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TAMPA — The final season of Phillip Ely’s impressive high school career didn’t start quite how he had hoped — nor how most people expected.
The previously undefeated (19-0) starting quarterback was on the wrong end of a nationally-televised preseason blowout against Manatee, struggled with an ankle injury that forced him to sit out Plant’s 20-13 win over Hillsborough and suffered the first two regular-season defeats of his career to Abilene (Texas) and Armwood, a 17-0 shutout.
Ely completed just 53.3 percent of his passes for 160.75 yards per game and threw as many touchdowns (three) in his first four games as interceptions while trying to adjust to an almost entirely new cast of skill-position players around him.
“We knew that we were talented in those spots. We just knew it was going to take some time,” Plant coach Robert Weiner said. “They have faith in the process …even when things don’t look so good or people say, ‘Oh, this doesn’t look like Plant,’ and, ‘God, this is bad for Phillip.’ ”
In eight games since the Armwood shutout, Ely has connected on 69.4 percent of his attempts for 1,934 yards (276.3 per game) and 23 touchdowns heading into tonight’s Class 5A region final against Countryside.
“He hasn’t just stayed there and let everybody catch up to him,” Weiner said. “He really has been the guy who’s raised the level of play of everyone around him. It’s an expectation.”
Lost in all the preseason hype surrounding the nation’s No. 1 team was the ugly truth that Plant only returned three starters on offense: Ely, DE/RB James Wilder Jr. and OL Tony Posada. But that revealed itself quickly, as the offense sputtered and stalled early on, averaging 11.75 points in four of its first five games (exempting a 56-6 rout of winless Riverview).
“Our team doubted ourselves as well, so we just had to have that kind of click in our head where everything flows right,” Ely said. “We just kind of got used to each other and started motivating each other and came a lot closer together.”
Ely lost his top five receivers from last season, and his four best options entered this year with a combined 19 career catches. But the 6-foot-1 Alabama commit has spread the ball around, with five Plant players catching 15 or more passes: Antonio Crawford (45), Scott Greacen (43), Austin Aikens (37), Daniel Casselli (29) and Wilder (15).
Though the fluidity of the feeling-out process makes it difficult to find a specific turning point, the offense began to find its way in Plant’s 36-20 win over Spoto on Oct. 15. Despite three interceptions, Ely threw for 276 yards and three touchdowns on 19-of-29 passing and ran in another score.
Was that the single moment Ely began to get comfortable with his receiving corps? Not quite.
“I’m still doing it now,” Ely said. “Obviously we’ve gotten to a point where we feel comfortable with each other and I know all their moves and stuff like that, where they’re going to be.”
“We know we’re going to have to be the guys making the plays,” added Greacen. “We don’t have (Eric) Dungy, Allen (Sampson), all them that we had last year. Now, it’s us. It’s our time, and we’re just comfortable now.”
Crawford said the wideouts have had to work to get to that point. They hit the weight room on Wednesdays and Saturdays when no one else can be found, and they’re always the first group on the practice field and the last off it.
But their efforts have paid off. With Ely entering his final weeks as a high school student before enrolling at Alabama in January, Plant’s sights are set on winning a third straight state championship. That idea may have seemed ludicrous in September, even to Ely and his teammates, but not anymore.
“I definitely want to try to go out with a bang,” Ely said. “It just took time during the season. I’m disappointed about how it was at the beginning of the season, but I’m glad we’re still playing now, so we definitely got a lot better.”
While quarterback Phillip Ely has developed greater chemistry and comfort with his receiving corps, much of Plant’s improvement in the passing game can also be attributed to the wideouts finding their roles in the spread offense.
“Our four positions, we don’t want four guys with similar talents. There’s some very specific characteristics that each one has,” coach Robert Weiner said. “Not only have we all gotten better together, but the pieces are starting to fit as far as what it is those positions are supposed to be.”
It took some time, Weiner said, because his coaches didn’t necessarily know what to do with the new set of receivers who had to fill four spots in the passing game (the X, Y, Z and slot positions).
Take a look at the Panthers’ primary targets and how they have grown into their roles, as described by Weiner.
Antonio Crawford, 5-11, 180
Stats: 45 receptions, 602 yards, seven TDs
The job description, slot receiver: “He’s the guy who’s going to stretch the field. We try to stretch the field up the middle with him and try to inside-out people with him.”
Daniel Casselli, 6-3, 185
Stats: 29 receptions, 436 yards, four TDs
The job description, X receiver: “A target guy who’s got some height to him and we can throw a ball to him.”
Scott Greacen, 6-0, 170
Stats: 43 receptions, 482 yards, seven TDs
The job description, Y receiver: “A guy who is going to be tough underneath, who’s going to make the tough catches, who’s going to be able to block the slots for us.”
Austin Aikens, 6-1, 175
Stats: 37 receptions, 727 yards, six TDs
The job description, Z receiver: “A guy who needs to be able to do everything. He needs to catch the deep ball, catch the intermediate ball, be able to run with it when he catches.”