TAMPA — Rex Culpepper completed just 14 passes during Plant High School’s 2013 season as backup quarterback. But the day after he stood on the Dad's Stadium sideline and watched his Panthers fall to Apopka in the Class 8A state semifinal, the sophomore went right back to campus to get to work.
Because now, he doesn’t have anyone to lean on but himself.
“I wasn’t going to let it happen again,” Culpepper said.
Since that Saturday morning, Culpepper — next in a lineage of Plant starting quarterbacks that includes Division I standouts like Aaron Murray and Robert Marve — has shown up at 6:30 a.m. every school day — before class begins — to study film and work on his leadership techniques with coach Robert Weiner.
On May 1, when spring football practices officially began, Weiner finally got a chance to see Culpepper put his practice to use. Weiner said he immediately liked what he saw.
Since Culpepper is a rising junior, he will be the Panthers’ first potential two-year starter at the position since Phillip Ely led Plant in the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Weiner acknowledges there’s a lot on the 16-year-old’s plate. But he doesn’t expect Culpepper to go through too many growing pains.
“Eventually about half of those things seem to go on autopilot,” Weiner said. “Those things that, right now, he has to remember and remind himself, ‘This is what I need to do.’ Once he gets those things on autopilot, he stops having to think about them and now he gets to go play.”
Standing out on the gridiron is something that’s been ingrained in Culpepper. Plant’s newest starting quarterback is the son of Brad Culpepper, who spent nine years as a defensive tackle in the NFL, six of which were with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Culpepper, who was just 4 years old when his father retired from the NFL, said his only recollection of his father’s professional days come from the photos he’s seen around their home. Still, Culpepper says he’s lucky to have an extra resource close by.
“My dad always tells me that the smart, good-looking players put their hand in the dirt, so he obviously doesn’t know much about quarterback,” Culpepper joked. “But aside from that, when it comes to being a leader on the team and just how to handle stuff in the locker room, he’s incredible.”
Culpepper will first get to show off his stuff at Plant’s spring football jamboree, held at Robinson on May 22. But he’s already concerning himself with being ready for Armwood — last year’s Class 6A state runner up — in the Aug. 22 preseason classic.
And with the pressures that come with being a Plant quarterback resting squarely on his shoulders, Culpepper doesn’t want to just be ready. He wants to be perfect.
“I really want to make sure that not only am I flawless,” he said, “but am I a good resource to the rest of my team?”
Bishop McLaughlin: The Hurricanes have to replace senior R.J. Perciavalle, who accounted for 67 percent of the team’s offense and 15 of 18 touchdowns.
New coach Craig Moore expects rising senior Noah Clanahan to take over under center. Clanahan, a former fullback, ran for 196 yards and one touchdown and caught 19 passes for 132 yards last season. He played quarterback as a freshman, backing up Perciavalle.
“(Noah’s) not as fast as R.J., but he will definitely be a threat with his legs,” Moore said. “His experience is good and we’re really pushing him.”
Carrollwood Day: All-stater Taylor King gives way to rising junior Spencer Peek. But coach Lane McLaughlin will be without his starter this spring, because he broke his collarbone in a 7-on-7 game. Instead, eighth-grader Aaron Angelos has been running the offense and will start the spring game.
East Bay: Chris Carpentier wasn’t a flashy passer last fall (514 yards), but he was second on the team with 401 rushing yards and five scores to help the Indians win their first district title in 40 years. The battle to replace him is ongoing. Jordan Anderson saw playing time last year when Carpentier was injured. He’s competing against Zephyrhills transfer Jarcques Meza for the starting job.
Jefferson: The Dragons graduated all-Suncoast offensive player of the year Deiondre Porter, a high school quarterback who will play defensive back at Florida. To replace him, Jefferson tapped into its secondary.
Randy Bradford has taken over the position this spring after recording 18 tackles and five passes defensed as a junior cornerback. The athletic 5-foot-11 Bradford releases the ball well but remains raw at the position.
“The skill set is pretty nice,” coach Jeremy Earle said. “We’ve just got to get him going in the right direction.”
Palm Harbor University: After serving as a backup quarterback at East Lake last season, Brandon Swift transferred to PHU, where he figures to have a more prominent role. Swift will take over as the starter for Tyler Kaminski, the first-team, all-Pinellas County selection who is graduating after setting several school records.
Robinson: The Knights rotated two quarterbacks last season, but that didn’t work out so the job is now Malik Tyson’s, the junior varsity QB last season and a future Division I recruit according to coach Shawn Taylor. He’s 6-2, a straight-A student and can sling it. Oh, and he’s best buddies and neighbors with top wide receiver Jahrvis Davenport. Taylor says he has looked great this spring.
Springstead: The Mahla dynasty has ended in Spring Hill. With North Suncoast offensive player of the year Tyler Mahla graduating after taking the Eagles to the deepest playoff run in Hernando County history, Springstead’s heir apparent is Victor Koerick.
Although two other players are battling with Koerick, the junior sits atop the depth chart. He was the JV starter last year, so Eagles coach Mike Garofano feels comfortable with his abilities. Garofano said Koerick can run the option and throw, but he’s still refining his fundamentals.
“He definitely knows the system,” Garofano said. “He definitely commands the huddle.”
St. Petersburg: The Green Devils don’t throw the ball much, but when they do this fall it will be an inexperienced quarterback making the passes. Rising senior Jarrett O’Connell and rising sophomore Austyn Causey had two completions and nine attempts combined last season. “It’s an open competition this spring,’’ St. Petersburg coach Joe Fabrizio said. “Those guys don’t have a lot of experience but they do have some potential.’’
Tampa Catholic: Tyler Sims, a rising junior, and rising sophomore Kevin Knox are battling. Sims was the backup to Kyle Ploucher last year and threw 18 passes. The 6-foot-5 Knox threw just one, a 43-yard touchdown. Coach Mike Gregory said the competition is too close to declare a starter, so he’ll let it simmer over the summer before making a final decision. “It’s been entertaining to watch,’’ Gregory said.
Tarpon Springs: Trai Halton, the dynamic point guard who led the Spongers basketball team to their first playoff win since 1947, is playing football for the first time as a Sponger and will split time with Brandon Casler at quarterback. Because of his athleticism, Halton brings an added dimension on offense and could line up at multiple positions, Tarpon Springs coach Ron Hawn said.
“Alec needs experience and confidence, but he’s like that rookie that you see glimpses in,” coach Mark Lee said. “He still makes his share of mistakes. He needs to be a leader, the field general. He is ready to take that challenge on.”
Cromie led the junior varsity to a 3-4 record as a freshman.
Wharton: Bryce Martin entered the spring as the starter, taking over for the school’s all-time leading passer Chase Litton. Martin has been active the past two offseasons, but only has eight varsity passes to his credit, but coach David Mitchell thinks he will be the guy in the fall.
Staff writers Matt Baker, John C. Cotey, Rodney Page and Bob Putnam, and correspondent Derek J. LaRiviere contributed to this report.