DADE CITY — The thought seems ridiculous now.
Now that senior Aryn Strickland is one of the surest tacklers on the North Suncoast.
Now that he’s an undersized but overachieving two-way starter for undefeated Pasco, which hosts Jesuit in Friday’s Class 5A region final.
Now that the ferocious middle linebacker has convinced teammates to run around him rather than absorb another dizzying blow.
But for the first two years of Strickland’s football career, his mother says, one of Pasco County’s hardest hitters was afraid to hit.
“I never thought it would click with him,” Misti Strickland said.
Strickland started playing football at the request of a tee-ball teammate, Nick Wilson. And in the first two rungs of Dade City’s Police Athletic League, Strickland said he stunk. Even in flag football, a linebacker who doesn’t like to tackle doesn’t do much good.
The Stricklands thought about focusing on baseball, but football coaches told Misti that her son would eventually make that first big hit — the kind that makes the drills worthwhile and keeps players coming back.
“One day, he just did it,” his mother said, “and it clicked.”
Strickland remembers the moment, in his third year of football, when he got stuck on sticking ball carriers.
“I drilled someone in the dirt and just planted him,” Strickland said. “I was like, ‘Maybe football’s my sport.’ ”
That first hit fueled hundreds more, made him a team MVP in youth leagues, induced plenty of headaches for opposing players and coaches and led to a possible career.
It’s also terrorized his fellow Pirates. When senior Trey Dudley-Giles was a peewee teammate, he went one-on-one against Strickland in an Oklahoma drill. After picking himself up from the ground, Dudley-Giles vowed to juke or run around Strickland from then on.
“I was like, ‘We’re not hitting against you because you give us headaches every time,’ ” Dudley-Giles said. “He still has that pop.
“That’s what makes him effective in our defense. They don’t want to run the ball, because he’s doing to come hit you.”
Strickland has delivered plenty more hits for Pasco (12-0), which allowed a Tampa Bay-low 51 points in the regular season. After recording only nine tackles as a junior, he leads the Pirates with 72 tackles.
Strickland was pivotal in last week’s 31-28 win over Citra North Marion on a defense that allowed 155 yards and 21 points in the first quarter but only seven points after that. He sacked Zephyrhills standout Jamal Roberts in the regular-season finale and jarred the ball loose. In another game, he smashed a Gulf rusher so hard his helmet flew off.
“It was great,” Strickland said.
Strickland’s impact has spread beyond defense. Coaches saw his toughness last season and lined him up at offensive guard alongside Wilson, his former tee-ball teammate. They lead a reloaded offensive line that has bulldozed opponents for an average of 165 rushing yards per game.
Strickland stands a quarter-inch short of 6 feet and two pounds shy of 200, so he must compensate in other ways. He’s quick to study game film and understand schemes.
On defense against Zephyrhills, Strickland lost track of the ball carrier but remembered his coaches’ advice on how to read the Bulldogs’ keys. Strickland found the right spot, and the opposing running back ran into him before hitting the dirt.
“He’s not the biggest kid,” coach Tom McHugh said. “He’s not the greatest athlete, but he’s smart and very cerebral.”
Strickland’s drive for more powerful hits sent him to the weight room early. He began lifting weights when he was in middle school to try to bulk up a teenage frame that peaked early.
“He’s strong as an ox,” said his father, Eric.
By eighth grade, Strickland was bench-pressing 225 pounds, and friends were asking him about his training regimen.
“I started showing them workouts, and I really enjoyed that,” Strickland said.
So Strickland began getting more interested in exercise and proper diet. He placed third at districts in weightlifting last season. He volunteers at Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, where he was born and where his mom works as an emergency room nurse.
After injuring his hamstring as a sophomore, Strickland went to therapy and saw a promising career goal and another unlikely twist.
After college, Pasco County’s hardest hitter plans to become a physical therapist to help injured athletes pick themselves back up.
Staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.