PLANT CITY — Durant came into this season with a solid offensive line, an emerging tailback in Jarmarlon Hamilton and a sturdy defense.
The only real question for the Cougars was also the biggest question — who would replace Je'Twan Smith at quarterback?
"(Smith) left a big hole," coach Mike Gottman said. "But Nick (Fabrizio) has been able to step right in." Fabrizio, who played a little defensive back and running back last season while serving as Smith's backup, has done more than just step in. The senior signal caller has run for a remarkable 18 TDs while throwing for eight more.
"I give all the credit to my offensive line," Fabrizio said. "They have been opening up huge holes for me and Jarmarlon all season long."
Much like his predecessor, Fabrizio is a run-first QB in Gottman's Veer offense, but the thing that distinguishes the two is Fabrizio's big-play capability.
"(Smith) was explosive and could get you those 20 or 25 yard gains," Gottman said. "But Nick has been able to bust off those 65, 70, 80 yard runs. I don't think he's been caught from behind all year."
Fabrizio and Hamilton have proven to be a formidable backfield combination. Hamilton has run for 1,038 yards and Fabrizio 993. Durant comes into tonight's matchup averaging nearly 300 yards of rushing per game.
After Smith's graduation, Fabrizio knew he would be stepping under center for a good Cougar club. He went to quarterback camps over the summer to hone his craft, and Gottman said the work paid off.
"He did everything he needed to do" he said. "I wish we had him for another year, that's for sure."
All games scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
CLASS 8A REGION QUARTERFINALS
Orlando Boone (5-5) at Plant (9-1)
LAST WEEK: Boone lost to Orlando Edgewater 28-7; Plant defeated Robinson 51-9.
THE SKINNY: Boone won four of its last five games to qualify for the playoffs. But the Braves will have to face a motivated Plant squad that scored 48 points or more in three of its last four games. Plant still stings from last season's state runners-up finish in its mouth, not to mention a shutout loss to Armwood last month. And how's this for playoff potency? Since 2005, the Panthers have averaged 47 points in playoff-opening victories.
CLASS 7A REGION QUARTERFINALS
Brandon (5-5) at Tampa Bay Tech (7-3)
LAST WEEK: Brandon lost to Jefferson 47-19; TBT defeated Plant City 31-28.
THE SKINNY: Brandon struggled in its season finale and will likely be without the services of tailback Tyrell Garner again against TBT. Stopping the Titans do-it-all back Cludner Lecount will be a must for the Eagles tonight, but that could be difficult if linebacker Jesse Chesnut misses the game. Lacount has run for 945 yards and added another 442 on 32 receptions this season.
Gaither (7-3) at Durant (7-3)
LAST WEEK: Gaither defeated Riverview 31-0; Durant lost to King 28-20.
THE SKINNY: This should shape up as one of, if not the, toughest games in the area tonight. Both teams are well coached, have solid defense and explosive players who can turn games around with one touch. Shug Oyegunle leads the Cowboys with 481 yards rushing and has a 92-yard TD to his credit this season, while Carlo Perello has a team-high 32 receptions for 469 yards. Durant will look to homefield and hope the defense can produce big plays.
CLASS 6A REGION QUARTERFINALS
Lakewood Ranch (5-5) at Armwood (10-0)
LAST GAME: Lakewood Ranch lost to Manatee 38-7; Armwood beat King 54-6 on Nov. 4.
THE SKINNY: Lakewood Ranch comes in having lost two of its last three games. Armwood, on the other hand, hasn't lost since reaching the 2010 Class 4A state championship game. The Hawks have all the weapons on both side of the ball and likely won't get tested until at least the third round of playoffs. However, Armwood has to hope the Florida High School Athletic Association doesn't rule guard Jack Lightsey ineligible, which could result in having to forfeit all of its games.
Hillsborough (8-2) at Largo (8-2)
LAST WEEK: Hillsborough defeated Chamberlain 43-15; Largo defeated Gibbs 42-21.
THE SKINNY: This marks the third straight season the Terriers and Packers have squared off in the opening round of the playoffs. Hillsborough won last season while Largo upended the Terriers in 2009. Since a loss to Armwood on Oct. 20, the Terriers closed out the regular season with two wins by a 71-15 margin. Hillsborough RB Anthony Brown ran for 845 yards and 11 TDs this season. Largo, meanwhile, is without its top running back Jarvis Stewart, who injured his hip last month and remains out of action. Packers QB Juwan Brown and linebacker-turned-tailback Harry Brown will try to pick up the slack.
CLASS 5A REGION QUARTERFINALS
Port Orange Atlantic (7-3) at Jesuit (9-1)
LAST WEEK: Atlantic defeated Matanzas 34-20; Jesuit defeated Tampa Catholic 27-10.
THE SKINNY: Jesuit has been on fire since losing its opening game to Plant, ripping off nine consecutive wins heading into the playoffs. Since reassuming the starting QB job at midseason, Tommy Eveld has been outstanding. Eveld completed his first 10 passes last week against TC and finished with three TD tosses. Atlantic comes in on a five-game winning streak and finished over .500 for the first time in the program's history.
Robinson (8-2) at Orlando Bishop Moore (9-1)
LAST WEEK: Bishop Moore defeated Orlando Freedom 35-28; Robinson lost to Plant 51-9.
THE SKINNY: The Knights may still be smarting a bit from that six-touchdown spanking Plant gave them last week. They'll have to regroup quickly as they travel to face a Bishop Moore team that can score plenty of points. The Hornets are on an eight-game winning streak and topped 40 points five times during that run. Robinson coach Mike DePue will be looking for his squad to revert back to its high-energy form from earlier in the year.
CLASS 3A REGION SEMIFINALS
Frostproof (5-5) at Berkeley Prep (10-0)
LAST WEEK: Berkeley Prep defeated DeSoto County 35-7; Frostproof defeated Auburndale 17-14.
THE SKINNY: While Berkeley Prep cruised to its district crown and playoff berth, Frostproof took the most difficult path possible — fighting it out in a three-way Kansas tiebreaker. The Bulldogs had to beat Sarasota Cardinal Mooney and Lakeland Christian in tiebreaker games on Nov. 7. That means that by tonight, Frostproof will be playing its fourth game in 15 days. That could be good news for a Buccaneer lineup boasting QB Destin Nichols (17 TDs, 0 INTs), RB Nelson Agholor (1,484 yards, 23 TDs) and LB Schyler Miles (80 tackles). Another good omen: 20 years ago, Berkeley coach Dominick Ciao guided his first district-title team at Jesuit all the way to the state championship game.
Times correspondent Rod Gipson contributed to this report. Brandon Wright can be reached at email@example.com.