ST. PETERSBURG — The Gibbs football team currently has more issues than a Barnes & Noble magazine rack.
The Gladiators lost their best playmaker for the season when running back Emmanuel Stewart tore his ACL in Week 2. Monday, they learned that quarterback/middle linebacker Devontae White had suffered the same fate and same injury.
The Gladiators started the season 3-0 but had to forfeit a season-opening victory over St. Petersburg for playing transfer running back Jeremy Williams when he was supposed to serve a three-game suspension stemming from a fight last year while at Dunedin.
And Friday, the Gladiators stumbled against Dunedin, falling 9-6 in a district game that appeared to be a comfortable win on paper.
Lost in the shuffle, however, as the Gladiators prepare for the inaugural game of the Mayor’s Cup Classic against longtime, crosstown rival Lakewood, is just how well the Gladiators defense has performed.
The Gladiators are giving up only eight points a game and have allowed only 24.
Both of those statistics lead Pinellas County.
“All these guys that I have on defense, they get after the ball,” Gibbs first-year coach Antonio Knox said. “We have a lot of playmakers, but they’re put in positions to make a play.”
Before the season started, Knox challenged his defense to keep teams out of the end zone. For every touchdown scored by the opposition, there would be a punishment.
“I hold them at a standard,” Knox said. “We just don’t give up touchdowns. If we get scored on, that’s 100 up-downs. The way to get them off? Get a turnover and score.”
So far, the Gladiators haven’t had to do any extra stamina work at practice. Gibbs surrendered its only touchdown in Week 3 against Spoto, but later that night, the Gladiators’ Maurice Hall returned an interception 55 yards for a score.
For Gibbs, it starts up front on the defensive line with senior Albert McCoy, a 6-foot-5, 265-pound specimen who occupies at least two blockers on every play and still manages to get into the backfield to disrupt opposing offenses.
“He’s very quick, and he’s very powerful,” Knox said. “He rolls his hips to get off of blocks. He’s getting that push for us on every play.”
Behind McCoy in the secondary is Gary Simon, another Division I-A recruit. Simon can shut down one side of the field by himself, which allows Knox to get creative with the rest of the defensive assignments.
“He’s going to line up against your best receiver, and he’s going to shut him down,” Knox said.
The results have been better than expected for a Gibbs team that won just three games a year ago. Of course, there remains plenty of work to do on the offense. The Gladiators are averaging only 16 points a game.
“We’re still finding ourselves on offense. Kind of struggling with the identity, but we know what we want to do,” Knox said. “We just hurt ourselves and have to rely on the defense.”
Knox expects another defensive struggle tonight against undefeated Lakewood. The Spartans are nearly as stingy at only 11 points allowed per game. And after last week’s unexpected loss to Dunedin, the Gladiators almost have to win tonight to remain in the playoff chase.
“We have to take care of business, take care of Lakewood,” Knox said. “That’s the No. 1 priority because they’re still undefeated in district. They still have to get a loss. We can’t afford to get another loss from them.”