LAND O'LAKES — The whispers from players gathered a few yards behind Sunlake's offense carried well.
"They're going to be good," one voice said. "Real good," said another.
After three seasons of mediocrity, Sunlake is poised to battle — dare it be said — for a playoff berth in the program's fourth year. That's a bold statement considering the Seahawks have to face tough teams like Pasco, Land O'Lakes and Mitchell in Class 3A, District 7. After back-to-back seasons with a combined record of 1-19, Sunlake went a respectable 4-6 in 2009.
One reason for even greater optimism is the progression of quarterback Jacob Jackson. The senior, who transferred from Gulf last year, admits he has a better grasp on the playbook, prompting Seahawks coach Bill Browning to declare Sunlake will throw a lot more than a year ago.
"We've been run-oriented but we're going to be close to 50-50 (run-pass)," Browning said. "We're going to open it up some, and Jacob's a big reason."
On this night of Pasco County's seven-on-seven touch football league, Jackson's feet moved through tall grass on his home field. His eyes shifted beyond the defense. A few pump fakes then a pinpoint spiral snapped from his hand to one of his favorite targets. It was one of several touchdowns.
Jackson appeared comfortable and in command, albeit without the threat of a defensive lineman charging in his face.
Last year was a lot more work and a lot less fun.
"I have a year of experience with the offense," Jackson said. "I have everything down now. I know the plays."
Jackson's first outing in 2009 was abysmal despite being an exhibition game. He went 1-for-7 for 9 yards on a late August night. The Seahawks had to wait until the end of September to enjoy their first victory, a 35-17 win over Gulf. Then came the program's first win streak after a 47-0 victory against Anclote. In that game, Jackson rushed for two touchdowns, including a 40-yarder.
Turns out running was a key element to his game.
The ground game, particularly the shiftiness of sophomore Rashaud Daniels, certainly helped make up for problems in the passing game.
Browning hopes better speed from his receivers in the fall will help Jackson avoid some of the pitfalls that contributed to his issues with grasping the playbook.
"We're trying to get a little more speed at wideout," Browning said. "He didn't have that. It was hard for him sometimes. He was forcing some balls and (receivers) couldn't get separation (from defenders)."
That separation was there Tuesday night as Jackson continued to gain experience and tighter relationships with his teammates.
Those whispers are certainly a confidence booster, though Jackson tries not to let predictions inflate his ego.
"This year, I think we'll be 10 times better," Jackson said. "We have the potential to make the playoffs. … I hear it from other schools. I don't try to brag, I just want to show people we're better this year."
Izzy Gould can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 421-3886.