We're rolling out daily district previews for all 78 varsity football teams in the area. Today we look at a monster nine-team Hillsborough County league, affectionately tabbed the district of death.
This district is one of the toughest around, and the way the schedule shakes out, it's also a district that can be decided — like it was last year — by midseason. There's no room for a slow start. Robinson plays Armwood and Jefferson in the first four weeks, Armwood and Jefferson play in Week 5 following games against Hillsborough and Robinson, and the Terriers play Jefferson and Armwood in Weeks 2 and 3. Last year, Hillsborough lost both of those games and had to spend the final eight weeks hoping for an unlikely upset to prolong its season, and it never came. There's no question everyone is chasing the Hawks again, who were a perfect 8-0 in the league and allowed only 3.7 points a game. The race for second, though, should be more competitive. One coach referred to the league as Mario Kart, and Armwood has more red shells than everyone else.
Armwood returns just about everyone from last year's team and has high-quality experience at almost every position — even at kicker, where Syracuse commitment Sterling Hofrichter makes the Hawks a threat to score when they get stopped. But that won't be often. The Hawks' average score in the district last year was 39-4, and the closest anyone came to beating them was Jefferson, which lost by 19. Those scores may be closer in 2014, but they won't be nearly close enough.
Next in line
You can flip a coin between Hillsborough and Jefferson for the runnerup spot. Last year Jefferson was the more experienced team, but this year Hillsborough returns starting quarterback Dwayne Lawson and six receivers, including Anthony King and Xavier Byrd, who had more than 200 yards receiving. It could be Lawson's presence — he also ran for more than 1,000 yards — that gives the Terriers the nod over Jefferson. But the Dragons, despite breaking in a new starter at quarterback in Cade Weldon, counter with a fantastic group of defensive backs and a potential 1,000-yard rusher in Mondreas Lofton. But don't fret the runnerup spot too much — we'll find out Sept. 5 who the frontrunner for that spot is.
After the Armwood-Jefferson-Hillsborough dog fight last year, the next three teams — Robinson, Chamberlain and King — all finished 4-4. It will take some good fortune for one of those teams to break from the second tier. Robinson doesn't have much depth, and returns just one starter on the offensive line, but it does have talent at virtually every position. The Knights will have to survive their first four games — Sickles, Plant, Jefferson on the road and Armwood at home — injury-free to have shot at upsetting the league's top dogs. And Blake and King may not be ready to start talking postseason yet, but don't be surprised if either plays a role in who goes with a possible upset of the favorites this season. Blake is as talented as it has been in years and has weapons all over the field, and Chamberlain is improved.
1 Returning 1,000-yard rusher (Hillsborough's Dwayne Lawson) and 2,000-yard passer (Lawson) from last season
3 Quarterbacks in the district who led their team in rushing and passing last season (Lawson, Armwood's Noah Johnson, Jefferson's Deiondre Porter)
30 Points allowed by Armwood in eight district games last year
313 Points scored by Armwood in eight district games last year
31 Combined sacks by Blake's Shavar Manuel (19) and Julian Jackson (12) last year
Players to watch
LB Azeez Al-Shaair, Jr., Hillsborough: Referred to as the quarterback of the defense by coach Earl Garcia, Al-Shaair recorded a team-leading 8.5 sacks and 110 tackles as a sophomore, 26 more than the next best Terrier. He'll lead the way for a linebacker corp that should be even better than it was last year.
RB Corey Bennett, Sr., Blake: Bennett was the everything guy last season, compiling 1,113 total yards while leading the team in rushing. It's his third year on the team and, according to coach Darryl Gordon, he's able to hit the holes well and should make some noise.
WR Jahrvis Davenport, Sr., Robinson: The Maryland commitment and No. 20-ranked player in the HomeTeam 100 might be the best wide receiver in Tampa Bay. A virtual unknown when last season began, Davenport filled his highlight video with sensational plays on the way to 667 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns.
LB Jordan Griffin, Sr., Armwood: Griffin led the Hawks with 150 tackles last season and is one of the best linebackers in Tampa Bay. Expect similar numbers this fall, and maybe even a few additional splash plays.
CB/WR Corey Hicks, Sr., Lennard: A shutdown corner, Hicks will line up against opponents' best players. "There was a stretch last year against Hillsborough, Robinson, Jefferson and Armwood where we put him on their No. 1 receiver and they caught zero balls," coach Keith Chattin said.
RB Mondreas Lofton, Jr., Jefferson: The only offensive returning starter not on the line, Lofton will be tapped to carry the load on the ground in Deiondre Porter's absence. Last season, he rushed for 791 yards and eight touchdowns. Now that he's not sharing the work with Porter, we expect he can do a whole lot more for the Dragons.
OG/NG Robert Mosley, Sr., Chamberlain: The sturdy interior lineman will see plenty of action, if not be on the field for every play. He has a mean streak in him, and coach Cam Jones thinks Mosley will be a "steal" for whatever college picks him.
OG/DT Jamauri Tramel, Sr., Leto: A three-year starter on the offensive line, coach Matt Kitchie has dubbed Tramel "Mr. Dependable." He was injured in Week 5 against Robinson last year, which "threw a monkey wrench into our plans," Kitchie said.
RB Otis Williams, Jr., King: The 5-foot-9, 175-pounder finished with 742 all-purpose yards and four total touchdowns last season. If Williams, who averaged 11.52 yards per carry, can repeat his performance, the Lions might sneak into the playoff conversation once again.
Mark our calendar
Jefferson at Hillsborough, Sept. 5: Well, it doesn't take long to get to the big one in this district, now does it? Jefferson opens up with Alonso, while Hillsborough has the old first-week bye to get ready for the Dragons. Extra week to prepare, or a game to tune up? Hmmmm. This won't officially settle anything in the district, but if it plays out that everyone is playing for second behind Armwood, this winner gets a one-game lead and a huge tiebreaker advantage if it comes down to that. Jefferson won last year's tilt 28-23, but this hotly contested series can always go either way.
Returning district leaders
Rushing yards: Hillsborough's Dwayne Lawson, 1,068
Rushing TDs: Armwood's Noah Johnson, 14
Passing yards: Lawson, 2,120
Passing TDs: Lawson, 22
Receiving yards: Robinson's Jahrvis Davenport, 667
Receiving TDs: Davenport, 8
Tackles: Armwood's Jordan Griffin, 150
Sacks: Blake's Shavar Manuel, 19
Interceptions: Blake's Juwan Burgess, 5
Predicted order of finish
From an anonymous coach in the district :
"I love it more than anything. I want to be the main event. I want Chamberlain to be the team that people want to see on their Friday nights." — Chamberlain coach Cam Jones on playing in this powerhouse district
More football online
Want to know more about these teams? Catch up on previous installments? We've got individual previews chock full of more players to watch, schedules and more. Check out tampabay.com/hometeam.
Correspondents Jeff Odom, Darek Sharp, Andy Warrener and Brandon Wright contributed to this report.
HomeTeam 2014 football Class 6A, District 8