 tacklers from last season, including All-Conference linebacker Cameron Smith. The Pirates allowed nearly 30 points per game last season.

A challenging 2018 schedule won’t help matters, either. Just three if its 10 opponents (Gulf, Cypress Creek, Sunlake) had losing campaigns a year ago.

Five players to watch:

  • Chris Butash, quarterback, Carrollwood Day School, senior
  • Dylan Ridolph, linebacker, Wiregrass Ranch, junior
  • Jeromy Reid, running back, Gaither, senior
  • Deon Silas, running back, Steinbrenner, sophomore
  • Javion Hanner, running back/cornerback, Zephyrhills Christian Academy, senior

Schools in Laker/Lutz News Coverage Area (and their 2017 records)
Hillsborough County:

  • Carrollwood Day School Patriots (Class 2A-Region 3): (2-7 overall, 1-2 district)
  • Freedom High School Patriots (Class 7A-Region 8): (3-6 overall, 2-4 district)
  • Gaither High School Cowboys (Class 7A-Region 8): (7-4 overall, 5-1 district)
  • Steinbrenner High School Warriors (Class 8A-Region 6): (2-7 overall, 1-5 district)

Pasco County:

  • Academy at the Lakes Wildcats (8-man-Florida Christian Region 2): (11-1 overall, 7-0 district)
  • Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School Hurricanes (Independent-Sunshine State Athletic Conference (SSAC): (3-7 overall, 2-2 district)
  • Cypress Creek Middle High School Coyotes (Class 4A-Region 3): (0-11 overall, 0-0 district)
  • Land O’ Lakes High School Gators (Class 6A-Region 6): (4-5 overall, 1-3 district)
  • Pasco High School Pirates (Class 6A-Region 6): (4-7 overall, 0-4 district)
  • Sunlake High School Seahawks (Class 6A-Region 6): (4-6 overall, 2-2 district)
  • Wesley Chapel High School Wildcats (Class 5A-Region 8): (6-4 overall, 4-3 district)
  • Wiregrass Ranch High School Bulls (Class 7A-Region 8): (9-3 overall, 4-2 district)
  • Zephyrhills High School Bulldogs (Class 5A-Region 8): (10-2 overall, 7-0 district)
  • Zephyrhills Christian Academy Warriors (Class 2A-Region 2): (8-3 overall, 0-1 district)

Spring game schedule
May 17
Zephyrhills Christian Academy at Cypress Creek, 7 p.m.
Lecanto at Land O’ Lakes, 7 p.m.
Mitchell at Wesley Chapel 7 p.m.
Zephyrhills at East Ridge, 7 p.m.
Jamboree: Alonso, Gaither, Steinbrenner at Sickles, 6 p.m.
Jamboree: Freedom, Hillsborough, King at Wharton, 6 p.m.

May 18
Hernando at Sunlake, 7 p.m.
Wiregrass Ranch at Tampa Catholic, 7p.m.
Pasco at Fivay, 7 p.m.

May 19
Carrollwood Day at Bishop McLaughlin, 1 p.m.

May 24
Jamboree: Lakeside Christian, Solid Rock, Academy at the Lakes at Land O’ Lakes Recreation Complex, 6 p.m.

Published April 25, 2018

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