TAMPA — Plant co-defensive coordinator John Few unzipped his hip-pack, pulled out a small piece of paper and unleashed all the secrets to the Panthers defensive success.
The paper detailed how the Panthers plan to defend 6-0 Spoto tonight in a game pitting Hillsborough County's top two defenses. Hours of video work, coaching meetings, teaching and hitting all come down to this one little sliver of paper.
When former Plant defensive coordinator James Harrell left to become Freedom's head coach, he took with him one of the best defensive minds in the county. The Panthers also lost one of the best game-time adjusters.
Without him, though, Plant's defense has not only survived, it has thrived.
Take away the Panthers' season-opening loss to TBT, and Plant's defense has allowed a miniscule 3.3 points a game under Few and fellow defensive coordinator Matt Johnson.
But how, with an influx of young unproven players and plenty of big holes to fill, has Plant been able to build its stout defense? We break it down.
1. The coaches are prepared
Anyone who knows coach Robert Weiner knows he meticulously studies game film. His defensive staff is no different. Assistants break down film after the game until 3 a.m., then are back in seven hours to coach players on the next game. The focus: Know opponents so well, their tendencies and their personnel, that they can be best prepared to pass it along to players.
Few and Johnson both preach that the mental reps over the weekend are just as important as the practice reps during the week.
"The key to us really is that we have coachable kids," Few said. "We spend a lot of time on Saturdays. We'll look each play five or 10 times, telling our kids, 'See this angle? This why its not the right angle. You have to be here because of this.' "
2. Defensive QB is as good as offensive one
Ask how the Panthers allowed 49 points to Manatee in their preseason game and the answer is always the same. They were without starting middle linebacker Mike Mirabella, who is the quarterback of the defense. (Safety Eric Dungy also missed that game.)
Just like Plant quarterback Phillip Ely has the freedom to make checks at the line of scrimmage, Mirabella has the same free reign.
"He has such a nose for the game," Johnson said. "He's so instinctual and he's one of those kids who you tell how it needs to be done and he doesn't need to practice it 400 times. If something happens we know he's going to make a play."
3. They have trust in each other
Take this as an example. The Panthers returned just four starters from last year's team, so they had plenty of holes to fill, including the rover position previously manned by the likes of Chris Kuzdale and Hunter Baldwin, arguably the final line of defense.
Senior John Rorech took over and made what might have been the biggest defensive play of the season so far. Against Armwood, the Hawks had third and goal at the 3, were ready to take control of a scoreless game and handed off to 6-foot-4 running back Matt Jones on the left side of the line.
The 170-pound Rorech plugged a huge gain just in front of the goal line, stopping the 220-pound Jones before help arrived to keep the Hawks out of the end zone. The Panthers then stopped Armwood on the next play in a pile between the tackles.
"I think it let our defense know that one of those keystone positions is going to be solidified," Johnson said. "They know everyone can get it done."
4. They know their personnel
The defensive line had two huge holes with the departures of Austin Clark and David Gamble, but instead of trying to find their replacements, coaches enlisted a rotation of their linemen, allowing them to stay fresh. Add in hybrid LB/DE James Wilder Jr., who has become an every-down player on defense, and the Plant front seven has constantly been able to get into the backfield.
Another question mark was at weakside linebacker, a spot manned by Beau Hume last year. Matt Suarez wasn't the projected starter when the preseason began, but he has become a solid complement to returning starters Mirabella and Josh Varon in the linebacking corps.
"We were like that newborn trying to find its legs before," Johnson said, thinking back to the Manatee game. "Now as a staff we know better how to use our personnel to our strength. Kids hadn't seen themselves on film. We hadn't seen them on film."
Plant defense by the numbers
0 Offensive touchdowns allowed to Armwood two weeks ago
2 Shutout wins (Gaither and Riverview)
4 Returning starters from last season (MLB Mike Mirabella, SLB Josh Varon, DL Joe Pappas and CB Javonte Martin
8 Sacks by LB Mike Mirabella and DE Kevin McCarthy, tied for the team lead.
11 Tackles per game average of LB/DE James Wilder Jr.
62 Total yards allowed in last week's 49-0 win over Gaither
85 Armwood's rushing yards against Plant (season average is 140)