Coach: Mike Gottman (11th season, 70-48)
Last season: 3-7
Colors: Vegas gold and navy
Stadium: Ron Frost Stadium, 4748 Cougar Path, Plant City
Playoff history: 2002, 2003, 2008, 2011, 2012
Last appearance: Beat Tampa Bay Tech 34-7; lost 21-14 to Newsome.
Aug. 29 vs. Armwood, 7:30
Sept. 5 at Sickles, 7:30
Sept. 12 at Tampa Bay Tech, 7:30
Sept. 19 vs. Plant City, 7:30
Sept. 26 at Gaither, 7:30
Oct. 2 at Strawberry Crest, 7
Oct. 10 vs. Newsome, 7:30
Oct. 17 at Brandon, 7:30
Oct. 24 vs. Hillsborough, 7:30
Oct. 31 vs. East Bay, 7:30
Mark your calendar
Sept. 19, Plant City at Durant: The Cougars start with Armwood, Sickles and Tampa Bay Tech, and things don’t get any easier with their district opener against the Raiders. But this hotly contested rivalry game will tell us right away if Durant will be a player in the 7A-8. “We have to beat Plant City,” said coach Mike Gottman. The Cougars had chances to win this game last year before losing 14-13 on a failed two-point conversion late, just the first heartbreaking close loss in a season filled with them.
Bad news is good news: If there is a silver lining to losing four games by 11 total points, it’s that the younger players who are now starters understand the importance of finishing. Gottman has been preaching that while the team was 3-7 last year, with a little bit of consistency and determination in the waning moments of games, the Cougars could have easily been 7-3. “They know the fine line between winning and losing,” he said.
Backs are back: The Cougars’ rushing attack averaged 2,300 yards and scored 101 touchdowns the three seasons before last, when it slipped to 1,517 yards and just nine touchdowns. Can it get better this year? Maybe. Running backs Chris Atkins and Kadarius Griffin, who both ran for 400 yards last season, are back but only one starter returns on the offensive line, which is Durant’s biggest weakness.
Air Gottman? The coach is high on new quarterback Erick Davis, who only threw five passes last year but is athletic, makes good decisions and has a good arm. He’ll also have big targets to throw to, and Gottman thinks the Cougars could do more damage in the air this season.
Youthful defense: The Durant defensive line will be small but quick, says Gottman, and the linebackers are young. The defensive backs will be the unit’s strength.
RB Chris Atkins, Sr.: Atkins begins his fourth season on varsity and has seemingly been on the verge of a breakout season for two years now. But injuries have slowed him down. For his career, he has 1,579 yards and 18 touchdowns, but is expected to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2014.
FB Kadarius Griffin, Sr.: Voted the team captain, he will be one of the Durant’s go-to guys this season. Gottman calls him “Little Derrick Brooks” for his ability to lead his teammates.
WR Garrett Rentz, Sr.: Rentz led the team in receiving last year with 17 catches for 295 yards, and at 6-5 he will be easy to spot. Teammate and second-leading receiver Joe Williamson is 6-4 and starts at tight end, and 6-3 Aaron Zofnas is another tall pass catching target.
LB Blake Moody, Jr.: The leading returner in sacks (two) and tackles (37), Moody is the only starter back and heads up a young linebacking corps.
PK Derek Wells, Sr.: Wells led the team in scoring last year and didn’t miss a kick, making all nine extra points and all six of his field goals.
QB Erick Davis, Sr.: It’s his first year as the starting quarterback, but Davis has previously impressed with his athleticism as a defensive back.
RB Jalen Forte, Jr.: Smaller at 5-8, 162 than Atkins and Griffin, Forte is a speedy back able to hit the holes and go.
OL Kensey Davis, Sr.: A huge (6-4, 330) pickup, the Mulberry transfer will be the Cougars’ best offensive lineman. Gottman says if he can learn to play with a mean streak, look out.
OL Steven Witchosky, So.: A junior varsity player last year, Witchosky (6-2, 210) has fit right in on the new offensive line as he battles to start at the left tackle spot.
OL Christian Valdez, So.: A 6-0, 235-pound addition to the offensive line, Valdez has had a solid camp.
DB Jaden Garrett, So.: A little undersized for a safety at 5-8, 155 pounds, Garrett has impressed with great instincts for the ball.
DBs Avry, Sr., and Xavier Walden, Jr.: Avry played on varsity last year, Xavier is making the jump from JV, and the brothers will start at corner this season.
FB/DT Kameron Joyce, So.: At a solid 6-2, 245, Joyce is an intriguing prospect on the defensive line and also at a fullback in an offense that often produces productive fullbacks.
“Last year was a long year. We found ways to lose football games; it was one of those years. I think the kids didn’t realize you have to make winning happen.” — Gottman