Plant had them all over the years, from undersized tackling machines like Mike Tate to ball-hawking playmakers like Beau Hume to major-college prospects like James Wilder Jr.
None of the Panthers’ three state championships since 2006 has been won without at least one of them.
But coach Robert Weiner has never had a crew of linebackers like this.
“I think we’ve had three guys as good as them before,” Weiner said. “But not three D-I guys.”
Seniors Mitchell Wright and Terrance Jenkins and junior Andrew Beck form a trio of linebackers rarely seen at the high school level, let alone at Plant under Weiner.
They are all taller than 6-foot-2, larger than 200 pounds and hold offers from NCAA Division I programs, an unusually impressive and physically imposing group of teenagers for their position.
They are also uncommonly productive: Beck, Wright and Jenkins each have more than 100 tackles — ranking 1-2-3 on the team in that category — and at least six sacks and four passes defended.
The Panthers (10-1) will again lean heavily on them tonight, when they face top-ranked Orlando Dr. Phillips (11-0) in their Class 8A region semifinal. They are charged with slowing an offense featuring Cincinnati-bound quarterback Alton Meeks and 1,200-yard rusher Eric Harrell.
“I think it’s going to be a great battle,” Beck said. “We’re going to have to be the tougher team.”
For all of the accolades heaped upon the Panthers’ annually prolific offense, they have usually been accompanied by a formidable defense.
At the center of those championship-winning defenses have been linebackers, all sorts of abilities and sizes.
In 2006 in it was Brent Thomas, a 5-foot-10 and 215-pound middle linebacker who had 149 tackles and became a preferred walk-on at Hawaii.
The 2008 team featured Hume, Hunter Baldwin and Mike Mirabella, all of whom finished with more than 111 tackles but none a major-college prospect.
And last year’s champion was led by Tate, a 190-pound All-State selection who racked up 210 tackles and later signed with Cornell.
Only a season later, Beck, Jenkins and Mitchell have broken the mold for the Panthers.
“We’ve usually had high school heroes playing that position,” Weiner said. “But these guys are not only D-I talents in terms of size and measureables … they are also high school heroes, just absolute warriors.”
Wright, a USF commit, is the most experienced and versatile of the three. At 6-4, 200 pounds, Wright moves from defensive end and linebacker depending on the play.
He’s tied for the team lead with 10 sacks but his biggest play of the year probably came on offense, when Weiner twice called his number in a tight game against Armwood.
Trailing 10-6 with three minutes left, Wright broke several tackles for a key first down then caught an 18-yard touchdown pass on the next play — his only offensive touches of the season.
“I wouldn’t have wanted the ball in anyone else’s hands,” Weiner said. “I just trust him implicitly.”
Beck, the middle linebacker and underclassman of the bunch, already looks the most like a prototypical college linebacker at 6-3, 235 pounds. He leads the team with 114 tackles and has scholarship offers from USF and Cincinnati and has drawn interest from Duke and North Carolina State.
“I feel so lucky to play alongside guys like this,” Beck said. “It helps me. I definitely think we’re a special group.”
Weiner said: “I told a guy at Notre Dame that he looks like someone who belongs on the cover of their media guide.”
That leaves Jenkins, a 6-2, 210-pounder who has been playing high school football for only two years.
Jenkins started out playing baseball but decided to devote himself to football after his sophomore year.
“I really haven’t been out there yet,” Jenkins said.
Weiner predicts Jenkins, who holds an offer from Florida Atlantic, will eventually turn his package of speed, ferocity and smarts into a top college player.
But before Jenkins and Co. take their talents to Saturdays, they have a chance to win the state title that elevated their predecessors in Weiner’s program.
A championship, they said, will confirm the hype.
“It’s … different,” Wright said of one team having three Division I prospects. “But at Plant, you have to win.”