TAMPA — Mike Tate is a coach's dream.
The 6-foot, 190-pound inside linebacker for Plant High who loves to hit and specializes in blowing up plays, Tate is respected on the field and admired off of it.
Plant coach Robert Weiner just has one problem with his senior linebacker and defensive leader as the Panthers prepare to face Neptune Beach Fletcher (11-2) tonight in the Class 8A state semifinals:
"We can't block him," Weiner said. "We can't block him in our own practices — and we're pretty good. If we can't, I don't know if they can."
And during Plant's 2011 march towards a state championship game appearance, no one has been able to block Tate. Check out Tate's stat line in the 12-1 Panthers' three playoff victories this fall: 51 tackles, five sacks, 15 tackles for losses, two fumbles caused, one fumble recovered and one punt blocked.
"I've played pretty well," Tate said, mostly deflecting the praise. "But you can always improve."
That attitude, Weiner said, may be Tate's most impressive trait.
"We've had a lot of destructive forces at that position here…" Weiner said. "And he's right there. He has the perfect combination of linebacker smarts and nastiness and off the field, he's a quiet, good guy his teammates respect and he seeks no fanfare at all."
Tate had to wait his turn behind other players before becoming a starter midway through the 2010 season. Once he did, he became a tackling machine.
Tate, who moved from outside linebacker to an inside spot, is the defensive quarterback. He makes sure Plant's defenders are in their proper spots, and then hits whatever ballcarrier is anywhere near him.
"I like to play fast, physical defense, very aggressive," said Tate, who leads Plant with an average of 13 tackles per game. "I like to hit."
Tate's signature moment came two weeks ago in Plant's region semifinal win against Orlando Dr. Phillips. He had 12 tackles, an interception, a fumble recovery and deflected two passes in a 49-13 victory.
But after following that up with an overtime win against East Lake, Tate said he and his teammates aren't taking any teams lightly.
"We're pretty excited to be this far (in the playoffs)" said Tate, who is being scouted by several colleges and has an eye on the Ivy League. "Last week was a reality check. We have to keep things up tempo and take nothing for granted."
That could put Tate and his teammates in their fourth straight state championship game and give him a shot at a third state title ring.
"It'd be great for the seniors to go out with a bang," Tate said. "It would be a fairy tale ending and give us something to always look back at."