TAMPA — This was supposed to be Jefferson's year.
Junior quarterback Cade Weldon — one of Tampa Bay's top passers last season and a 6-foot-2, 190-pound Division I-A prospect — carried the weight of those expectations square on his shoulders.
The Dragons hadn't made it very far in the playoffs since winning the Class 3A championship in 2010. But before the season began, coach Jeremy Earle had a gut feeling all of that was about to change.
"Playing 11 games last year and being able to experience all the different scenarios, you can't really simulate in practice. It's just really set him apart as compared to last year," Earle said of his starting quarterback before a preseason practice. "To be able to have the position with the quarterback, it's very eerie the similarities of how 2010, 2009 and all that went down."
But in the first quarter of the season opener, all of that came crashing down.
Weldon tore his ACL against Tampa Bay Tech, becoming the second 2,000-yard passer in Hillsborough County this year to go down with the season-ending injury. In July, Plant's Rex Culpepper tore his ACL during a 7-on-7 tournament at USF.
While their high school teams were left with big holes to fill, Culpepper and Weldon had their college futures to consider.
Culpepper, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound recruit, had committed to Syracuse just weeks before his injury, choosing the Orange over 14 other D-I offers. Still, Plant coach Robert Weiner said, the day of the injury, a million questions — including ones about his recruitment — ran through the quarterback's head.
"The most important thing was to get some good news that night," Weiner said. "And touching base with coach (Scott) Shafer was a good way to do that."
Shafer, who has been the head coach at Syracuse since 2013, was returning from a trip abroad, Weiner said, but called Culpepper to let him know the Orange was still behind him.
Though Weiner said he's not sure how Syracuse would have responded had Culpepper not already been committed to the university, he believes the way the Panthers have structured the recruiting process for all their players makes a difference.
"We don't allow our kids to commit to a place and then decommit. … Most coaches that we deal with, they know they're not just dealing with a name of another school. They know if a kid from Plant says they're going to their school, he's going to their school," he said. "I think in turn, like in situations like (Rex's), that probably spawns immediate loyalty back to us as well."
A year earlier, Steinbrenner wide receiver Kezio Snelling also missed most of his senior year after tearing the ACL in his left knee on a punt return during a preseason game against Sunlake.
Snelling also couldn't keep the internal questions at bay.
"It just left me with so many thoughts," Snelling said. "At the time I was getting scholarships, I was doing fine, helping my team win. I was thinking to myself, 'Would we have won this game? What would have happened if I didn't tear it?' "
The two-star recruit had a handful of Division I-A offers, including ones from Purdue, Rutgers and Toledo. He said he worried about how the injury would affect his recruitment, but didn't know of any schools that rescinded offers because of it.
The fact that Eastern Michigan wide receivers coach Herb Haygood supported him before and after the injury, though, made him high on the Eagles.
"The way he recruited me, I was like, 'Yeah this is the guy. This is where I want to be,' " Snelling said. "The type of coach I have coaching me, you don't really find that type of coach anywhere."
For some elite players, the only worry after a devastating injury is the rehabilitation — not the recruiting — process.
Tampa Prep power forward Juwan Durham, ranked among the nation's top 30 basketball players in the 2016 class by nearly every recruiting service, tore the ACL in his right knee in February. The 6-foot-9 senior had offers from more than a dozen schools, including Connecticut, Florida and Louisville.
The only glitch came when he had to delay some visits in the spring while recovering from surgery. The interest never wavered, and no college rescinded an offer. Last week, Durham ended his recruitment by committing to the Huskies.
"It was a relief knowing colleges were still interested in me even after I was injured," he said.
Durham actually enjoyed being below the radar during his rehabilitation after so many years in the national spotlight.
"I'm kind of mellow and don't really like all of the attention," Durham said. "I already get enough of that from people asking me how tall I am and things like that. It was really good to have that alone time, and be by myself focusing on getting healthy for the upcoming season."
Though every injured athlete's experience is different, one thing most coaches agree on is that medical technology has vastly changed the outlook for recoveries, especially from ACL tears.
As far as Shafer is concerned, recruiting a high school player who has had such an injury doesn't really present concerns, only adjustments that need to be made.
"Other than figuring out what the new normal feels like for athletes, he's the same guy we recruited," Shafer said. "Over the years, with the medical field getting better and better with technology, bringing these kids back quicker, nine times out of 10 the kid will be ready to go."
That's exactly what Culpepper plans to be in January, when he enrolls at Syracuse a semester early. Watching his Panthers play from the sideline every week has been tough on the quarterback, Weiner said, but focusing on the bright future ahead has helped.
As for Weldon — who had surgery to repair his ACL on Tuesday morning — Earle doesn't doubt that his star quarterback will still have a college program to call home one day. He just might have to be a little more patient to find it.
"Being that Cade has a chance of missing the spring, when so much of that recruitment goes on, that's going to be a story that's yet to be told to see how that whole thing turns out," Earle said. "He's still going to be a physical specimen. Cade's a driven kid, and I'm pretty confident he'll be able to return — and return to the same form and fashion."
Times staff writer Bob Putnam contributed to this report.