TAMPA — Looking back to the beginning of last season, Plant running back T.J. Glover knew he was a player with a bigger head than heart.
He had been a burner on the track since he was 6 and thought he could easily translate his speed to football stardom. He assumed he’d be able to beat defenders to the corner, then blaze into the end zone.
Then he got hit, fumbled twice in Plant’s season opener and found himself on the scout team.
“Before I was kind of cocky,” Glover said. “Because I knew I was fast, I thought I’d be one of the best, but as soon as I got here, it was a reality check. I wasn’t the best, so I had to work, work and work to where I am now.”
Glover now is in Plant’s starting backfield and will play a big role in the Panthers offense in tonight’s Class 5A region final at Countryside.
Glover forms one part of the Panthers’ two-headed tailback monster with junior James Wilder Jr. They share the rushing load in a usually pass-oriented offense that has run 30 more run plays than pass plays this year. They’ve combined for nearly 1,400 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. But both also play a significant role in the passing game.
The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Glover and the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Wilder complement each other. Plant receivers coach T.J. Lane nicknamed them “Black Lightning” and “Black Plague.”
“They put me in to strike a little bit,” Glover said with a smile. “And they put him in to kill anything that’s in front of him.”
But the emergence of Glover has been the biggest addition to a dangerous Plant offense.
“We are an amazingly diverse team,” coach Robert Weiner said. “He’s kind of emblematic of that because he’s diverse in his own way. …For a guy who has played the game a limited amount for this level, I have never been around a kid who has that kind of vision and instincts when the ball is in his hand.”
Glover played on Plant’s JV team, but didn’t play as a sophomore, choosing basketball. In track, he runs a 49.3-second 400 meters and ran the anchor leg of the Panthers’ 4x400 relay team that placed ninth at the 3A state meet last year.
Last season on the football field, Glover said he was afraid of contact. No matter how fast his feet were, they always took him to the outside instead of between the tackles. He credits playing scout team last year — and going against Plant’s state champion hard-hitting defense — as making him a better player.
“They tightened me up big time,” Glover said. “They were the best defense in Florida last year. Going against them every day got me tougher and ready for this year. I knew what I had, but I didn’t have it in me until they got it out of me.”
And as Weiner said he saw last year, Glover has gotten better as the season progressed. He had touchdown runs of 64 and 80 yards on his only two carries in Plant’s playoff opener against Plant City, then scored three receiving touchdowns and one rushing with 180 total yards last week against Alonso.
“He’s veering back into a defender to take him on to get an extra 2 or 3 yards,” Weiner said. “He’s really been impressive in that way. He’s shown toughness. He’s shown speed. He’s shown explosiveness. The amazing thing about him is he runs the football and he catches the ball like a wide receiver.”
In the process, Glover has become Plant’s top big-play threat. His 11.75-yards-per-carry average leads the team and his 16.28-yards-per-catch average trails only fellow track star Allen Sampson (18.59).
“I honestly didn’t see it coming,” Glover said. “But I consider myself a football player now. Last year, I was a track runner who was playing football. Now I’m a football player who runs track.”