TAMPA — When Alex “Buda” Jackson showed up for the first practice of the 2013 season, Plant coach Robert Weiner saw a different player than he had remembered.
Jackson, who started for the Panthers in their 2011 state championship campaign, had to sit out the next season because of grades.
Jackson returned as soon as he could, and not just with improved marks, but also a revitalized spirit.
“He was so electric the first couple days back out,” Weiner said. “His attitude and his excitement, it was really a breath of fresh air.”
Jackson has maintained that electricity all over the field for the Panthers (11-1-1) this season. Listed as a wide receiver/quarterback on the roster, Jackson also spent part of the season at running back when teammate Patrick Brooks was injured.
In the second half of Plant’s 17-7 win against Fort Pierce Central, Weiner even moved starting quarterback Colby Brown out wide and put Jackson under center.
Jackson, who has 695 rushing yards and 366 receiving this season, said he didn’t come into the season with any individual goal; getting his team back to the state championship has been the only thing on his mind.
It’s a feat others aren’t sure the Panthers can accomplish, Jackson said. But that only fuels his already rekindled fire.
“I never played on a Plant team that’s been doubted so much,” Jackson said. “That makes me want to shine.”
Big challenge ahead for Panthers defense
Weiner has coached 134 games in 10 years at Plant. But never before has he seen an offense quite like the one the Panthers will face Friday at Dads Stadium.
Apopka runs a single-wing offense, an old-fashioned formation in which someone other than the quarterback takes the snap. The unique style has fueled the Darters (12-1) to some of the best offensive results in Florida high school history.
This season, the 2012 8A state champions have set state high school records for most offensive yards in a game (807) and points in a regular season (529). Plant is faced with a tall task, but it has had some help preparing for it.
Former Plant quarterback Robert Marve, who played at Miami and Purdue, has been helping the Panthers simulate Apopka’s offense. It’ll no doubt be a challenge for the Panthers, who have never lost at home in the playoffs with Weiner at the helm.
Only time will tell if the Panthers will be successful against an offense most of them have never seen before. But one thing Weiner knows is they’ll be prepared.
“You go to Friday and just say, ‘Did we do everything we possibly could to be prepared for tonight?’ ” he said. “And then you just let it roll.”
Apopka offense different than planned
Apopka’s uniqueness is part of what makes it so successful, and the Darters have had plenty of time to master the obscure style.
The Darters began employing a single-wing offense in 2007 when the team lacked a quality quarterback, Apopka coach Rick Darlington said. Last season with quarterback Zack Darlington under center, Rick Darlington said his team ran a spread offense 75 percent of the time and the rest was the single wing.
When Darlington went out with an injury in the first game of the 2013 season, followed by two starting running backs in week two, the coach was forced to make a change.
Rick Darlington admits he didn’t expect the offense, which is made up of many new players, to be quite as successful as has been. It’s not the most talented group he has had in his 12 years at Apopka, he said, but it might be the most productive.
“It’s just a whole different way of playing football,” Rick Darlington said. “Our whole thing is, we can’t be better than everybody else so we better be different.”
Armwood’s offense has been as impressive as its defense in the playoffs. In three wins, the Hawks have averaged 41 points and almost 400 yards from scrimmage.
Quarterback Noah Johnson credits the development of his offensive line for the surge. His blockers were unproven coming into the season, but seniors Thomas Bartley and Deandre Hudson have led a line that has become strong at pass protection.
“The O-line, we’ve been getting a lot of protection from them,” Johnson said. “Our playmakers are making plays. We’re just doing good as one unit.”
Armwood’s loaded secondary and standout defensive linemen get plenty of attention, but Hawks coach Sean Callahan said two of his biggest keys are inside linebackers Jordan Griffin and Justin Manning.
Griffin, a 6-foot, 210-pound junior, tied his own school record with 22 tackles (two for a loss) in last week’s shutout win over Springstead to push his season total to 132.
Manning, a 5-11 sophomore, is right behind with 82 tackles.
Callahan pointed to two other unsung Hawks: long snapper Phillip Smith and kicker Sterling Hofrichter.
Smith, a converted cornerback, hadn’t snapped before he won the job at a tryout in May.
Hofrichter has scored 92 points, hit a 57-yard field goal in the regular season, averaged 39 yards per punt and added a successful onside kick last week against Springstead.
“We have an unbelievable kicker,” Callahan said. “We’ve had great kickers here, but he’s the best.”
Armwood and the Bears have met once before in the playoffs — the 2011 Class 6A state semifinals. The Hawks prevailed at home in a 46-38 shootout, but Armwood allowed more points that night than it had in any game in five seasons. Bartram Trail quarterback
Nathan Peterman — now at Tennessee — helped torch the Hawks for 473 yards.
“That was with four interceptions we got off that kid,” Callahan said. “They still scored that many points.”
Armwood’s offensive hero was Wade Edwards, who moved from receiver to running back after Matt Jones went out with an ankle injury. Edwards ran 28 times for 235 yards and three second-half touchdowns.
The Hawks’ home playoff dominance has continued this fall, including last week’s 41-0 win over Springstead. According to the Florida High School Athletic Association, Armwood has won 24 consecutive playoff games in Seffner, dating to a 17-14 loss to Lake Gibson in the 2002 region semifinals.
Armwood has lost in the state semifinals only twice in its past seven visits — to Palm Beach Dwyer in 2009 and Miami Washington in ’07.