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For a Class 8A football team with just 35 players on its varsity roster to be undefeated going into the midway point of the regular season, it has to have its share of grinders – players who do their part on both sides of the ball with little fanfare.
And as Alonso (5-0, 1-0), off to its best start since 2003, prepares for Friday’s non-district game against fellow unbeaten Plant City (5-0, 2-0) there might not be a more valuable under-the-radar player than Ravens fullback/linebacker Derrick Nealy.
The 6-foot, 215-pound senior arrived on Alonso’s campus – he moved from California -- last spring and has immediately become a critical part of the Ravens game plan.
“He started a little slow and he had a thumb injury and we really weren’t able to unleash his potential,” Alonso first-year coach Brian Emanuel said. “But the last couple games, at both fullback and linebacker he’s really blossomed.”
Emanuel needed a hard-nosed fullback to implement his pro-style I-formation offense – and to open holes for Alonso’s talented tailback duo of Brandon Holloway and Ish Witter. Nealy fits that role perfectly.
On defense, Nealy is the team’s starting inside linebacker, but he’s been utilized all over the field – as a defensive end, defensive tackle and nose guard. In Thursday’s 20-14 district win over Bloomingdale, Nealy registered 12 tackles and was a menace in the backfield rushing the quarterback lining up at rush end.
So when does Neely come off the field?
“Kickoffs, maybe?” Neely, 17, shrugged.
“I’ve never played the line except for defensive end,” Nealy said. “When I’ve lined up at tackle and nose I’m like, ‘Wow, this is really different.’ But it’s a good experience too.”
Nealy, however, is used to change. Growing up in Lakeland, he lost his father to cancer at the age of seven. In the fifth grade, he moved to California with his older sister, who was in the military. He then returned to Florida last year for his senior year.
“It was a little tough,” Nealy said. “You get comfortable over there and then you have to start all over basically. It honestly hasn’t been that tough though. When push comes to shove, you make your best of it.”
And now Nealy is making the best of playing on a new team and making his senior season a memorable one.
“We really just need to keep our heads focused and not get overconfident about it,” Nealy said about facing Plant City. “We might not be the biggest team, but we’re not afraid to hit. We’ve got to come out there hard and play our game.”
Reach Times staff writer Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @EddieHometeam.