ZEPHYRHILLS — As most North Suncoast teams made regular appearances in a summer 7-on-7 league, Zephyrhills quietly worked on its own to improve on back-to-back 2-8 seasons.
The Bulldogs installed a new offense featuring more reads and runs. They broke in a new quarterback, Jamal Roberts. And they bonded as a team to try to rebuild their once-strong program.
The offseason practices showed in an impressive 31-14 win over Central in last week’s preseason kickoff classic. The real test will come Friday in the regular-season opener against a loaded Land O’Lakes team.
“The effort is 100 percent better than last year,” Zephyrhills coach Reggie Roberts said. “The attitude is 100 percent better than last year. The teamwork is 100 percent better than last year. Obviously we’re moving in the right direction.”
That shift began in the summer when coaches looked at their young team. The Bulldogs needed stability and camaraderie after the school made three coaching changes since 2009.
To fix those problems, Zephyrhills organized a sleepover at the gym — a first for senior athlete Jake Smith — and played basketball, hung out and listened to speakers.
“We aren’t a team,” Smith said. “We’re a family.”
Bulldogs coaches pounded football into their players, too. They met for 6 a.m. workouts to change the system from a pass-heavy game into a more diverse offense.
Zephyrhills moved senior Jamal Roberts from receiver back to his natural position of quarterback to take advantage of his speed.
Roberts was a first-team all-Sunshine Athletic Conference pick in the 100 meters last year and has been clocked at 4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
“Over the summer it was just straight repetitions, straight repetitions,” said Roberts, who has recruiting interest from Kentucky and USF. “Get as many reps as you can.”
Roberts has been a key player for Zephyrhills since his transfer from Wesley Chapel. He caught five touchdowns last year and took a few snaps at quarterback.
Roberts had a breakout performance last week, rushing for 230 yards and three touchdowns in the new-look offense.
“Jamal’s just an athlete,” said Smith, who was expected to start the year at quarterback but moved to running back/receiver to make room for Roberts. “He can outrun anybody in this county. He’s got that wow factor.”
Roberts’ role will be even more important during the opening weeks as Zephyrhills tries to get healthy. Senior Adrian Sanchez, who returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown in the spring game against Pasco, missed the preseason game with a knee injury but is expected to start Friday.
Senior linebacker Devario Mathis has been nursing an injury, and starting fullback Malik Mutcherson might not be 100 percent Friday.
If the Bulldogs hope to upset Land O’Lakes, they’ll need a good game from a sophomore-heavy offensive line that features only one senior.
“They’ve been together the whole summer,” Reggie Roberts said. “That’s the key to everything. We’ve got a bunch of young kids just excited to play football.”
And turn around the Bulldogs program.
Jamal Roberts went to his coaches in the offseason and asked to lead the team as quarterback and rebuild his head coach’s alma mater.
“He’s a senior, and basically he told me he wanted it on his shoulders,” Reggie Roberts said. “We’re tired of losing. We don’t want to lose anymore.”