PLANT CITY — Those who have attended a football game this fall at Durant High have been exposed to a profusion of calorific concession-stand treats and a dearth of style points.
While vendors sell kettle corn and smoked turkey legs, the Cougars have opted for a meat-and-potatoes mentality. Let the Plants and Jeffersons of the world win with high-octane aplomb and stout defense. The Cougars (5-1) will settle for the stout defense.
"We're the dirty 30," said first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Kelley, former coach at Plant City. "Eleven starters and, I think, three backups. We play the cards we've got, and the kids have responded."
Through six games, the Cougars have surrendered 38 total points. Subtract their only loss, a 24-0 aberration at Jesuit, and seventh-year coach Mike Gottman's club is allowing less than a field goal a game.
"It really surprised me a lot early," fourth-year starting linebacker Ruben Garcia said.
"Coming into the fall I thought our team was a lot smaller. Just going through the discipline we go through in practice and all the work we do, it really helps us. When it comes to game time, we've been putting up a lot of fights and been shutting a couple of teams down, too."
Physically, the Cougars will intimidate no one. The starting linemen in their 4-3 base alignment average 181 pounds. Nonetheless, that group — ends Josh Halferty and C.J. Griffin, and tackles Clay Varnum and Daivonte Lumpkin — has 101/2 sacks. Halferty's 61/2 lead the team.
But an even bigger key, Kelley says, has been the leadership and performance of Durant's senior linebackers: Garcia, Rance Rutherford and Sean Kolanowski. Those three, along with senior free safety T.J. Davis, comprise what Kelley calls "the heart and soul of the defense."
"We've played several different teams. We've played some spread, we played East Bay that runs the (wishbone) and we're blessed to have senior linebackers that are smart kids," said Kelley, a 1980 Leto graduate and prep teammate of current Wharton coach David Mitchell.
"They will get us lined up. We played Riverview last week (a 14-8 victory). I think I had 68 cards drawn up for our scout team to run. It's unbelievable. So that many formations and that much stuff, if you don't have some talented kids you're in trouble."
Friday, the Cougars travel to 5-1 Sickles for one of the area's most intriguing nondistrict matchups of the night. During pregame group work, the linebackers will break from their huddle with the collective cry of "dominate."
More than a month and a half into the season, it's a mantra they haven't had to modify.
"The first time we tried to break it down in the summer, (linebackers coach L.C. Sims) came over and told us, 'If y'all are going to say that, you've got to mean it,' " Rutherford recalled. " 'You can't just be breaking it down. You've got to mean what you say.' "
Joey Knight can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org