TAMPA — All of Robinson’s aspirations — living beyond Black Friday, atoning for the more excruciating of its two regular-season defeats, puncturing Jesuit’s perfection — may hinge on one key component Friday.
And it’s not necessarily the speed on their flank, the proficient senior under center or the chip on their shoulder.
It may be the “Waterbug” in their backfield.
Birth name: Javarias Jamal “JJ” Hubbard.
“He’s the fastest player on the field at all times, I think,” said Jesuit senior free safety Derrick Friga, whose 11-0 team hosts tonight’s playoff sequel to Jesuit’s wild 29-28 triumph Oct. 1.
“I was on varsity playing against (former Gaither and University of South Carolina tailback) Jarvis Giles my sophomore year; he’s harder to tackle than Jarvis Giles is.”
In the teams’ first encounter at Corral Memorial Stadium eight weeks ago, Jesuit rallied from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit. In the final 12-plus minutes, rangy Tigers sophomore Travis Johnson hauled in an 80-yard touchdown pass from Patton Chillura and scored on a 77-yard kick return.
But before and during the delirium, the resurgent Catholic school program — at least in a football sense — committed two cardinal sins: It kicked directly to fleet senior Frankie Williams and allowed Hubbard to periodically dart out on the edge.
The first transgression resulted in a 95-yard return for a touchdown. The other resulted in Hubbard — so nicknamed, he says, because he spurts across the field like a water bug across water — running for 157 yards, including scoring runs of 30 and 60 yards.
“Sometimes players like that, they’re going to make big plays, but you just can’t give him a ton of big plays,” Tigers coach James Harrell said. “You just try to contain that guy, limit the big runs, rally to the football, don’t rely on one guy to make the tackle.”
It was this time last year when the Knights pegged Hubbard as the one guy to break the tackles.
After spending most of the 2009 regular season nursing a high ankle sprain and sharing handoffs with classmates Marqus Baker and Tim Randolph, Hubbard assumed more of a load in the playoffs.
In postseason romps of Arcadia DeSoto and Wauchula Hardee, he totaled 245 yards and four touchdowns on only 24 carries. Hubbard (5-8, 166 pounds), who needs 27 yards to reach 1,300 for the season, has been the primary back since.
“We felt as though he had the right stuff,” Knights coach Mike DePue said. “But I tell you right now, last year in our first two playoff games against DeSoto and Hardee, he just absolutely broke out.”
Then, he worked out. In DePue’s estimation, Hubbard added about 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason. During that time, when Division I-A scouts began converging on Robinson’s Port Tampa campus in record numbers, Hubbard was the first to receive an offer.
“This year I had a couple of goals coming in,” said Hubbard, a senior whose dad, Sterling, was a Knights basketball standout in the early 1990s. “I wanted to get 1,000 yards, but my actual goal was 1,300.
“And I wanted to make a statement because a lot of people underestimate me being able to take hits and getting through the whole season being the No. 1 back, so I just wanted to prove people wrong and show I could be the No. 1 guy.”
For the second year in a row, the proof is in the playoffs.
In last week’s first round at Immokalee, Hubbard ran for 117 yards and four touchdowns. Friday, an expected crowd of 3,000 will be watching him. If Harrell has his way, 11 of those will be converging on him every play.
“Everyone’s got to be coming to him,” Harrell said, “because he can make one guy miss and go 60 (yards) in a heartbeat.”