TAMPA — The zaniness that has defined Robinson football this autumn was encapsulated in 24 madcap minutes Friday against Port Orange Atlantic.
There was a 90-yard Carlos Duclos kickoff return — on the game’s opening play. Javaughn “J.J.” Johnson followed shortly thereafter with a 45-yard fumble return, his sixth defensive score of the year and the Knights’ 13th overall.
The blowout was on. The bizarre was yet to come.
With Atlantic’s punter standing at the edge of his end zone, Johnson sliced through the coverage and lunged his body forward just enough to alter the punt’s trajectory from skyward to squib. Senior left-edge rusher Martin Ruiz caught it at the Sharks’ 10.
“I just ran free,” Ruiz said. “There wasn’t nobody there.”
With that, perhaps the shortest punt-return TD in recorded history was etched. For Ruiz to pull it off, in a sense, seemed apropos.
At the center of this season of defensive opportunism, special teams athleticism and inexplicable mysticism, stands the Knights’ 5-foot-10, 195-pound tailback/safety/stalwart.
“(Ruiz) is the rock,” Knights coach Mike DePue said. “He’s the atlas; he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
In a pinch, he’ll carry the weight of Robinson’s multi-dimensional offense. A second-generation Knight and Port Tampa native, Ruiz leads Robinson with 875 rushing yards (7.42 yards per carry) and 10 touchdowns. His 14 receptions rank second on the team.
To be sure, he’s only one cog in a cache of offensive threats. Quarterback Zain Gilmore has totaled more than 1,600 yards, while Duclos (10.3 yards per carry) and junior Robert Priester (8.8) possess more pure speed.
But when asked who gets the ball at crunch time, Gilmore doesn’t hesitate: “Martin Ruiz.”
“Gilmore’s the straw that stirs the drink,” DePue said. “But (Ruiz) is the foundation of everything we do. …The other night, he ran a (47-yard) touchdown, and he ran away from the guy. People say he doesn’t have speed. He ran away from the guy.”
A week prior, he ran through Plant. Trailing 20-17 early in the fourth, Knights offensive coordinator Rob Burns called Ruiz’s number six consecutive times. He collected 38 yards, setting up Gilmore’s 1-yard scoring sneak.
Ruiz finished with 121 yards on 16 carries. “Marty’s a workhorse,” Gilmore said. “Anything you ask Martin to do, he’ll go out and do it for you with no questions, no buts, no ifs.”
On Friday, Lakewood (10-1) may counter the workhorse with a wildcat. Six-foot-3 Spartans senior Rodney Adams gashed the Knights when he lined up behind center four weeks ago in Robinson’s 19-8 win, and that concerns DePue to no end.
Keeping the Spartans offense sidelined is imperative. While other programs pound a proverbial rock, DePue may be inclined to give the ball to his rock — and let him pound it.
“If we need anything,” Gilmore said, “Martin’s there.”