LAND O’LAKES — Even though Harrison Wood had just delivered the best game of his career in an impressive win over Zephyrhills last fall, the Land O’Lakes senior running back hadn’t yet made a name for himself.
Before his team’s 2011 loss to Pasco, someone had to duck into the Gators’ press box to remind announcers his name wasn’t Wood Harrison. The varsity veteran’s name has been misprinted on the roster for the second year in a row.
When his Gators (1-0) line up tonight against rival Pasco (0-0) in a nondistrict matchup of Pasco County’s traditional powers, his name will be hard to miss.
“I expected myself to do good every game, especially this year,” Wood said. “I have to.”
Wood has had to work hard to gain his identity as the youngest child, 12 years younger than his brother and 11 years younger than his sister. Both graduated from Land O’Lakes.
He started playing football at age 5 and hasn’t stopped. He moved up from JV to varsity as a sophomore, finishing with 188 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries.
Gators coach Brian Wachtel said he began to see Wood’s possibilities the next offseason. The power was present, but Wood’s excellent vision began to show in drills. His ball skills emerged. He flashed excellent hands, snaring one-handed catches as he did this week in practice.
“There’s no doubt he could do some things,” Wachtel said.
The potential started to become reality during Wood’s junior season.
In the 2011 season opener, Wood rushed for 172 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries in a 36-21 victory over Zephyrhills.
“I definitely had something to prove to my teammates and the fans and coaches and everybody — to let them know I can play and I will contribute to the team.”
His contributions kept flowing. Wood rushed for four scores in a 21-point win over Springstead and racked up 160 yards against Wesley Chapel. He averaged almost 6 yards per carry and caught two touchdown passes while earning second-team all-Sunshine Athletic Conference honors.
Wood finished with 10 rushing touchdowns and 789 yards. Only his Pasco counterpart, Division I prospect David Emmanuel, rushed for more yards among returning players in Pasco County.
“Last year he came on the scene,” Wachtel said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Wachtel noticed a change in Wood this summer, while watching former NFL star LaDainian Tomlinson talk about the hours he spent perfecting his body to prepare for the punishment of a long season.
Wood started working harder. He downed protein and added 10 pounds to his 5-foot-9, 165-pound frame.
In the season opener against Zephyrhills, he shouldered more responsibility for an offense with a first-year, sophomore quarterback, Ethan Weilant. He picked up blitzers he wasn’t assigned to block and powered through holes late in the game.
“The fourth quarter, he was just plowing away,” Wachtel said. “He was just running with a passion and a purpose in that game on Friday night for us.”
Wood bailed out an offense that gave up two early turnovers. Weilant fed him the ball, and Wood answered with 147 yards and a touchdown to go with a 47-yard kickoff return in a 38-27 win over Zephyrhills.
“He can do that every game,” Weilant said.
If Wood can do that tonight against the Pirates and UF commit Joey Ivie on the defensive line, Land O’Lakes will have a shot at knocking off Pasco for the first time since 2006. The Pirates’ run defense has already been challenged, allowing a 150-yard performance by Hernando’s Tyrail Hawkins.
But that was in the preseason. Now that Wood’s name has spread throughout the county, he’s challenging himself to pound his team’s way to victory against an opponent that has won the past five matchups by an average of 15 points.
“Since I played a lot last year, I put that on myself,” Wood said. “Whenever we need a score, whenever we need some leadership, that’s when I come in.”
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com.