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TAMPA – It looks like Plant starting quarterback Phillip Ely will be ready to go Friday night in the Class 5A state title game against Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas. But if he’s unable to play, or his back pain forces him to the sideline like it occasionally has this season, backup Nick Sanders will once again have to step into the limelight.
And if you ask at least one offensive coordinator from “a major university,” there won’t be much of a difference between the two-time state champion Ely, committed to Alabama, and Sanders, who has two career varsity starts.
Panthers coach Robert Weiner said a coordinator, whom he declined to name, came to Tampa while recruiting Ely. Before Plant began practicing, the coordinator saw a quarterback, whom he believed to be Ely, warming up and was incredibly impressed.
One problem: Ely was nowhere near the field.
“He came up to me, and he’s a real active guy, and he’s like, ‘Aw, coach, I’m getting goose bumps. Just watching Phillip warm up, I’m getting fired up,’” Weiner said. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s interesting, Coach, because Phillip’s in the academic building taking a makeup test. That’s Nick Sanders, his backup.’”
Sanders, who stands 6 feet 1 and 185 pounds (Ely is 6-1, 190), has proven capable of stepping up when necessary this season. He started in Plant’s 20-13 win over Hillsborough early this season, filled in during the Panthers’ 21-13 playoff victory over Countryside and managed the offense in Plant’s 48-6 rout of Lakeland.
Granted, much of his job in the two most recent appearances has involved little more than handing off the ball to James Wilder Jr. and watching the star running back carry defenders toward the end zone. But Sanders has also avoided making critical mistakes, something characteristic of Plant’s postseason runs.
“You look at a game like that, and under that kind of pressure, the quarterback is completely in charge of protecting the football, whether it’s fumbles or interceptions or things like that,” Weiner said. “He could play starting quarterback virtually anywhere.”
Ely echoed Weiner’s opinion, noting that Sanders could likely start “anywhere in the country.” Much like the Plant quarterbacks before them, Ely and Sanders are close friends, and both are fully comfortable with their roles on the team.
In addition to the shared admiration of the aforementioned offensive coordinator, Ely and Sanders can also share in the experience of stepping up late in the season for the high-profile starter. Ely did the same for former Plant signal-caller Aaron Murray in 2008, when Plant went on to win a state title.
“I couldn’t have found anyone better for the job than Nick,” Ely said. “He’s an awesome football player and an awesome quarterback. Hopefully he can continue his dreams in college football.”
Off the field, Sanders has a 4.0 unweighted GPA (6.0 weighted) and scored above 1400 on his SAT. But Weiner spoke just as highly of Sanders’ talent as a quarterback.
“Nick can spin it. He can really, really, really throw the ball, and Nick is incredibly intelligent,” Weiner said. “But he’s also very football smart. He’s got football instincts.”
Is it frustrating for Weiner to have a signal-caller like that sitting second on his depth chart and know he won’t be back next year? In a word, yes. But that hasn’t stopped the two from joking about the idea of redshirting a high school player.
“I just told him right now as we walked off (the practice field), I said, ‘Nick, your fifth year of eligibility came through since you didn’t play last year,’” Weienr said. “Your eligibility came through.”