1. Armwood (10-2, Class 6A region semifinalist)
Up next: at Tampa Bay Tech
Skinny: Last year's loss to Lake Gibson in the Class 6A region semifinals was the Hawks' earliest exit from the playoffs in more than a decade and ended a three-year run of state title game appearances from 2013-15. If Armwood does return to the title game, it will do so under new leadership. Offensive coordinator Evan Davis took over the program in May from longtime coach Sean Callahan. Davis inherits a loaded roster that could have as many as 11 players in the 2018 class sign with a Division I-A school. Ohio State commit Brian Snead, who rushed for 176 yards in a preseason win over Bradenton Manatee, leads a strong ground game. There are other weapons, too. Devin Black is a dual-threat quarterback who can distribute the ball to a number of elite receivers, including Warren Thompson (Oregon) and four-star prospect Jerome Ford. On defense, Malcolm Lamar, another Oregon recruit, anchors a talented line. The linebacking unit could be the strength with James Miller (LSU, USF and Oregon offers among others), Caleb Sutherland (Toledo commit) and Ricardo Watson (USF and Oregon offers) leading the way. Against Manatee, the Hawks recorded a shutout and had three interceptions, two by Jhonny Quest.
Charlie Kaijo | Times
2. Plant (13-1, Class 7A state finalist)
Up next: at Hillsborough
Skinny: Another run to the state championship game could be in store for the Panthers. The biggest task in the offseason was finding a replacement at quarterback for Dane Frantzen, who threw for more than 2,500 yards, ran for more than 1,500 and accounted for 51 touchdowns. Plant filled that void with the addition of Jordan McCloud, who transferred from Sickles. The younger brother of Clemson standout Ray-Ray McCloud is a multidimensional quarterback who has the ability to put up similar numbers as Frantzen. In a 46-42 win over Venice, McCloud threw for 291 yards and two touchdowns. Two weeks ago, the Panthers lost running back Ty Thompson, who tore his ACL in a scrimmage. Fortunately, Plant has depth at the skill positions. Brandon Brooks had three rushing touchdowns against the Indians and Alex Carvajal had a long run that set up another score. Defensively, the Panthers are led by a pair of Division I-A recruits, lineman Judge Culpepper (Penn State) and linebacker Micah McFadden (Indiana).
3. Tampa Bay Tech (9-2, Class 7A region semifinalist)
Up next: vs. Armwood
Skinny: Titans coach Jayson Roberts believes his team has the pieces in place to make a deep playoff run and challenge Armwood in the season opener. It starts at quarterback with the return of Michael Penix Jr., a Tennessee commit who threw for 31 touchdowns and just one interception last season. Daquon Green, Tampa Bay Tech's leading receiver, is now a freshman at Florida. But Tampa Bay Tech still has plenty of targets. Penix threw for five first-half touchdowns, including a pair each to Levi Jackson and Evan Lewis, in a 51-0 preseason rout over Brandon. Treshaun Ward, a 1,000-yard rusher, transferred from Plant City and gives the Titans the depth at running back they lacked a year ago. The defense, which allowed seven points or fewer in seven games last season, is led by lineman Jonathan King, an Oregon recruit.
4. Jesuit (12-1, Class 5A state semifinalist)
Up next: vs. Durant
Skinny: There are a lot of new faces, especially on offense. Malik Davis, Hillsborough County's all-time leading rusher, is now at Florida. Playmaker Travell Harris is at Washington State. Still, the talent is there to maintain Jesuit's 21-game regular-season win streak. Most of it is on the defensive side, a unit that gave up an average of 10 points per game a year ago. Lineman Anthony Nelson, a Harvard commit, returns, as does linebackers Nick Terrana, Braden Gilby and defensive back Kendrick Torain. The running game will be more by committee with as many as five backs who can contribute. Division I-A recruit Larry Hodges, at 6-foot-3, will be a big target in the passing game. Brendan Callahan is another one to watch. The senior had three catches for 79 yards in a 41-7 preseason win over Gaither.
Scott Purks | Special to the Times
5. East Lake (9-2, Class 7A region finalist)
Up next: at Palm Harbor University
Skinny: The Eagles have kept their eight-year playoff streak alive not because they can hang onto the coattails of a few talented players who can bail them out in certain situations. Instead, East Lake has thrived because it has players who don't mind sharing the wealth. This season is no different. The Eagles lost their leading passer, rusher, receiver and tackler from last season's team that made the region finals. Yet they might be just as just as strong. Jackson Rowland takes over at quarterback. He threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Tucker Gleason in a 16-0 win over Hillsborough in the preseason. The defense forced four turnovers, including a fumble return by Reed Puzzitiello for a score. Dionte Blanch, a running back/defensive back, decided not to play this season but the Eagles picked up Micah Abraham, younger brother of former East Lake and current USF player Devin. Counting the 2016 playoffs and the preseason, the Eagles' last three wins have come against Hillsborough County teams (Durant, Tampa Bay Tech and Hillsborough).
6. Clearwater (10-1, Class 6A region finalist)
Up next: vs. Dunedin
Skinny: Pay no attention to the 42-7 loss to defending Class 4A state champion Cocoa in the preseason. The Tornadoes still are the favorite to win their third straight district title. The strength of this team is up front with four starters returning, led by Michael Smith (6-2, 240) and Terrance Shaw (6-2, 290). They will pave the way for elusive running back Jarius Williams, who rushed for 887 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. In the spring, Williams showed off his big-play capabilities, scoring on runs of 58 and 37 yards in the first half against Clearwater Central Catholic. The passing game will have a different look with quarterback Austin Day (Marist) and receiver Jacquez Jones (Tennessee) both graduated. Steinbrenner transfer Colin Wray takes over at quarterback. One of his top targets is Brannan Demeter. One to watch on defense is middle linebacker Brandon Gary, a first-time starter who picked up an offer from USF over the summer. Lineman Azyia Vance and Jacob Day and linebacker Anthony Hope also will be key.
7. Jefferson (7-4, Class 5A region semifinalist)
Up next: at Plant City
Skinny: The Dragons received a blow when receiver Jermaine Eskridge, one of the top recruits in the bay area, broke his arm in a 28-17 preseason win over Newsome. There still is depth at the skill positions. Dontavius Smith had four catches for 118 yards and a touchdown against the Wolves. Justin McGriff, a UCF recruit, is another big-time receiver. Jefferson still has to shore up its pass protection and cut down on the turnovers. The Dragons allowed seven sacks and had three passes picked off against Newsome. The secondary should be among with the best in the area. North Carolina commit DeAndre Hollins had an interception, and Dewayne Godwin picked one off for a score in the preseason. Jarod Gunn had seven tackles, and forced a fumble and recovered one.
Monica Herndon | Times
8. Hillsborough (8-2, Class 6A region quarterfinalist)
Up next: vs. Plant
Skinny: It might take a while for the Terriers to get in a rhythm on offense with so many new faces. Jefferson transfer Tyrese Spain and Armwood transfer Terence Doston will both be counted on as versatile playmakers. Wiregrass Ranch transfer Da Da McGee is among a number of talented running backs. The key for the Terriers is quarterback Tyler Thomas, a junior who is poised for a breakout season. The secondary is solid with UCLA commit Ken Montgomery and Marterrence Holloway both returning. Hillsborough has to come together quickly with a schedule that includes Plant and Tampa Bay Tech in the first four games.
9. Tampa Catholic (6-4, Class 3A region finalist)
Up next: vs. Gibbs
Skinny: It would appear the Crusaders are in a rebuilding stage. Quarterback Austin Sessums (Texas Southern), running back Devan Barrett (Auburn), receiver Darius Corbett (Toledo) and defensive back Bentlee Sanders (USF) all graduated. Defensive lineman Johnnie Brown transferred to Middleton and linebacker De'shard Hughes transferred to Armwood. But the Crusaders have reloaded. Charlie Dean, a junior who has offers from Northern Iowa and Toledo, takes over at quarterback. Jalen Bussey becomes the featured back. In a 38-14 preseason win over Robinson, Bussey ran for two touchdowns and scored another off a screen pass. Ahmarean Brown, who has offers from Alabama, Kentucky and Michigan State among others, is the No. 1 receiver. On defense, the secondary should still be solid despite the loss of Sanders. Tampa Catholic recorded four interceptions against the Knights.
10. St. Petersburg (8-2, Class 7A region quarterfinalist)
Up next: vs. Largo
Skinny: The Green Devils are going to try to squeeze as much they can out of Division I-A recruits Jalynn Williams (Florida) and Anthony Johnson (Iowa State). Both will play in the secondary but their biggest impact could be on offense. Williams takes over at quarterback from Austyn Causey. A threat on the ground and through the air, Williams scored once on an 8-yard run in a 28-7 preseason win over Northeast. Johnson added a 15-yard touchdown run. The ground game relied on a number of backs. Derrel Kelley opened the game against the Vikings with a 51-yard touchdown run.
Douglas R. Clifford | Times
11. Berkeley Prep (9-3, Class 3A state semifinalist)
Up next: vs. Clearwater Central Catholic
Skinny: Gordon Stetson, who rushed for 1,840 yards and scored 19 touchdowns last season, graduated. But that does not mean the Bucs will abandon their run-first philosophy. Berkeley Prep can still play smash-mouth ball thanks to an offensive line that includes a pair of Division I-A recruits, Nicholas Petit-Frere (the top-rated player in the area) and Mayan Ahanotu, who has committed to Minnesota. Jakob Hines, who rushed for 431 yards and seven touchdowns, replaces Stetson as the featured back. In a 20-18 preseason win over Calvary, Hines did the bulk of the work, rushing for 126 yards. Josh Youngblood takes over at quarterback from Davis Koetter, who graduated. Zach Mathis, younger brother of Ole Miss' Jacob Mathis, is a receiver who has offers from Air Force and Boston College, among others. Jaylen Harrell, a four-star recruit who has offers from Ohio State, South Carolina and USF, is a linebacker and leader of the defense.
12. Clearwater Central Catholic (9-2, Class 3A region finalist)
Up next: at Berkeley Prep
Skinny: The Marauders had their four-year run of state semifinal appearances end with a seven-overtime loss to Melbourne Central Catholic in the region final. Since then, CCC's roster has been in flux. The Marauders graduated several starters, including quarterback Jakob Parks (South Dakota), athlete CJ Cotman (Tennessee), defensive back Rashaad Stewart (Cincinnati) and offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons. Athlete Amari Burney (Florida) and receiver Deandre Ferguson transferred to Calvary Christian. CCC picked up five players from PHU in January but only two stayed — linebacker Matt Tauber and lineman Evan Kulyk. Despite the massive turnover, the Marauders have enough talent to make the playoffs for a seventh straight season. Johnny Newton had 122 yards and a touchdown in an impressive 21-19 win over Wiregrass Ranch in the preseason. Older brother Jerjuan had five catches for 62 yards. Rory Hicks, a transfer from Countryside, was 12-of-16 for 139 yards. Deandre Fitzhenley, a Bowling Green recruit, will be a playmaker on both sides of the ball.
13. Wiregrass Ranch (7-3, Class 7A region quarterfinalist)
Up next: vs. Zephyrhills
Skinny: There was plenty of optimism in the offseason with a slew of starters returning from last year's team that made the playoffs for the second time in the program's 10-year history. Some of the stars, new and old, left. Defensive back Shamaur McDowell transferred to IMG and running back Da Da McGee transferred to Hillsborough. Athlete Raymond Woodie III, who transferred in from Carrollwood, moved to Oregon to join his father, an assistant for the Ducks. Those losses have not deterred Wiregrass Ranch. Grant Sessums, younger brother of former Tampa Catholic standout Austin, takes over at quarterback and threw for 228 yards in the second half of a 21-19 preseason loss to CCC. Jordan Miner, a Penn State commit, had a monster game against the Marauders with three catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns. Receiver AJ Brown (76 yards, TD in the preseason) and running back Chase Oliver also figure to have big roles on the offense. The Bulls will be tested early with games against Zephyrhills, Wesley Chapel and Sunlake before getting into the heart of their district schedule.
Charlie Kaijo | Times
14. Durant (8-3, Class 7A region quarterfinalist)
Up next: at Jesuit
Skinny: The Cougars are trying to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons, something the program has only done twice previously. The talent, especially on offense, is there. Quarterback Carlton Potter, who missed time late last season with a separated shoulder, is healthy and put up big numbers with four touchdown passes in a 44-6 preseason win over Blake. Agiye Hall was on the receiving end of three of those scores. Running back Cameron Myers, an Arkansas State commit, is the main ball carrier and gives Durant balance .On defense, the Cougars lost their top five leading tacklers. Tanner Jurnigan, who had 56 tackles last season, is the top returner.
15. Nature Coast (10-1, Class 5A region semifinalist)
Up next: At IMG Academy White
Skinny: First-year coach Cory Johns replaces Justin Worden, who left to take over at Titusville Astronaut. The offense will have a different look, opting to go more with a pro-style formation instead of the Wildcat primarily used under Worden. The emphasis on the running game will still be there due in large part to an offensive line that has plenty of experience and size. Louis Miele is the biggest at 6-foot-8, 320 pounds. Quarterback Brian Haygood (967 yards rushing) and running back TJ Owens (1,555) both graduated. Michael Weston, a junior who rushed for 797 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, has the most experience among the returning backs. Fabian Burnett, a sophomore, takes over at quarterback. He broke a couple of long runs in a scrimmage against Sunlake two weeks ago. The Sharks have a 22-game regular-season win streak, currently the longest in the area. That will be tested with an early-season schedule that includes IMG White, South Sumter and Springstead.
16. Lakewood (5-5, Class 5A region quarterfinalist)
Up next: at Boca Ciega
Skinny: Special teams and defense will have to carry the Spartans while they try to figure out their identity on offense. In a 17-14 preseason win over Sunlake, Troyvon Johnson scored on an 87-yard kickoff return and Arizona commit Armani Adams had a 42-yard interception return for a touchdown. Lakewood also scored on a safety. Johnson can do a little bit of everything for the Spartans, including a role as a dual-threat quarterback. Adams will lead a stingy secondary. Lakewood will have to find ways to score on offense in a hurry. The early-season schedule is brutal with games against St. Petersburg, Delray Beach American Heritage and Ocala Vanguard in the first four weeks.
Loren Elliott | Times
17. Largo (3-6)
Up next: at St. Petersburg
Skinny: The record a year ago does not suggest that the Packers are playoff contenders. After all, they had the program's first losing record since 1999. But there are signs Largo could turn things around. In five of those six losses, the Packers were ahead at halftime. Largo coach Marcus Paschal believes his team can now maintain leads simply because of experience. Only two significant starters graduated. Quarterback Isaiah Bellamy (UCF) and defensive lineman Jaquaze Sorrells (Florida) are among a number of highly-touted prospects on the roster. Calvin Lockett is a standout at receiver and defensive back and Cameron Tisdale returns from injury as another contributor in the secondary and on special teams. In last week's 10-0 win over South Myers, Tisdale had big kickoff and punt returns. The Packers will have to be on the road the first month of the season while sod is put down on their home field.
18. Sickles (1-8)
Up next: vs. Alonso
Skinny: On the field, the Gryphons were 5-5 last year. But they finished 1-8 after forfeiting four wins because of an ineligible player. One of those was a 30-29 win over Wiregrass Ranch that cost Sickles a playoff berth. The Gryphons had to deal with another lossoss in the offseason when quarterback Jordan McCloud transferred to Plant. That void was filled by the addition of Jake O'Donnell, who transferred from Jesuit. In a 28-0 preseason win over King, O'Donnell threw for two touchdowns. Eastern Michigan commit Timarcus Simpson was on the receiving end of one of those scores and had an interception. The running game will be led by USF commit Jontrey Hunter and Taj Lalanne.
19. Wesley Chapel (7-2)
Up next: at Sunlake
Skinny: After starting 7-0 last season, the Wildcats lost their final two games to Zephyrhills and River Ridge, and missed out on the playoffs. So the motivation is to reach the postseason. One thing that hurt Wesley Chapel was a weak schedule with six of seven wins coming against teams that had losing records. The Wildcats changed that with games against Sunlake and Wiregrass Ranch in the first two weeks. Oregon commit Isaiah Bolden will take over at quarterback and 1,000-yard rusher Dexter Leverett will handle the bulk of the rushing load. The defense got a boost with the addition of FSU commit Chaz Neal, who transferred from Armwood.
Loren Elliott | Times
20. Pinellas Park (6-3)
Up next: vs. River Ridge
Skinny: The Patriots have gone a combined 14-5 the past two seasons but missed the playoffs both times in ultra-competitive Class 7A, District 10. Though Pinellas Park is young, it could be in position to end that two-year postseason drought. Last week, the Patriots beat defending 6A-9 runnerup Boca Ciega 35-0 in the preseason. The running game appears to be as devastating as ever with Lawrance Toafili and Jalen Ware handling the bulk of the carries. The two combined for 197 yards on 15 carries. Pinellas Park finished with 236 yards on the ground. The key for the Patriots will be whether they can beat East Lake or St. Petersburg, the teams that finished ahead of them in the district race last year.
21. Mitchell (8-3, Class 6A region semifinalist)
Up next: vs. Anclote
Skinny: The two-time defending Class 6A-6 champions are favored to win again. The Mustangs return Mychael Hamilton, who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons. They also have Kym-mani King, who they can use in a multitude of ways on offense, and Tank Peters, a former Gulf standout who moved from Georgia back to the area. The defense, led by lineman Dominic Marino, also is strong. Last week, Marino and Co. put constant pressure on Zephyrhills quarterback Charles Harrison III in a 32-21 preseason win.
22. River Ridge (9-3, Class 5A region finalist)
Up next: at Pinellas Park
Skinny: The Royal Knights lost their starting quarterback and two of their top three leading receivers from last year's team that made the region final for the first time. No problem. River Ridge already is well-versed in replacing major contributors at skill positions. Last season, the Royal Knights had to find someone to take over the rushing load from Chris Schwartz, Pasco County's all-time leading rusher. Columbia commit Mikey Roussos, Fivay transfer Bryce Smith and D.J. Mann give whoever wins the quarterback job between Devin Gallo and Mitchell transfer Kyle St. John plenty of weapons in the passing game. River Ridge put it all together in a 42-14 preseason win over South Sumter last week.
Charlie Kaijo | Times
23. Admiral Farragut (3-5)
Up next: vs. Calvary Christian
Skinny: Former USF defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz, who took over the program from Ryan Hearn, inherits a small but talented roster that includes five Division I-A prospects. Two have already committed, offensive lineman Sam Baker (Toledo) and linebacker Khalan Tolson (Illinois). The defense should be one of the best at the small-school level. The offense will still be a work in progress.
24. Zephyrhills (8-3, Class 5A region quarterfinalist)
Up next: at Wiregrass Ranch
Skinny: The Bulldogs are trying to take the next step after making the playoffs as a runnerup each of the past three seasons. The passing game will carry them. Charles Harrison III is a dynamic playmaker at quarterback. Last week, he ran for 161 yards and two touchdowns in a preseason loss to Mitchell. Harrison can also use his legs to buy time whenever he throws to pair of stellar receivers, Tre'Pavis Mobley (802 yards, 11 touchdowns last season) and Jaquan Sheppard (443 yards, six touchdowns). The key will be whether the defense can step up to avoid Zephyrhills getting involved in a lot of high-scoring shootouts.
25. Plant City (6-3)
Up next: vs. Jefferson
Skinny: James Booth is the Raiders' third coach in as many years, taking over for Robert Paxia. A former offensive coordinator at Bradenton Manatee, Booth lost his best player two weeks ago when running back Treshaun Ward transferred to Tampa Bay Tech. But Booth did get a quarterback he knows with Ryan Overstreet transferring from Manatee. Overstreet will be playing behind Strawberry Crest transfer Braxton Plunk. The two each threw a touchdown in last week's 21-0 preseason win over Spoto. Tyler Hood finished with seven catches for 110 yards. The defense should be strong, led by linebackers James Gordon and Cody Cribbs.
Charlie Kaijo | Times
On the bubble: Calvary Christian (5-5), Cambridge Christian (9-1), Chamberlain (5-4), Countryside (4-5), Hernando (4-5), Newsome (4-6), Northside Christian (10-3), Palm Harbor University (6-3), Springstead (6-3), Steinbrenner (5-4), Sunlake (7-3), Tarpon Springs (3-6)