SEFFNER — Finally, football is here.
The sound of the drum lines, the smell of Frito Pies and the sight of players plowing into each other can only mean the opening of the 2009 football season. Tonight is the final audition for starting positions in the only preseason game before next Friday's openers get under way. We've been crisscrossing the eastern part of Hillsborough County gathering data. Here's what we expect to see this season.
Teams: Bloomingdale, Durant, Newsome, Plant City and Riverview
Outlook: The Bulls pulled off the unthinkable last season, recording a winning season and reaching the postseason — both school firsts. Having cleared those hurdles, Bloomingdale has a new set of challenges. John Booth takes over as head coach for Jason Stokes, and the Bulls must find a way to replace 20 players who graduated in the spring.
"We lost a lot of leadership from last season," Booth said. "But these kids have seen what it takes."
Newsome went 8-2 last year but made a quick exit from the playoffs, losing in the first round. Junior tailback Connor Powers will again be the focal point after rushing for 1,164 yards and eight touchdowns. Look for Powers, a power back who runs low, to improve on those numbers this season.
Quarterback Je'Twan Smith, a threat on the ground and through the air, will lead the Cougars. John Hicks likely will step in at tailback, but Smith will be the guy teams focus on. Durant's defense could be in trouble as only three starters returned this year.
Plant City and Riverview will likely pull up the rear of this district. However, Sharks fullback Ronnie Johnson is worth watching. He takes over full time this season at running back and should benefit from Riverview's switch from a double wing to single wing attack. The Sharks also return four of five starting offensive linemen.
Teams: Brandon, Freedom, Tampa Bay Tech and Wharton
Outlook: The Eagles hope to rebound from a dismal 2-8 season. Thanks to the rash of injuries Brandon endured last year, the Eagles started 13 or so freshman and sophomores by season's end. Senior wideout Sean Watson is Brandon's most offensive potent weapon and will handle the kicking and punting duties as well.
"These kids seem to have a chip on their shoulders," Brandon coach John Lima said. "And that's good."
Teams: Armwood, East Bay, Hillsborough and King
Outlook: Armwood must replace eight Division I starters. But don't feel bad for the Hawks. They will once again be in the state championship hunt. Freedom transfer Josh Grady takes over as quarterback, but the breakout star will be Matt Jones. The sophomore tailback was used in spurts last year. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Jones is a beast who should become a star this season.
"He's going to be a good one," said Armwood coach Sean Callahan.
There is good news for East Bay. They dropped to 5A from 4A. The bad news is they are now in the same district as Armwood and Hillsborough. The Indians may be one of the few teams that still employ the wishbone offense. When it's working, it can be a clock-chewing problem for anybody. Deandre Reddick will likely replace Chaz Burrows, a 1,000-yard rusher last year, this season in the backfield. Aaron Mills will take over at quarterback.
Teams: Blake, Dixie Hollins, Jefferson, Lakewood, Osceola and Spoto
Outlook: In just their second year of varsity football, Spoto reached the postseason. JB Burgess' season is in limbo after his recent arrest for armed robbery so Jamar Burns, a tailback/wideout last season, will move into the quarterback role. All-state linebacker Rodney Williams is one of the area's best defensive talents and will work more in the offensive backfield this season.
Teams: George Steinbrenner, Jesuit, Lennard, Middleton, Robinson, St. Petersburg Catholic and Strawberry Crest
Outlook: Lennard's biggest loss is quarterback Andrew Burdick. The Longhorns replace him with a quality player in East Bay transfer Fred Porter. He'll have a bunch of tall targets to work with in the red zone, with five receivers measuring over 6-feet tall. De'Myco Winston is the best — and tallest — of the bunch at 6-foot-5. The Longhorns figure to be stout on defense with eight seniors returning.
"We'll be looking for the mismatches out wide," said Lennard coach George Edington. "That should be one of our strengths."
Brandon Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.