TAMPA — All season, Shaquille Speights had dutifully accepted a supporting role in Jefferson’s pass-oriented offense.
The 205-pound senior was the complementary jackhammer in an offense that preferred to play pitch-and-catch with its tall and fleet wide receivers.
But before Thursday night’s game against Sickles, Dragons coach Jeremy Earle sidled up to the brawny running back and told him the time had come for a star turn.
Speights was ready for the spotlight.
He rushed for 46 of his 75 yards in a tackle-busting fourth-quarter performance, setting up Deiondre Porter’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Jonathan Moore that gave the Dragons a 21-14 victory over Sickles.
“They didn’t want no more of me,” said Speights, who also scored on a 1-yard run in the first quarter. “The beast was unleashed. I gave it to them.”
Jefferson (3-4, 2-2) turned to Speights on a night that the Dragons finally answered Earle’s questions about his young team’s resilience in the face of shifting momentum.
After emerging 1-4 from a grueling five-game stretch that included county titans Robinson, Plant, Armwood and Hillsborough, the Dragons have rebounded with two straight victories against District 6A-8 opponents.
Sickles (4-3, 2-2) came to Jefferson on the emotional high of a 23-22 victory last week over then-undefeated Hillsborough — its first victory over the Terriers — and still in the running for a playoff spot.
But nursing a 14-7 lead midway through the third quarter, the Gryphons simply couldn’t hold off the Dragons any longer.
On fourth and 1 near midfield, Porter faked inside as if running a quarterback sneak then raced around the left end for a 51-yard touchdown to tie the game at 14.
“When I saw open field,” Porter said, “I just put on my 40 speed.”
Sickles squandered a couple more opportunities before Speights took over early in the fourth quarter. On the final scoring drive, he had carries of 5, 4, 5 and 8 yards before Porter found Moore on a slant.
“He’s a man among boys,” Earle said. “People just get tired of getting thumped like that.”
The Dragons managed to hold on down the stretch as Sickles moved into position for the tying touchdown. Facing second and 1 from Jefferson’s 16-yard line, Gryphons quarterback Nate Mills was intercepted by defensive back Junior Lewis.
Jefferson, which had been surrendering an average of 38 points, held Sickles to 168 yards — three fewer than Gryphons star tailback Ray Ray McCloud had against Hillsborough last Friday.