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TAMPA — As autumn proceeds and the air gets crisper, Robinson junior Brooks Lovely’s weekends transition from three-point stances to five-point bucks.
A pursuit of pancakes near the line of scrimmage rapidly segues into a pursuit of venison near a line of trees. Just last weekend, hours after the Knights’ 20-point win at Spoto, Lovely was bagging the first of two deer with a muzzle loader near a south Georgia hunting camp.
“I supply the coaches with some deer meat,” said Lovely, a right tackle and the only returning full-fledged offensive starter from the 2010 squad. “If I play well and do what they say, they let me take a Saturday off.”
Though PETA would protest, Lovely’s outdoors exploits symbolize the prevailing mindset of the 2011 Knights. After graduating an ultra-talented nucleus that totaled 20 wins the previous two seasons and sparked a football renaissance in Port Tampa, the Knights are the hunters again.
And they love it.
“Quietest 6-1 team in the county,” coach Mike DePue is fond of saying.
Friday night, Lakewood comes into their crosshairs for a Class 5A, District 8 showdown at Jack Peters Field. A victory, and Robinson needs wraps up a playoff spot.
It’s a scenario few north of Gandy Boulevard envisioned at the season’s outset. Not counting part-time starters, three first-teamers — Lovely, defensive back Vic Rivera and kicker/punter Kody Thomas — returned from the 2010 squad.
“It’s definitely been a year of adjustment for us,” DePue said. “Bottom line, we coached their butts off this year, and the kids responded.”
For DePue’s staff, the pleasant surprises are as prevalent as the pockmarks on their tattered field.
They include senior Byron Pringle (22 catches, 344 yards), who has emerged as an all-purpose dynamo after missing all of 2010 for off-field issues.
Additionally, junior Vidal Woodruff has solidified the quarterback spot (eight TDs, two INTs) after being thrust into action four games ago, and junior Martin Ruiz has evolved into a dependable back (90 carries, 621 yards).
But if there’s a microcosm of the Knights’ astounding district ascension, it’s the all-junior offensive line that features a hunter, Eagle Scout (right guard Ted Kelly), IB student (center Chris Duvall), impact transfer (left guard Bruce Hector), even a legacy (left tackle Conner Rafferty).
“I’ll tell you right now, there are a couple of those kids whom we weren’t sure were going to play real well,” DePue said. “They’ve stepped up.”
On average, they come in at 242 pounds, but have played much larger as run blockers. In the past four games (all victories), Robinson has averaged 247.5 yards on the ground — with a rookie quarterback.
This time last fall, Lovely and Duvall were the only two on the Knights’ varsity roster.
“We’ve really gotten to know each other, gotten to know our strengths and weaknesses,” Lovely said. “If I know my left guard can’t get his guy hooked, I’ll help him out before I leave to go to the (linebacker). We just know each other now.”
Friday night, they face what DePue calls “the absolute toughest assignment on the offensive side of the ball.” He describes Lakewood’s defensive front, led by rangy FSU commitment Dante Fowler at rush end, as gargantuan.
“If they go out there and control the line of scrimmage,” DePue says, “we’re in a real good situation that way.”
Cue the camouflage. The thrill of the hunt is on.