Plant's Dungy earns his spot the hard way

Eric Dungy says he’s “not quite there” when it comes to Plant’s defensive schemes, but is pleased with his progress. Dungy was a receiver on his team in Indianapolis.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Eric Dungy says he’s “not quite there” when it comes to Plant’s defensive schemes, but is pleased with his progress. Dungy was a receiver on his team in Indianapolis.

TAMPA — When Eric Dungy had problems digesting Plant's complex defensive playbook, he didn't lean on his famous football coach father.

And he wouldn't dare boast about the numbers in his cell phone — the likes of All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald — or the fact that reigning NFL defensive player of the year Bob Sanders is one of his best friends.

No, even though he has a last name that creates instant celebrity in Tampa Bay, Dungy came to Plant so he could earn a name for himself on the football field.

Dungy, the son of Indianapolis Colts coach and former Bucs coach Tony Dungy, is a junior safety/wide receiver on a Panthers team that will play for its second Class 4A state title in three years Saturday.

He transferred from Indianapolis, where he was the second-leading receiver on his team, but snaps at wideout at Plant were rare because of the Panthers' deep and talented receiving corps.

And when Dungy first arrived at Plant practice, his ability to leap for the football was obvious, but he was a step behind other players.

"I think it was an eye-opening experience for him," Plant coach Robert Weiner said. "The first couple days he came out he was very slow running. He worked hard day in and day out. I would say he lowered his 40 time four-tenths of a second in a matter of two or three months."

Now, the 6-foot-1, 170-pounder plays a pivotal role for Plant's defense. He spells starting safety Ian Collins and plays in the nickel packages.

He has 55 total tackles, two interceptions and one sack, but admits he's a work in progress when it comes to the aggressive and frenetic blitz-heavy scheme.

"I'm not quite there, but I'm way, way ahead of where I used to be," said Dungy, who sparingly played safety in Indiana. "I'm getting to the point where I make a play and not have to think about it."

He hasn't asked for the help of his father. "I think our defense is more complicated," Dungy said. "We have blitzes and all these different assignments. It's not just a couple of things."

He does lean on Sanders, the Colts' All-Pro safety, for help.

"I saw a picture of him and Bob and I was kind of jealous," Plant senior safety Hunter Baldwin said with a chuckle. "But he doesn't talk a lot about it. He's real low-key."

On occasion, it is difficult for Dungy to escape the shadow of his father. His father's arrival at Dads Stadium — he has attended all of Eric's games this year except one, when the Colts were playing on Monday Night Football — causes a frenzy. Even a game of Madden '09 with his teammates doesn't go without some good-natured ribbing, but he's learned to deal with that.

"I don't think about it too much," he said. "I want to play good because I don't want to let him down, but there's no added pressure. I love playing football. That's just what I do."

And now Eric has the opportunity to win a championship of his own. His father will at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, rooting for his son.

"This is so new to me; I've never played in a championship game before," Dungy said. "When I walk on the field I don't even know what I'm going to feel, but I know it will be something I've never felt before."

FAST FACTS

State finals

All games at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. Admission is $10 per session.

Class 4A: Plant vs. Tallahassee Lincoln, 1 p.m. Saturday

On the Web: A trio of Plant players take over Friday Night Rewind for a day. Check it out at highschool.tampabay.com.

Plant's Dungy earns his spot the hard way 12/16/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 19, 2008 9:30am]

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