TAMPA — It won’t take Plant coach Robert Weiner long to determine what kind of game he’ll be coaching Friday when undefeated Sickles arrives to take on his Panthers. Weiner expects he’ll have an idea after the very first drive, and it all starts with his offensive line.
“Do I have something where we’re controlling that line of scrimmage, or is it something I need to trick up a little bit to get some openings and try and create some protection?” Weiner said. “We’d rather all the time just play real football, line up and say, ‘These are our plays, and we’re better than you are so we’re going to run them.’ ”
The Panthers pride themselves on their potent attack. It’s a strategy that could be threatened by the Gryphons (5-0, 2-0).
Weiner will look to his front five to set the tone against a defense that has held opponents to an average of 10.2 points per game. Weiner has few qualms about putting that kind of responsibility on his offensive line.
“They’re capable of being as good as any line we’ve ever had,” Weiner said. “We have something that other teams don’t have; we have depth on the line. So there’s no excuse for us not being great week in, week out at that position.”
Plant (4-1-1, 2-0) returned its entire starting offensive line from last season, when the Panthers capped a 9-1 regular-season campaign with a two-game playoff run. For a position that’s often reliant on the chemistry among players, there are few better ingredients for success than consistency.
Things changed, though, in a Sept. 20 game against Bloomingdale, a record-setting night for the Panthers.
While making a block on the second-to-last play of Plant’s 50-40 win against Bloomingdale, starting center Richard Bush suffered a stress fracture in his foot. He’s been sidelined since, but hopes to be healthy in time for the postseason.
Weiner calls Bush the quarterback of his offensive line. Replacing that kind of player might be a struggle for many teams, but Weiner is confident putting the football in the hands of replacement Denton Dowell, who started all 12 games on the line a year ago.
Despite losing Bush, Plant hit an offensive peak against the Bulls. Quarterback Colby Brown threw for 519 yards and completed 33 passes, both school records for a program that has turned out many elite quarterbacks. Those numbers don’t happen without an offensive line like he has, Weiner said.
“(The offensive line) played as well as we have in any other game, and our skill players just put on a show,” Bush said of that night.
“They made us look even better by putting up that many yards.”
Perhaps headlining a group Weiner calls his “faceless heroes” is Ray Raulerson. Weiner says the 6-foot-4, 275-pound senior has a “nasty disposition” when it comes to blocking for teammates. It’s that attitude and versatility that make Raulerson an asset to the group.
“Sometimes you have a great run-blocking tackle, sometimes you have a great pass-blocking tackle,” Weiner said of the Tennessee commit. “But he’s strong enough to be the run blocker, athletic enough to be the pass protector, and he does both of them very well.”
Weiner admits his offensive line could be weeks from reaching its full potential. Against Sickles, he needs it to be one step closer. Raulerson has no doubt it will be.
A blitz-heavy team with a defense Raulerson calls “confusing,” the Gryphon defense could present the best challenge the Panthers have seen so far. But Raulerson is ready to take on the beast, and he’s got his mind set on leading the way to suppressing it.
“This team is pretty much dictated by how we play,” he said. “We have to play physical from the first snap.”
Photo: Ray Raulerson
Kelly Parsons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @_kellyparsons.