EAST LAKE — One of the unavoidable realities for East Lake High quarterback Jake Hudson is being compared with Pete DiNovo, the most prolific passer in Pinellas County.
DiNovo, who graduated in December 2012, set county career records for passing yards (6,733) and touchdowns (59), and guided the Eagles to two straight region final appearances, the farthest the school has advanced in the postseason.
Jake, who attempted just eight passes in backup duty to DiNovo, was handed an offense that has major Division I recruits such as left tackle Mason Cole (Michigan) and receivers Artavis Scott (Clemson) and George Campbell (Michigan).
But Jake didn’t inherit the spotlight simply because he was taking over a high-profile position. He also is the son of head coach Bob Hudson.
“There has definitely been some pressure,” Jake said. “Those were some big shoes to fill taking over for Pete. There was some nervousness because all of the sudden I’m the guy, and it all comes down to me.”
Jake, a junior, said he has great respect for DiNovo’s achievements and isn’t trying to make people forget one of the most recognizable quarterbacks to come through the bay area.
“I’m not trying to be Pete,” he said.
All Jake had to do was become a reasonable facsimile of his predecessor. He has put up modest numbers with 1,054 passing yards to go along with eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
But there is one stat where Jake has topped DiNovo: wins.
Jake helped the Eagles go undefeated in the regular season for the first time and set the school record for victories (12). On Friday, he can lead East Lake to its first state semifinal appearance with a win over Port Charlotte (11-1) in the Class 7A region final.
“Jake was put in a rather unique situation,” Bob Hudson said. “He was taking over a pretty successful program that had an all-star-caliber quarterback leading it. He had all these weapons around him and he’s the coach’s son.
“I’m sure there were a lot of people on the outside that could have been critical. But as I told Jake, winning makes the transition a whole lot easier. And that’s what we’ve been able to do.”
Jake has forever been around football, whether it was on the field or tagging along on the sideline during his father’s games. But he never was groomed to be a quarterback. He didn’t play the position until eighth grade.
For the past two years, Jake was able to learn from the best, absorbing as much information as he could from DiNovo.
“Jake has handled everything well,” DiNovo said. “He watched and learned from me all last season, and I think that helped him be more prepared this year. I try to help whenever I can. I was on the sideline at last week’s game and gave him advice on what I was able to see on routes and plays.”
The position was not simply handed to Jake. He had to compete for the job against Jordan Leston and Brandon Swift in the spring. It wasn’t until late August that Jake was named the starter.
“Jake knew from the start that he was going to earn the job,” Hudson said. “Just because he’s my son didn’t mean that it was going to be easy for him. I’m probably harder on him than anyone else.”
To win over teammates, Jake knew he would have to do more than perform on the field. He has grown out his hair along with the rest of the offensive linemen, becoming an honorary member of the “Dirty Gang,” the moniker those in the trenches gave themselves.
The first start was a tough one — a 38-7 loss to perennial power Bradenton Manatee. Since then, the Eagles have rolled, outscoring opponents a combined 530-68.
The running game has been strong, averaging 219 yards per game. The defense has been dominant, recording a school-record five shutouts. The special teams have been opportunistic with nine touchdowns on returns.
That has put less of the burden on Jake to have to win games with his arm.
“Jake has benefited from having a great bunch of seniors and other guys who have been here a while who have a knack for making the big play,” East Lake quarterbacks coach Jamie Burke said. “A quarterback’s best friend is having a good defense and special teams.”
The games are only going to get harder — and closer — the farther East Lake advances in the playoffs. That means Jake will eventually be asked to drive the team down the field on a potential winning drive.
“Jake has been solid,” Burke said. “He’s read defenses well and is making smart decisions. He is more than capable of pushing the ball down the field and making big throws.”
Class 7A region final
Port Charlotte (11-1) at East Lake (12-0)
Up next: The winner hosts the West Palm Beach Dwyer-Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas winner in the state semifinals.
About Port Charlotte: The Pirates, in the playoffs for just the fifth time in school history, have won their first two postseason games. Their success is due in large part to a solid run game and suffocating defense. Port Charlotte uses an option attack and relies on a number of backs. Quarterback Traige McClary, a senior, has thrown for more than 1,000 yards and has avoided making the costly turnover. On defense, the Pirates use their massive linemen to occupy as many blockers as possible, which allows the linebackers to make plays. The strategy has worked with Port Charlotte allowing just 110 points this season.