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Armwood safeties Gibson and McQuay are ready for Friday night semis

Armwood’s Kyle Gibson and fellow safety Leon McQuay II “have the potential to be the best pair we’ve ever had here,” said Hawks coach Sean Callahan.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Armwood’s Kyle Gibson and fellow safety Leon McQuay II “have the potential to be the best pair we’ve ever had here,” said Hawks coach Sean Callahan.

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."

CLASS 6A STATE SEMIFINALS

Bartram Trail (12-1)

at Armwood (13-0), 7:30 p.m. today

LAST WEEK: The Bears defeated Pace 34-24; Armwood beat Gainesville 17-14.

THE SKINNY: Bartram Trail will bring the best offense the Hawks have seen all year into Lyle Flagg Stadium tonight. Nathan Peterman has thrown for 2,345 yards and 32 TDs and rushed for another 260 yards. Wake Forest commit Jared Crump leads the Bears in receiving yards (877) and TDs (13) while fellow wideout Bobby Walker, a Troy commit, has hauled in a team-high 41 catches. But Bartram Trail isn't one dimensional. The Bears feature Gabe Johnson, who's rushed for 1,457 yards and 17 TDs. Johnson, whose father, Anthony, played 11 seasons in the NFL, scored twice against Pace, running for 203 yards on 24 carries while adding another 106 receiving yards. Defensive end Korey Harris has committed to West Virginia and linebacker Matt Mailhot leads the Bears with eight sacks.

CLASS 8A STATE SEMIFINALS

Neptune Beach Fletcher (11-2) at Plant (12-1), 7:30 p.m. today

LAST WEEK: Fletcher defeated Orlando Timber Creek 31-27; Plant defeated East Lake 28-21 in OT.

THE SKINNY: Fletcher is making its first state semifinal appearance. The Senators used an opportunistic defense last week to get past Timber Creek, scoring points off two second-half fumble recoveries. Fletcher is led by standout tailback Jamari Smith, who scored three touchdowns last week. The state semifinal round has been Plant's friend as the Panthers are a perfect 4-0 on this stage. But Plant got a scare last week, being taken into overtime before defeating East Lake. Still, the Panthers are playing well, averaging 43 points per game offensively. A victory tonight would send the Panthers to their fourth straight state championship game and fifth in six years.

Times correspondents Rod Gipson, Brandon Wright

Armwood safeties Gibson and McQuay are ready for Friday night semis 12/08/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 8, 2011 3:30am]
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