High school football is back in session, as spring football practices are now underway statewide.
And, while the 2019 prep season remains months away, Florida high school football fans still will get a taste of how their teams are shaping up with a series of exhibition games and jamborees in late May.
Florida high schools are allowed a maximum of 20 practice sessions from April 22 through May, according to Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) guidelines. The first allowable day for full-contact tackling is April 27.
Take a look at these five area teams to watch as spring practices ramp up:
Academy at the Lakes Wildcats
The back-to-back defending eight-man Florida Christian Association of Private and Parochial Schools (FCAPPS) state champion Wildcats will have another target on its back as it enters the new season on a 20-game winning streak (including a win by forfeit) dating back to September of 2017.
But, that shouldn’t faze an Academy at the Lakes squad that again returns the father-son combo of head coach Shawn Brown and rising junior quarterback Jalen Brown.
Shawn Brown is a two-time reigning FCAPPS Coach of the Year, while Jalen Brown won the 2018 FCAPPS Heisman Trophy Winner award, given to the eight-man league’s top player.
Last season the 6-foot-2, 180-pound quarterback completed nearly 58 percent of his throws for 1,105 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also rushed for 672 yards and 10 touchdowns on 93 carries.
In addition to Jalen Brown, the team returns All-Conference standouts in center Dwight Downing and defensive end Elijah Freedman. Also expect significant contributions from the likes of tailback Adrian Leverette, receivers Cole Lallanilla and Caleb Yann, and linebacker Denzyl Downing, among others.
Perhaps the biggest question for the Wildcats is finding ways to replace the production left behind by graduating All-State linebacker Dylan Price and All-State defensive back Jullian Jennings, as well as All-State offensive lineman Andrew Kilfoyl, who has since transferred to Gaither.
Land O’ Lakes Gators
Under new head coach Chad Walker, the Gators achieved its first winning season since 2013, going 7-3 and narrowly missing out on a playoff berth.
The turnaround season also included a 35-24 win over crosstown foe Sunlake to crack an eight-game losing streak in the annual ‘Butter Bowl’ rivalry game.
Naturally, fans of the storied Pasco County program will expect similar success again this year.
It won’t come easy, however, as the team moves on from a sizable senior class that included its leading rusher, leading receiver, leading tackler and top kicking specialists.
Working in the team’s favor, though, is the return of one of the area’s top signal callers in rising senior quarterback and two-year starter Ethan Forrester.
Last season the 6-foot-3, 220-pound athlete completed nearly 52 percent of his passes for 1,429 yards, 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. He also rushed for 155 yards and three touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the Gators have put together a tough 2019 regular season slate that includes five teams that made the playoffs last season — Gaither, Mitchell, Tampa Catholic, Wiregrass Ranch and Zephyrhills Christian, respectively.
Following a disappointing 2-7 output in 2017, the Warriors rebounded last year to finish 6-5 overall with a 4-2 mark in District 6-8A, including a four-game winning streak to close out the season.
With a bevy of returning talent, the momentum should continue into 2019 under longtime head coach Andres Perez-Reinaldo.
The Warriors feature multiple NCAA FBS Division I football targets, such as receivers Aidan Bitter and Dean Patterson, and Matthew Adcock, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound offensive lineman.
The squad is stacked with other playmakers, too.
Quarterback Haden Carlson, the son of former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jeff Carlson, is poised to build off a junior campaign where he completed 54 percent of his passes for 1,418 yards, 10 total touchdowns and four interceptions.
The rising senior will have plenty of weapons at his disposal in the likes of Bitter (32 receptions, 568 yards, six touchdowns), Patterson (39 receptions, 391 yards, two touchdowns), Jett Law (22 receptions, 212 yards) and Deon Silas (1,198 all-purpose yards), among others.
The Warriors also return several of its top players on the other side of the ball, including rising junior linebacker Austin Brannen, who registered 130 total tackles, including 12 for loss.
Meanwhile, special teams figure to be another strength, with All-State punter Cameron Brown, kicker Trevor Haire, and a return game that collectively averaged 28.2 yard on kick returns and 13.2 yards on punt returns.
Wiregrass Ranch Bulls
With a string of three consecutive winning seasons and playoff appearances under head coach Mark Kantor, Wiregrass Ranch seems positioned for another year as one of Pasco County’s premier programs.
And, most any win will be hard earned in 2019, particularly with new district foes in Class 6A state runner-up Armwood, East Bay and Tampa Bay Tech.
In fact, every opponent on the Bulls’ 10-game schedule sported a winning record last season, aside from crosstown rival Wesley Chapel, who finished with a 5-5 mark. Of those teams, half qualified for the playoffs from their respective classification.
Fortunately for the Bulls, the team has the benefit of experience on its side with about two dozen rising seniors.
That includes one of the Sunshine State’s most productive defensive players in first team All-State linebacker Dylan Ridolph.
Ridolph’s 22 sacks last season ranked second in the state, trailing only Winter Garden Foundation Academy’s Warren Sapp II (24). The 6-foot, 215-pound Ridolph already holds the county record for most career sacks (37).
Some other upperclassman to keep an eye on include defensive back Jonavon Tills (five interceptions) and tailback Keith Walker (667 all-purpose yards, nine touchdowns).
Meantime, the Bulls will have to break in a new quarterback with the graduation of two-year starter Grant Sessums.
Such duty will likely fall to promising rising senior dual-threat quarterback Hunter Helton.
Last season Helton served as the team’s backup quarterback option, but showcased his athleticism as the team’s leading receiver (16 receptions, 315 yards, four touchdowns).
His last extended action under center came as a sophomore on junior varsity, where he completed nearly 54 percent of his throws for 557 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception.
Going undefeated in the regular season on its way to securing its second straight district title, the Zephyrhills Bulldogs in 2018 put together one of the more notable campaigns in recent memory.
It also added to the program’s tally of winning seasons, which now numbers eight straight dating back to 2011.
Maintaining their sustained dominance this year may prove challenging, though, as the Bulldogs say farewell to 23 seniors from last year’s 11-1 squad, 10 of whom earned All-Conference honors.
Among that group is the team’s starting quarterback, several leading receivers, multiple leading tacklers and top special teamers.
Serving another blow to the team’s 2019 depth: All-Conference linebacker Ja’varrius Wilson recently announced his intention to transfer to Clearwater Academy International for his senior year. He was fourth on the team in tackles (91) and second in tackles for loss (18).
On the bright side for Zephyrhills, up-and-coming head coach Nick Carroll returns for 2019, looking to build upon a combined 29-6 mark his first three seasons.
Of course, the Bulldogs won’t be totally devoid of impactful playmakers in 2019.
Rising senior two-way lineman Demetris Wright (40 pancake blocks, 30 tackles), and rising juniors Zyre Roundtree (541 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and Tre Gallimore (45 tackles, two interceptions) are a few to watch, among others.
Schools in Laker/Lutz News coverage area (and their 2018 records)
- Carrollwood Day School Patriots: 6-6 overall, 2-2 region
- Freedom High School Patriots: 4-6 overall, 2-4 district
- Gaither High School Cowboys: 7-4 overall, 4-2 district
- Steinbrenner High School Warriors: 6-5 overall, 4-2 district
- Academy at the Lakes Wildcats: (10-0 overall, 7-0 district)
- Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School Hurricanes: (4-5 overall, 3-1 district)
- Cypress Creek Middle High School Coyotes: (3-7 overall, 1-0 region)
- Land O’ Lakes High School Gators: (7-3 overall, 2-2 district)
- Pasco High School Pirates: (2-8 overall, 0-4 district)
- Sunlake High School Seahawks: (4-6 overall, 1-3 district)
- Wesley Chapel High School Wildcats: (5-5 overall, 4-3 district)
- Wiregrass Ranch High School Bulls: (7-4 overall, 4-2 district)
- Zephyrhills Christian Academy Warriors: (7-4 overall, 0-1 region)
- Zephyrhills High School Bulldogs: (11-1 overall, 6-0 district)
Spring game schedule
East Ridge at Zephyrhills
Zephyrhills Christian at Fivay
Jamboree: Freedom, King, Wharton at Hillsborough
Jamboree: Gaither, Sickles, Steinbrenner at Alonso
Anclote at Sunlake
Cypress Creek at Pasco
Land O’ Lakes at Wesley Chapel
Wiregrass Ranch at East Lake
Bishop McLaughlin at Carrollwood Day
Jamboree: Academy at the Lakes, Master’s Academy, Lakeside Christian, Solid Rock at Land O’ Lakes Recreation Center
Player to watch from each area team
- Shelton Quarles Jr., Carrollwood Day, athlete
- Tawfiq Thomas, Freedom, defensive tackle
- Chance Coleman, Gaither, linebacker
- Deon Silas, Steinbrenner, athlete
- Jalen Brown, Academy at the Lakes, quarterback
- Adam Berry, Bishop McLaughlin, tailback
- Jalen Warren, Cypress Creek, athlete
- Ethan Forrester, Land O’ Lakes, quarterback
- Darrion Robinson, Pasco, receiver
- Jonathan Wallace, Sunlake, defensive end
- Jelani Vassell, Wesley Chapel, athlete
- Dylan Ridolph, Wiregrass Ranch, linebacker
- Zyre Roundtree, Zephyrhills, tailback
- Malik Jones, Zephyrhills Christian, defensive lineman
Published April 24, 2019