By Kyle LoJacono
The 2011 Wesley Chapel football team had its first winning season in seven years, but the job to stay above .500 will fall on a new cast of characters.
The Wildcats (6-4) lost 19 seniors to graduation, including a Pasco County-leading 13 who signed to play in college.
“We’re young and inexperienced, which you’d expect losing so many seniors,” said Wesley Chapel coach Ben Alford. “We’re only returning four or five starters. Inexperience is going to be our biggest obstacle, so we have to scale back the schemes. We have to teach is the biggest thing. We need to teach some football IQ. We’ve got some smart kids so I think they’ll be able to get it, but we’ve got to teach it.
“Last year we had the kind of players where we could be sluggish and still win games,” Alford continued. “This year we can’t. We have to be perfect, but in a way it’s more fun for me because I have to spend more time with them and it’s more of a challenge.”
Alford said he will be leaning on returning starters even more than usual because of the high number of players with limited experience. One of those is junior defensive end Hunter Robinson, whose four sacks are the most of anyone remaining from 2011.
“I think I have to step up both on and off the field,” Robinson said. “I have to be more of a leader. We have some good potential with the young guys. We just have to work with them. If I show them I’ll play hard then they’ll play hard.”
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Robinson will also see time at right tackle on offense.
“We’re probably going to have to play both ways because we don’t have a lot of guys, so we’re all going to have to learn the plays on offense and defense,” Robinson said. “The thing is a lot of us can play both ways, so as long as we get in shape to play both ways and get everything down we should be fine.”
Another potential two-way player is sophomore outside linebacker/tight end Lawrence Harbottlefraticelli, who is known as Nalu.
“Nalu is probably the guy who knows football the most on the team,” Alford said. “He’s going to play everywhere needed. He plays linebacker and tight end, but if we asked him to play center he would do it without question and he’d get the job done.”
Nalu, who had 33 tackles and two interceptions last season, sees the defensive front seven coming together after losing its top-two tacklers and top sacker to graduation.
“I feel like we’re meshing,” Nalu said. “We’re going to miss those guys, but I think we have the players to fill those spots. I actually like playing on a young team because we can all stay together for a few years and build chemistry.”
The defense also returns safety Josias Vizcano, who posted 41 tackles and a team-high four interceptions in 2011. The sophomore will contribute at running back after the Wildcats graduated their leading rusher, Devin Piper (479 rushes, four touchdowns).
Also adding to the offensive backfield is sophomore Jose Perez.
“I just have to work hard to help fill that spot as much as I can,” Perez said. “I played running back before, but not at Wesley Chapel. I like playing running back because all you have to do is follow your blocks and don’t stop. Just keep things simple at the line.”
One position that is set is quarterback, where Ty Tanner will be under center. The 5-foot-8, 145-pound lefty is only a freshman, but he started five games last season and completed 51-of-96 passes for 815 yards and nine touchdowns with 249 yards on 69 carries and another six scores.
“We had a lot of seniors last year, including my brother, Keegan,” Tanner said. “Losing those guys is going to be tough and weird because the younger guys are used to having them around. I think I’ll have to be more of a leader, but we have some great seniors who are great leaders too.”
Alford has seen Tanner grow a lot since getting his first start at quarterback.
“It was good that he got to play some last year,” Alford said. “His first couple of starts he was nervous. Now he’s more comfortable, and he’s taken on a leadership role. He’s going to be fine.”
The team is young, but the Wildcats have no interest in taking a step back this season.
“We’re trying to get everyone’s mind right,” Robinson said. “When you’ve lost a lot sometimes you get used to losing. We don’t want to be like that. I feel like we’re stepping things up. We’re very competitive, and I feel like last season gave us some momentum.”
Wesley Chapel will get its first test in its spring jamboree at Sunlake May 25 at 7 p.m. Cross-town rival Wiregrass Ranch will also compete at the contest.
“When I heard we get to play Wiregrass in the spring game I was excited,” Tanner said. “They’re always the team we want to beat, so it’ll have a little more energy than a normal spring game.”
–Stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches