Call spring football at the high school level the early evaluation period. There are big names to replace, with players of the year graduating and moving on to college. Who will fill in? There are new coaches to break in, promising assistant coaches hoping to make the most of their big chances. Who will succeed? There are teams looking to recover from unfulfilled goals and disappointing finishes. Who will bounce back? Lots of questions. Time to find some answers.
Who’s No. 1?
1. Armwood: When you played for a state championship in 2013 and return your leading passer and rusher and touchdown scorer (quarterback Noah Johnson), your leading receiver (Trevor Laurent), your leading tackler (linebacker Jordan Griffin), your most fearsome lineman and sack leader (Byron Cowart) and your best cover guy and interceptions leader (Aaron Covington), and all the other spots around them are filled in by talent like Caylon Holloway, Justin Manning and the guy many think will be the next big Hawk star, Darrian McNeil, well, you’re No. 1. Easy, right?
2. Sickles: Running back Ray Ray McCloud III may be the best player in Tampa Bay, and quarterback Isaac Holder is back as well behind an experienced offensive line. And while the Gryphons have some holes to fill (Defensive Player of the Year Josh Black graduates), there’s talent like tackles leader Jake Hampton, Cameron Miller and Logan Braswell ready to fill in.
3. Plant: With leading rusher Patrick Brooks running behind Clemson commitment Jake Fruhmorgen and leading receiver Jordan Reed back, as well as Kyle Henderson and Derrick Baity heading up the defense, the Panthers could prove by the end of spring they are ready for another state title run.
4. East Lake: The loss of quarterback Pete DiNovo last year was tough. The loss of wide receiver Artavis Scott and offensive tackle Mason Cole will be tougher. But East Lake is no flash in the pan, with a strong junior varsity program feeding into a winning group that still includes the likes of George Campbell, Carson Lydon and Julian Santos.
5. Pinellas Park: Can we just say now we’re bullish on the Patriots this year? Bigger than ever, more than 3,000 yards of a bruising rushing attack returns, and a defense that could be their best ever. What’s not to like?
6. Lakewood: The Spartans, state semifinalists last year, won’t have to break in as many new faces as last year, and they return some key players at key position even though a big hole is left at left tackle by Isaiah Wynn.
7. Largo: Lots of questions surrounding the Packers this year, punctuated by a new coach who has to replace just about the entire staff. Largo will be on the hunt this spring for linemen, as usual, but quarterback Donavan Hale and targets like Reggie Campbell, Jonathan Crawford and Brandon Drayton make the Packers a district contender.
8. Clearwater Central Catholic: We won’t get to see the Marauders with starting quarterback Jeff Smith this spring since he’s playing baseball, but a bigger role for rising sophomore C.J. Cotman and a retooled but talented defense keeps the Marauders formidable. Expect some new names to emerge this spring.
9. Hillsborough: Tampa Bay’s top quarterback prospect, Dwayne Lawson, is part of a large group of returnees. Last year, Hillsborough started with only eight seniors and 31 juniors and sophomores, and still went 7-3. We expect bigger things in 2014.
10. Newsome: Why not? Transition year last season, to what could be a playoff season. Chris Bryant is an underrated back, the Wolves are always solid up front and the defense will be good.
The next 10, if you insist:
12. East Bay
14. Tampa Bay Tech
15. Tampa Catholic
17. Indian Rocks Christian
Most difficult holes to fill this spring
1. Jefferson offense: There isn’t anyone on the roster who is going to throw for 3,200 yards and run for 1,500 like Deiondre Porter did. But the Dragons hope to find someone who can do at least half that. Not to mention, finding linemen to block for that replacement, and guys to catch his passes.
2. Pasco ATH: The Pirates have had at least one game-breaking, game-saving player, and sometimes two, gain more than 1,000 all-purpose yards and score at least 16 touchdowns since 2007. Will someone emerge this spring to keep that streak going?
3. East Lake RB/WR: Artavis Scott leaves a gaping hole in East Lake’s lineup. The Eagles have the talent to absorb the loss — paging George Campbell — but Scott was just so darned good and so darned clutch.
4. Wharton QB: Junior Bryce Martin is the apparent heir to Chase Litton, who manned the quarterback spot for 43 games over four seasons that included more than 7,500 yards passing and four playoff games.
5. Springstead QB: The Mahla family’s time is over, so the Eagles are looking for a new face to replace the North Suncoast player of the year (Tyler Mahla) and the focal point of a run-heavy option offense.
Most interesting new coaches
1. Jeremy Frioud, Northeast: A great motivator who is loved by his players, Frioud is ready for his first head coaching job and has brought over almost all the Largo assistants he has been working with over the years. Let’s see if he left his head-butting-kids-wearing-helmets days behind him.
2. Marcus Paschal, Largo: The former Packer star has his work cut out for him, starting with the exodus of the entire coaching staff. He inherits some talented seniors, but the pool of juniors and sophomores may not be as deep as in the past.
3. Bill Vonada, Hernando: Vonada always managed to do a lot with a little at Springstead, and with the talent Hernando’s been known to produce he could find success.
4. Matt LePain, Dunedin: LePain inherits a 1-9 team, but hey, the guy won at Palm Harbor Univesrsity. Anyone still willing to write off the Falcons?
5. Max Smith, Boca Ciega: Smith did some nice things at Dunedin before a short college stint. The Pirate players would do well to give the guy a chance.
A dozen random thoughts
1. Ridgewood’s Glass Wilson averaged 31 carries and 217 yards a game in his final five last fall. He deserves a rest this spring.
2. How is Tampa Catholic going to use Pasco transfer Nate Craig? I’m curious.
3. Can Austin Carswell, who did a nice job stepping in at quarterback at Strawberry Crest last year, be the man at Plant City?
4. If I were ranking them, I’d have to consider Dixie Hollins’ Tyrie Adams for best quarterback in Pinellas County, right?
5. Bandwagons I am really tempted to jump on, but will wait and see how spring goes: Blake, Zephyrhills and Countryside.
6. So, we all agree that Rex Culpepper is the next star quarterback at Plant?
7. Tampa Bay Tech’s Deon Cain may be a better wide receiver, but if you’re coach Jayson Roberts, you’re good with him touching the ball 40 times a game instead as the quarterback.
8. Lakewood quarterback Ryan Davis started slow last year but finished strong, and took that into the offseason where he’s been turning heads. I see a big spring for him.
9. As we’re snooping around to finalize our third annual HomeTeam 100, Gibbs defensive back Craig Watts is a guy on the must-see list. A few others under the radar but on ours: Tampa Catholic’s Malik Barrow, Blake’s Juwan Burgess, Carrollwood Day’s Willie Parker, Osceola’s Wilan Harvey, Hillsborough’s Azeez Al-Shaair and Hudson’s Grayson Stover.
10. With all eyes on East Lake, CCC and Largo lately, I’m still thinking Indian Rocks Christian has best chance to sneak in there and be the first Pinellas County state championship.
11. Rick Rodriguez has a fast-blooming coaching tree. Three current coaches — former defensive coordinators Frioud (Northeast) and LePain (Dunedin) and defensive assistant Paschal (Largo) — were all on his staff at the same time just a few years ago.
12. Is it just me, or are the slate of spring games a little …blah? The best one might be one of the first ones: Land O’Lakes at Pasco.