Fans of the local prep football scene can finally get excited — the 2021 varsity high school football season is gearing up.
Preseason classics begin Aug. 20 and the regular season kicks off Aug. 27 in the state of Florida.
Here we take a closer look at Hillsborough County teams in The Laker/Lutz News coverage area — Carrollwood Day, Freedom, Gaither, Steinbrenner and Wharton high schools. We look at how they stack up for this upcoming campaign, where some teams figure to be powerhouses, while others are in rebuilding mode.
A preview of Pasco County programs from the coverage area will publish next week.
Carrollwood Day School Patriots (Class 3A-3)
Coach: Marshall McDuffie, first year
Among them is rising junior offensive lineman Clay Wedin, who measures 6-foot-6, 290 pounds.
Wedin has garnered strong interest — and ensuing scholarship offers — from a bevy of blue-blood programs, including Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State and Tennessee, among others.
Meantime, the defense is propelled by 6-foot-3, 275-pound senior Brandon Cleveland, a North Carolina State verbal commit who posted 46 tackles (including 18 for loss) and 11 sacks last season.
Beyond the trenches, the Patriots seemingly have a limitless supply of budding skill-position athletes who can rack up yardage and touchdowns with relative ease.
Translating talent and counting stats into victories is key for a team of predominantly underclassman, under first-year head coach Marshall McDuffie.
The team went 5-5 last year under former coach Mike Jones, with three defeats by nine points or fewer.
The Patriots should get ample opportunities to see how they stack up against some of the state’s better small schools, including Northside Christian, Ocala Trinity Catholic, Seffner Christian and Cambridge Christian high schools, among others.
Freedom High School Patriots (6A-9)
Coach: Christopher Short, third year
Freedom hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2014 — when former coach Todd Donohoe led that year’s squad to a 6-4 mark.
Coaching turnover hasn’t helped matters, as the program has had three other head coaches since Donohoe.
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The Patriots struggled again last season — with a winless 0-9 record, mired by several blowout defeats.
They allowed nearly 37.9 points per game, while only scoring an average of 12.2 points per game.
The team, however, seemed to show signs of progress, with its final two games of 2020 decided by six points or fewer.
Another positive building block was an 8-7 spring game victory over King High in late May.
At least one issue the team faces is replacing the production of tailback Robby Washington, a University of Miami verbal commit who’s since transferred to a high school in the Miami area.
Washington paced the Patriots with 1,219 all-purpose yards (535 rushing yards, 255 receiving yards, 429 kick return yards) and nine touchdowns.
Despite a somewhat challenging schedule and lingering roster questions, Freedom appears to have a couple winnable games on its slate, such as Blake (1-7 in 2020) and Strawberry Crest (1-8) high schools.
Gaither High School Cowboys (7A-9)
Coach: Kirk Karsen, fifth year
There’s not much to nitpick with a Gaither program that returns myriad contributors from a squad that went 11-1 and reached the 6A regional final before falling to Lake Minneola High last December.
Among the larger question marks leading into 2021: Who would be the Cowboys’ offensive leader following the graduation of prolific dual-threat quarterback Kiael Kelly, at Division I FBS Ball State in Muncie, Indiana?
That problem appears solved, with the incoming transfer of junior quarterback Brooks Bentley, from River Bluff High School in Lexington, South Carolina.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound pro-style signal-caller has scholarship offers from Division I FCS programs such as Eastern Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State.
He is the son of University of South Florida assistant football coach Bobby Bentley, who serves as the program’s wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator.
Brooks’ three older brothers also are recognizable names who played quarterback in high school and college — Chas Dodd (Rutgers), Shuler Bentley (Old Dominion, Murray State) and Jake Bentley (Arkansas, Utah).
The fresh-faced Cowboys quarterback will have at least one reliable target in speedy senior wideout Drelin Pittman, who paced the team last season in receptions (33) and receiving yards (542), to go along with four scores.
Meanwhile, a pair of All-State performers return in senior defensive linemen Mario Eugenio and Tawfiq Thomas — both of whom are highly-touted recruits for blue-chip Division I FBS programs.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Eugenio — who led the Cowboys in sacks (18) last season — is a Michigan verbal commit and consensus four-star recruit.
The 6-foot-5, 310-pound Thomas — who registered 15 tackles for loss last season — is a consensus three-star recruit who’s considering Arkansas, Iowa State, Louisville, Michigan, Kansas and USF.
The Cowboys have been on quite the roll under head coach Kirk Karsen — going a combined 37-11 since 2017, including 23-3 the last two seasons.
The Cowboys move up from Class 6A to 7A, with district foes now Largo, Leto, Mitchell and Sickles high schools.
Steinbrenner High School Warriors (8A-11)
Coach: Andres Perez, 10th year
Steinbrenner has many impact players on both sides of the ball to replace from last season, several of whom are now entering the college football ranks.
Silas set multiple school career marks over his four varsity seasons, where he totaled 5,570 all-purpose yards (2,734 rushing yards, 1,428 receiving yards, 1,408 return yards) and 55 touchdowns. It’s no surprise why he was ranked the No. 11 all-purpose back nationally for the 2021 recruiting class by 247Sports.com.
Though big shoes to fill, junior Kirby Voorhees appears poised to handle the void in the running game after rushing for 438 yards and eight touchdowns on 61 carries last season.
The 5-foot-10, 190-pound rusher also has generated quite the buzz on social media for his weightlifting abilities.
Meanwhile, the Warriors will have to mold a new starting quarterback after the graduation of Bryce Lowe (Wisconsin’s Carthage College ), though Ty Robinson earned some playing time last season as a freshman.
Steinbrenner does have some strengths to rely upon, meanwhile.
The linebacking corps figures to be in solid shape with seniors Colin Bernstein (66 tackles, seven for loss) and Keenan Cruz (48 tackles, eight for loss).
The legs of senior punter Griffin Wiltse and junior kicker Collin Young help, too.
Wiltse has a career average of 35.7 yards per punt. Young last season made five of six field goals (including a long of 42 yards) and was 28-for-28 on extra points.
Wharton High School Wildcats (7A-10)
Coach: Mike Williams Sr., second year
Wharton looks to build off its first postseason appearance since 2013, under the tutelage of second-year coach Mike Williams Sr.
The 37-year-old coach has brought pedigree and name recognition to a program that was headed up by longtime coach David Mitchell the previous 15 years.
Williams was a seven-year NFL veteran and a first-round pick in 2005 by the Detroit Lions out of Southern Cal — where he earned All-American honors. (He also starred at Tampa Plant High in the early 2000s.)
In Williams’ first season, the Wildcats finished 7-2 last season — winning its first six games in a row before losing two of its last three against Durant (20-9) and Newsome (21-7), respectively.
Keep a keen eye on All-State senior linebacker Daveon Crouch, a Boston College verbal commit who led the team in sacks (12) last year.
Another player who gets after the quarterback consistently is sophomore Booker Pickett Jr., who was second on the team last season in sacks with eight.
He also has bloodlines on his side. His father, Booker, was a standout defensive end at Zephyrhills High who went on to play for the University of Miami.
Molding a new starting quarterback following the graduations of Emery Floyd and Kadin Durgan is amid lingering question marks for the Wildcats.
The schedule will be far from a cakewalk. Looming foes include the likes of Jesuit, Wiregrass Ranch, Jefferson, Tampa Bay Tech and Armwood high schools, among others.
Schools in The Laker/Lutz News coverage area (and their 2020 records)
- Carrollwood Day School Patriots (5-5)
- Freedom High School Patriots (0-9)
- Gaither High School Cowboys (11-1)
- Steinbrenner High School Warriors (4-3)
- Wharton High School Wildcats (7-2)
Published August 18, 2021