SEFFNER — Devoid of the hulking shoulder pads and battle-tested helmet, Kyle Gibson looks more like Armwood's ball boy than the Hawks' starting strong safety.
"I've always been small, even coming up through Little League," said Gibson, who is generously listed at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds. "I've always been underestimated because of my size."
That, however, has proven to work in Gibson's favor.
"I don't mind it," he said. "I just like to hit people."
And although Gibson has rattled more than his fair share of facemasks this season, no hit was bigger than last week's against Gainesville.
Trailing the Hurricanes 14-10 with just over four minutes to play and the season hanging in the balance, Gibson dislodged the ball from quarterback Mark Cato. Keionne Baines pounced on it and three plays later, the Hawks took the lead for good.
"I was ready for (Cato) to run it, and I just saw the ball kind of out there," Gibson said. "And I put my helmet right on it."
The fumble heard 'round the world — or at least throughout Seffner — made the Middleton transfer an instant household name on a team brimming with stars. It also set up tonight's Class 6A state semifinal against visiting Bartram Trail.
"We'll be ready," Gibson said.
Gibson and fellow safety Leon McQuay III will be heavily relied upon, and equally tested, against a high-powered Bears offense that features quarterback Nathan Peterman, a four-star national recruit and Tennessee commit.
"We're not going to do anything different," McQuay said. "Just do what we do better."
Gibson, a sophomore, and McQuay, a junior, lead the Hawks with seven and eight passes defended, respectively. Gibson ranks fifth on the Hawks with 36 solo tackles.
"They have the potential to be the best pair we've ever had here," Hawks coach Sean Callahan said.
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound McQuay, who like Gibson appears more wiry than imposing, is being courted by myriad Division 1 schools. The offers will likely come flooding in for Gibson next year.
McQuay, an uber-talented athlete, is one of the best high jumpers in the county, played AAU basketball over the summer and even took up soccer last season — despite having never played before — just because.
"It seemed like fun," McQuay said of his lone season on the pitch.
Gibson defines fun with jarring hits and said his hardest hit of the season actually came while throwing a block. On a punt return against Strawberry Crest, Gibson did a crack-back on a Charger, setting off a chorus of "Oohs" during the subsequent film session.
"Knocked him clear out of the camera frame," Gibson said.
Gibson also smiled when recalling a bone-jarring hit against Hillsborough on the game's first play as the Hawks rolled to a 38-16 win that clinched the district title. Callahan agreed that was a good one, but couldn't narrow down which hit was Gibson's hardest of the season.
"He's done it all year long," Callahan said. "He hits you with every pound he has."