Following last year’s historic eight-man state title run, questions swirled about how the Academy at the Lakes football program would respond in 2018 with the loss a number of impactful seniors, including do-it-all tailback/linebacker Daniel Gonzalez, the 2017 Florida Christian Association of Private and Parochial Schools (FCAPPS) Heisman Trophy winner.
Fair to say, they’ve handled the adjustment with aplomb.
The Wildcats wrapped up their first undefeated regular season (7-0) in program history and secured the No. 1 seed in the FCAPPS eight-man playoffs — also part of a 17-game winning streak that dates back to Sept. 22, 2017.
Their attention now turns to the team winning its second straight eight-man state championship.
Academy at the Lakes will host Jacksonville Harvest Community in the FCAPPS state quarterfinals on Nov. 16 at 7 p.m.
For Wildcats head coach Shawn Brown, the groundwork for another state championship traces back to implementing dutiful, high-effort practices all season long, no matter the level of competition each week.
It’s a challenge the team has embraced, Brown said.
“They’re able to come out here and get started without me saying, ‘Hey, let’s go,’ and stay focused on staying serious has made a difference at practice. Now, with kids you’re going to have days where they get a little loose, but for the most part they’ve kept it serious,” Brown said at a recent late-season practice.
It’s undoubtedly something the Wildcats must do, with less depth this year, and without the safety net of Gonzalez, who could singlehandedly take over a game on offense (1,125 rushing yards, 25 touchdowns) and defense (138 total tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, three fumble-return touchdowns).
“I think a lot of times last year (Gonzalez) made things happen by himself, where this year I think we have to play more as a team,” Brown said.
That’s particularly been the case on defense.
The Wildcats have surrendered fewer than nine points per game this season.
They also haven’t allowed more than 13 points in any one game.
“It’s a different type of way that we’re beating people (this season). We’re not beating them explosively on the offensive side of the ball, but defensively we’ve kind of held things down,” explained Brown.
The coach credits the defense’s overall speed, also pointing out significant contributions from senior linebacker/end Dylan Price (56 tackles, 9.5 sacks) and the emergence of defensive backs Jullian Jennings (27 tackles, four interceptions) and Caleb Yann (20 tackles, three interceptions).
“We understand that we’ve got to make people work. I thought we’ve done a really good job with our run defense and our pass defense,” Brown said.
Overall teamwork has been at play this season, added Price, one of five team captains and the team’s starting tailback.
“Everybody’s doing their job,” Price said. “You don’t have people saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do this person’s job.’ We’re all sticking to our one job.”
He also noted the team this year was forced to “come together more” in lieu of Gonzalez and other impact players from 2017, such as leading receiver Isaiah Smith (864 scrimmage yards, 17 touchdowns) and star cornerback Jordan Oladokun (11 interceptions), who transferred to Gaither for his sophomore season.
Said Price: “We couldn’t just rely on someone like a Daniel (Gonzalez) or offense or a Jordan (Oladokun) on defense, so everyone’s had to do their part this year, so I mean we don’t have one person doing everything, everyone’s sharing the load.”
And, what the Wildcats may lack in dynamic playmakers, the team makes up for in knowledge of what it takes to win a state title, Price acknowledged.
“I think it helps,” Price said of the experience of last year’s state title run. “We’re not going to be completely clueless on, ‘Oh, what do we do here, what do we do there?’ We know what to expect. We know that people are going to come to play, and we’ve just got to play our best game.”
Meanwhile, the strides made at the quarterback position could also come in handy.
Sophomore Jalen Brown has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 823 yards and 21 total touchdowns (3 interceptions). He’s also added over 300 yards on the ground, as part of a balanced offensive attack.
His best performance came in a 46-13 win against Faith Christian on Oct. 19. With the Wildcats struggling to run the ball, Jalen Brown was tasked to get the job done through the air, throwing for 233 yards and four touchdowns on 12 of 17 passes.
“He’s proven to himself that he can take over a game,” said Wildcats quarterbacks coach/offensive assistance Jesus Soler. “That’s really the big leap from the beginning of the season until now, is we can just ask him to take over a game.”
Beyond the numbers, Soler noted the Wildcats three-year starter has shown marked improvements in everything from footwork and arm strength, to his decision-making.
“He understands the offense better than everybody. He is another coach on the field,” Soler said.
The assistant coach, too, believes Jalen Brown has legit college football potential, a relative rarity in the eight-man ranks.
“I think he could be a Division I quarterback. It’s just a matter of whether Division I teams will take a gamble on an eight-man quarterback,” Soler said. “He’s got the skillset already.”
For the time being, however, the young, but tested, quarterback is strictly focused on guiding the team to back-to-back state titles.
He feels it’s well within reach for the undefeated squad.
“I think we’ve got it skill-wise,” he said, “but, we’ve got to stay together as a group. No outside distractions.”
He added: “We’re not the team last year where we just came in and destroyed everybody. We actually have got to work for what we want. …We’ve just got to be together as a team and keep going hard for all four quarters.”
The signal-caller, too, is working to “be more of a leader” as the team gears up for the postseason.
“If I get down, I can’t do that being a leader. I have to stay positive and keep everything up,” he said.
If so, the Wildcats may once again be hoisting gold in December.
A look at Academy at the Lakes’ 17-game winning streak that dates to 2017
(The Wildcats last loss came on Sept. 7, 2017, a 50-35 home defeat to Eastland Christian)
Sept. 22: Canterbury (48-16 win)
Sept. 28: Solid Rock Community (80-0 win)
Oct. 2: at St. Lucie Christian (49-12 win)
Oct. 13: Lakeside Christian (40-21 win)
Oct. 20: at Donahue Catholic (36-0 win)
Oct. 27: Seacoast Christian Academy (68-7 win)
Nov. 3: at Hernando Christian Academy (57-29 win)
Nov. 17: Canterbury (54-6 win)
Dec. 1: Eastland Christian (46-6 win)
Dec. 9: Old Plank Christian Academy (30-9 win)
Sept. 14: Citi Christian Academy (24-12 win)
Sept. 21: at Solid Rock Community (53-6 win)
Sept. 28: at Canterbury (34-13 win)
Oct. 19: Faith Christian (46-13 win)
Oct. 26: St. Lucie Christian (13-0 win by forfeit)
Nov. 2: at Lakeside Christian (15-6 win)
Nov. 9: at Bell Creek Academy (52-0)
Published November 14, 2018