TAMPA — He was brimming with talent and tardy slips. To Robinson coaches, quarterback Blake Rice seemed instinctive, but also incorrigible. He might flourish in the film room, they figured, if he weren’t residing in detention.
“I had absolutely zero intention of ever making him the starting quarterback at Robinson High School. Zero,” Knights offensive coordinator Rob Burns said. “I said, ‘As long as he’s here he will not play football for Robinson.’ That’s how bone-headed he was.”
Such was the wayward trajectory of Rice’s football life as a freshman and sophomore on the Knights junior varsity. In both of those years, he says, he was suspended the day of the season opener. He insists his infractions were “nothing major,” but enough to make in-school suspension practically his second home.
“Whoa, that’s where he lived,” wideout Ruben Gonzalez said with a chuckle.
Today, Rice has taken up a new residence — smack in the middle of Robinson’s huddle.
When the Knights depart Friday morning for their Class 2A state semifinal at top-ranked Belle Glade Glades Central, it will be the first time their 1,900-yard passer has skipped class all year. For Rice, maturity has supplanted mischievousness. As a result, Robinson (10-2) is one victory from the state finals.
“He made some bonehead moves that just drove us crazy (in the past),” Knights coach Mike DePue said. “But he’s grown up. He has seen the light, no doubt about it.”
The concurrent transformation of Rice and Robinson, 2-8 last season, is far from coincidental. Though he possessed the potential to be the varsity starter as a sophomore, Rice’s frequent absences and malfeasances didn’t make him a viable option. As a result, the Knights staff had to alternate between senior A.J. Phillips and Gonzalez, a natural wideout. They combined for 697 passing yards, a touchdown and 10 interceptions.
“I could throw, but not the best, not like this guy right here,” Gonzalez said, pointing to Rice, seated next to him on a bench outside the team’s weight room. “I tried to make it all happen.”
Rice, by contrast, seemed to exert little effort in turning his life around. Things finally came to a head last fall, when Rice returned from his season-opening suspension from the JV team and had a heart-to-heart with Burns. The veteran coordinator’s message: If you’re willing to be coached, I’ll coach you. If not, don’t play football.
“And then he started opening up and the next thing you know it just snowballed,” Burns said.
Arguably the most underrated quarterback in Hillsborough County, the 5-foot-11 Rice has completed nearly 55 percent of his passes (107-for-196) for 1,909 yards, 26 TDs and eight interceptions.
What’s more, he has fostered a football IQ unseen in a Knights quarterback since 2005 Guy Toph Award winner Marcello Trigg, who passed for more than 7,000 yards in high school. In last week’s 41-18 rout of Wauchula Hardee, Rice actually suggested the play resulting in the Knights’ final touchdown, a 70-yard J.J. Hubbard run.
And Gonzalez? He has a team-high 39 catches for 599 yards and eight TDs.
“I knew Blake had a little arm on him for sure just from the seven-on-seven this past summer,” Gonzalez said. “And after the season last year, he started preparing to come up and try to play quarterback, or to be the starter. I could see that he had talent to be a quarterback and little by little he just developed, and now Blake Rice is leading us to victories on offense.”