SEFFNER — When a youngster takes the reigns in a spring scrimmage, it is usually a coach trying to get a look, and a little seasoning, for his future signal caller. But when Seffner Christian coach Travis Puleo turned the ball over to then eighth-grader Isaiah Knowles, the coach felt the Crusaders' future was already in game shape.
"In his first start as an eighth-grader in our spring game, he was as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof," Puleo said. "But he had an unbelievable performance — the best I've ever seen from an eighth-grader — and he grew up so much in just that one game."
Knowles has been solid in his freshman season for Seffner Christian (7-3), which plays in its first-ever region playoff game when the Crusaders travel to Northside Christian (8-2) for a Class 3A region semifinal Friday.
Knowles, 14, has thrown for 1,254 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, with just four interceptions. Though a young player put in a leadership role, Knowles said he never felt like he has had to do more than anyone else for the Crusaders to find success.
"I just want to win for this team," Knowles said. "These guys make me feel so comfortable, like I'm just one of the guys, age doesn't matter. From the start these guys welcomed me as a brother."
For Puleo, who is in his first full season as head coach, more important than the numbers is how quickly Knowles has found his comfort as that leader.
"We've seen enormous strides in this young man," Puleo said. "His vision, his confidence, his presence, but most of all how he leads this football team. I'm so proud of this young man."
Knowles' fast learning curve was crucial this season, as Seffner Christian's been without standout running back Karmi Mackey, who tore his ACL in the spring. Mackey rushed for 1,953 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. Puleo said although Mackey stayed around his team, attending practice and supporting on the sidelines during games, Knowles stepped up as a vocal leader on the field.
"Mackey was a big player for our offense and it meant we all needed to step up and fill in for that," Knowles said. "I've always liked the leadership football, and especially the quarterback position brings, and I'm always trying to be the guy this team can rely on."