TAMPA — Carrollwood Day’s middle school team was finishing up its practice on the school’s lakeside field recently when the varsity’s four starting linebackers arrived for a brief photo shoot.
For a change, the foursome didn’t blend right in.
This time in 2011, one likely couldn’t have readily distinguished the older Patriots from the pubescents. When CDS lined up against Admiral Farragut in a critical Class 2A, District 5 encounter last fall, the Pats’ trio of linebackers weighed an average of 153 pounds.
In Friday’s rematch, the quartet — CDS now employs a 3-4 base front — will weigh an average of 206.
“That,” Pats coach Lane McLaughlin said, “is the big difference.”
If you’re seeking the key matchup in Friday’s contest, one teeming with playoff undertones, home in on the 4-0 Blue Jackets’ stable of Division I-caliber backs against 4-0 CDS’ sturdy front seven.
In last year’s 49-41 Jackets victory, staged in stifling late-afternoon heat in Carrollwood, Farragut benefited from two early Patriots injuries and CDS’ overall lack of depth to amass 409 rushing yards.
Farragut’s top rushers in that game, Todd Macon (293 yards) and Napoleon Maxwell (93), are back, along with fellow Division-I recruit Cortavious Givens. This time, the Patriots counter with more bodies — and brawn.
“Last year our linebackers, during individual drills there would be three or four guys,” said McLaughlin, who hopes to suit up 28 players Friday. “And this year we’ve got seven or eight linebackers.”
It’s the starting four that McLaughlin calls the best unit in the program’s five-year history. Sophomore newcomers Kalle Wilwant and Max Frankel, junior Dominic Cuono and senior Dominiq Sicardo rank among the top five tacklers on a unit that has held its first four opponents scoreless.
The one touchdown scored on CDS this year came against the Patriots’ second string in the season opener.
“We’re playing a lot smarter,” said Wilwant, whose Norwegian first name is pronounced kale. “And we’re meeting them at the line of scrimmage instead of meeting them at the next first down.”
It was the sudden surplus of linebackers, and the players’ offseason diligence, that prompted coaches to install the 3-4. All made quantum improvements in their bench presses, with Frankel increasing his by 110 pounds, according to defensive coordinator Sal Cuono.
The return of a veteran front — led by seniors Jarrod Smith, Collin DeBosier and Adam Morse — didn’t hurt.
“We thought they could handle it (the new scheme) especially with our defensive line, too,” said Sal Cuono, Dominic’s dad. “All those kids really grew. They all position themselves well, they really do. Their alignment is much better, everything. They’ve learned the game.”
Wilwant, whom McLaughlin calls a ’60s throwback, has a team-best 40 tackles and recently set what is believed to be a school record by breaking three chin straps in a game. Frankel, a converted safety, has 26 tackles, 2.5 sacks and perhaps the group’s most menacing streak.
He roots for Michigan simply because his dad attended Ohio State. “He chased the quarterback down (recently), and instead of going to the quarterback, he went and hit another guy,” McLaughlin said.
Sicardo (6-4, 225 pounds), affectionately known as “Chico,” was the Pats’ quarterback in the spring before shifting to tight end. Defensively, he slid from defensive end to strong-side linebacker, where he has recorded 22 tackles, three sacks, two fumble recoveries and two blocked kicks.
Cuono, the lone returner and de facto quarterback of the unit, has 37 tackles, and perhaps the clearest perspective on the Patriots’ mission Friday.
“Probably just stopping the run, because of the power backs with Cortavious and Toddrick back there,” he said. “We’re just going to have to go through the line and hit hard to stop them.”
Pats’ power surge
Carrollwood Day’s four starting linebackers have increased their respective bench presses exponentially since last season. (Defensive coordinator/strength coach Sal Cuono corroborates the gains.)
Player, grade Ht/wt 2011 bench 2012
Dominic Cuono, Jr. 6-2/205 135 235
Max Frankel, So. 5-11/195 155 265
Dominiq Sicardo, Sr. 6-4/225 185 225
Kalle Wilwant, So. 5-10/200 175 255
Joey Knight can be reached at email@example.com