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Largo fueled by youthful fearlessness

Largo High's Juwan Brown has watched the tape.

He has seen what might be Tampa Bay's most fearsome pass rush, has studied Man-Man Jackson's lightning-quick first step, Alton Bailey's power and Jermaine McKinney's relentless pursuit.

Most 14-year-old starting quarterbacks with just a few games of varsity experience would be concerned going up against mighty Armwood.

Maybe even a little bit scared.

But he's not.

"We'll be all right," Brown said.

It might as well be his team's mantra this season.

For the first time since 2005, the Packers dropped two games to Pinellas County opponents (Tarpon Springs and Countryside, also still alive in the playoffs).

They had to claw and scrap their way to their most difficult district title yet.

Largo lost its heart and soul and the county's best player, linebacker Sean Holte, to injury.

The placekicker quit.

In midseason, one quarterback moved back to Canada; the other skipped practice and was dismissed.

"A lot of damn issues," coach Rick Rodriguez said. "A lot of gray hairs."

Enter Brown, the junior varsity starter.

We'll be all right.

• • •

On Oct. 9, needing a win to capture the district title, Largo listlessly led Leto 7-0 at halftime.

Starting quarterback Jamar Riley had been suspended. Backup Alex Skinner, a Canadian transfer who never seemed to adapt to the speed of Florida football, had completed just 4 of 12 passes for 23 yards.

Rodriguez turned to Brown.

"You ready?"

He had, by most accounts, been ready on opening day. Though Riley and Skinner had waged a tough battle in the spring, summer and fall for the starting job, most people around the program already knew who the best quarterback was.

"I told Coach Rod in the summer, face to face, that Juwan would be starting by the end of the season," said Holte, who became a fan watching Brown in little league.

Brown didn't throw a pass that night against Leto. He didn't need to. He ran seven times for 49 yards and scored two touchdowns as Largo pulled away.

Two weeks later in the Packers' next game, he went 8-of-10 against Boca Ciega. Then 8-of-9 against Palm Harbor University. Last week, 5-of-9 against Hillsborough for 126 yards and two touchdowns.

"It's exciting when he gets on the field," Holte said.

"He's special kid," said Rodriguez, and it should be noted that the past three times he has described a player in those terms, it was Dexter McCluster, Brynn Harvey and Leonard Johnson, all sophomores at the time who now start for Division I colleges.

"He's brought a spark to us. He's got a great feel for the football game. He has eyes in the back and the side of his head, and as young as he is, he can read defenses," Rodriguez said. "Skinner had a great arm. … Riley brought that running. … Juwan can run, but he can also throw the ball as far as he wants."

On a team with 26 seniors, the future remains bright.

We'll be all right.

• • •

While Brown, who has yet to throw an interception in 72 attempts, has been exceptional, the Packers' success has been a testament to a coaching staff that has adapted and players who continue to believe in the Packers' mystique.

Jamarious Boatwright has become a playmaker corner, and his 90-yard interception return in a close game against district rival Bogie may have been the key play of the season.

D.J. Key has developed into another in a long line of 1,000-yard rushers at Largo.

Myrick Gwyn has become an unstoppable standout on both sides of the ball, his vicious hits causing fumbles that helped the Packers hold on against Sickles.

Mike Douglas has moved into Holte's position, stopping the bleeding in the middle of a defense beginning to hemorrhage.

And the senior-laden offensive line — Alex Rodriguez, Austin Mai, Austin Jenquine, Stephan Konjanovsik, Adarius Rayner — has powered up as Largo has gone old-school, running for more than 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns in the past four weeks.

"We started pounding the ball until we found our niche," Rodriguez said. "It's been a tough season, but I have a great coaching staff. And when all this stuff started to happen, we just decided we needed to work harder and get these kids right."

• • •

Brown learned to throw a football when he was 3. His dad used to play quarterback for Largo, and his uncles would take him out to the front yard to play catch daily.

At 7, he was starring in youth leagues as a quarterback.

At 14, he is starting for the winningest program in Pinellas County the past decade, against Armwood, the winningest program in the state over that same time.

"It's exciting," the 6-foot, 165-pounder said. "They rely on their defense. But our line played their best game last week."

They'll have to play even better Friday.

"Armwood is a great team," Rodriguez said. "Our guys like games like this. They like the big games."

It won't be easy. But Rodriguez points out that his team led St. Thomas Aquinas at halftime in 2007 and in '08 gave the Raiders their closest game of the season.

And, hey, the Packers beat Sickles and Hillsborough, who gave Armwood tough games this season.

We'll be all right.

John C. Cotey can be reached at jcotey@sptimes.com.

fast facts

Playoff schedule

Games at 7:30 p.m. Friday

Region semifinals

5A: Countryside at Tampa Bay Tech

5A: St. Petersburg at

Manatee

5A: Alonso at Plant

4A: Gainesville at Tarpon Springs

4A: Armwood at Largo

3A: Lakewood at Jefferson

Region finals

2A: Hardee at Robinson

2B: Lake Highland at Tampa Catholic

Largo fueled by youthful fearlessness 11/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 24, 2009 12:54am]

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