LAND O’LAKES — After Sunlake coach Bill Browning decided to go for two and the win in the closing minutes of Friday’s Class 6A region quarterfinal, senior running back Jerome Samuels faced a decision of his own.
Would he find a seam behind his massive offensive line and stroll across the goal line? Would he use his powerful 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame to steam roll Ocala Vanguard? Would he soar over the line and into the end zone?
“I knew I was going to go in,” Samuels said. “I was just thinking, ‘How was I going to do it this time?’ Was I going to walk in? Was I going to have to plow my way in and jump over?’ ”
Samuels settled on a leap, and Sunlake secured its first playoff win, 22-21 at Vanguard.
Three years ago, Samuels tackled a different decision: Should he even play football?
Samuels tried the sport in peewee leagues as a kid, but football never grabbed him. He focused on basketball.
“And I’m not even good at basketball,” Samuels said.
His older brother convinced him to play football as a freshman, and something stuck this time. Samuels hated the work, but the crack-back blocks and open-field cuts became an acquired taste.
“I remember my first practice — it was the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Samuels said. “I came back out. The more I kept coming, the more I hated it, but the more I kept coming. …”
The better he became.
Samuels began his high school career on defense but shifted toward offense as sophomore. He rushed for 182 yards and three touchdowns last fall in a secondary role.
Entering this season, Browning knew Samuels would have to get more than the 37 carries he had as a junior for Sunlake’s backfield by committee to function.
“He’s a strong, powerful kid with good speed, so it’s just a matter of him learning the game more and getting better at the fundamentals of the game,” Browning said.
Samuels’ fundamentals improved, and the work fueled him to one of the county’s breakout seasons. He leads Sunlake with 503 rushing yards and six touchdowns. His 83 carries are also most on the team, something Samuels didn’t expect in August.
The Seahawks rely on Samuels because he adds a different skill set to the backfield. Rashaud Daniels and Mike Lopez are speedy slashers. Samuels is a bruiser.
“He brings power,” said Daniels, second on the team with 75 carries for 464 yards. “We’ve got two different types of running backs with me and Mike as far as the speed and the niftyness, and Jerome just brings something that Sunlake really hasn’t had in a while — a power running back.”
And Sunlake wouldn’t be 10-1 heading into Friday’s region semifinal at Gainesville (9-2) without its power running back.
With the score tied in the second quarter against rival Land O’Lakes last month, Samuels took a handoff on fourth and 1. He powered through the middle of the defense for a 28-yard touchdown that put the Seahawks up for good. The score set up Sunlake’s first win over the Gators and essentially locked up the school’s first playoff appearance.
“It was a ways (to go), and I was expecting him to get a few yards,” receiver Jamal Jones said, “but man, it broke, and he got the touchdown.”
Samuels’ defensive presence is less obvious but no less important. He doesn’t have gaudy statistics (29 tackles, four sacks), but he disrupts plays on a unit that hasn’t allowed more than 22 points all season.
In practice this week, Samuels’ pressure at defensive end helped his line swallow the scout team quarterback. On the next play, Samuels sped around the edge to force the quarterback to roll right and into the path of two blitzers.
“I’m not making 15, 20 tackles a game,” Samuels said, “but I’m always there to mess the play up, to help someone else out.”
Samuels’ biggest play of the season came last week, when Sunlake put its season in the hands of a player who’s still learning the game.
“Anybody could have just ran in there and did it,” quarterback Cameron Stoltz said, “but he dove in.”
And thanks to the leap of their powerful runner and recent football convert, the Seahawks dove into the playoffs’ second round.
Staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.