A few observations from my trek across the North Suncoast to practices this week:
* Hernando has some weapons. Look for junior athlete Tyrail Hawkins to line up all over the field. He looked quick and shifty when I saw him. The Leopards' offense could click if quarterback Clevandre Pope remains consistent for his senior season. Pope made some spot-on touch passes, but he also made some poor decisions and forced some throws.
Linebacker Darren Hambrick was as good as advertised. He has a knack for finding the ball and making smart plays, like punching out the ball from behind. Miami is heavily recruiting the junior.
Another key for the Leopards: Special teams. Coach John Palmer said returning kicker Andres Pinzon has done very well in the preseason. "We feel very strongly that we’ll be able to be pretty solid right there," Palmer said.
* Nature Coast's enormous line - all starters could be over 270 pounds - was as big as expected. But I didn't think quarterback Thomas Carney would be so large. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior took some hits during runs up the middle but powered through. That's a good sign for the Sharks. Nature Coast lacks depth at that position behind Carney, who started on the JV team last year.
* Bishop McLaughlin senior Jordan Betancourt is in for a big senior year. He scored eight touchdowns and averaged more than 12 yards per carry last fall. He's not very big (5-foot-7, 180) but was more powerful and agile than I thought. He showed patience during drills and followed his blockers well.
I was also very impressed with junior lineman Zack Lockhart (6-0, 223), who looked extremely strong and has quick hands. Look for him to flourish under first-year coach Derrick Alexander, who knows a little bit about playing in the trenches after starring as a defensive lineman at Florida State.
* River Ridge coach Ryan Benjamin was right about Malik Moore, a raw talent who is playing football for the first time this fall after focusing on basketball. Moore looks like an athlete and moved well laterally. He's quick and used his long arms to wrap up opponents.
The Royal Knights' defense could be strong this year once Moore finds a position. He'll join key play makers like defensive ends Austin Schwarz and Dylan Rutledge, middle linebacker Kyle Bartlett and safety Brian Clinkscale.
"I love our defense," Benjamin said. "I love it."