TAMPA — This time last year, when Robinson coach Mike DePue was going through a two-win season, he still believed he could build the Knights into a winner if his assembly of young talent stayed put.
"We've been able to keep this group intact," DePue said. "They've worked hard and they've bonded well. There's a great camaraderie here."
After an impressive 47-0 dismantling of Middleton in their district opener, the Knights (3-0) head into tonight's district tilt with Jesuit (3-1) with their best start since 2000.
The winner figures to be the leader in the district race, and the Knights haven't won a district title in 32 years.
Here are five reasons to believe football is back south of Gandy Boulevard.
1. They've been a team for years: Junior wide receiver Frankie Williams remembers the days of pickup games at Southwest Park in Port Tampa.
"We all would go to the park and try to play with the big kids and they would pound us," Williams said. "But we'd still play with them. We've been a team for a long time. We just see each other as one big family."
That dates to elementary school, when just less than half of the 32 kids on the Robinson roster went to Ballast Point, then Monroe Middle School. They would play their own games behind the home stands of Jack Peters Field during Knights games.
"We've played around each other so long that we know our natural abilities," junior wide receiver/safety Ruben Gonzalez said.
2. Their offense is one of the most balanced around: Robinson's spread offense averages 30 points a game (they averaged 9.4 last year), and the Knights have scored two special teams touchdowns. And Williams, Gonzalez and Byron Pringle offer a talented corps of receiving targets for first-year starter Blake Rice.
But with bulldozing fullback Robert Smith and scatback Tim Randolph, a Spoto transfer, Robinson has averaged 160 rushing yards.
"I think Rob Burns is one of the best offensive coordinators in this county," DePue said. "Last two years he has been very frustrated. All of a sudden he's getting his rhythm back and he has kids who believe in the system and executing."
3. They have senior leadership on defense: The Knights have just two senior starters on defense, but defensive ends Quinton Preston and D.J. Woods set to tone for a defense that has thrown two shutouts and has seven returning defensive starters. "They are the force on our defensive line," DePue said.
4. They had to learn how to lose: Last year, Robinson lost two games by a touchdown or less, and its loss to Jesuit was by eight. Two years ago, when the Knights were 1-9, they lost two games by less than a touchdown.
"It was like that game Jenga," Gonzalez said. "You pull and pull and pull. That 1-9 season pulled all the losing out of us. Now we're 3-0 standing tall, all one big team."
5. They know you still don't believe in them yet: Long before they were 3-0, Robinson defeated Lakewood and Jefferson in the spring.
Those games, however, prompted discussion about how disappointed their opponents.
"I still think people don't believe in us, that people think we're just popping up with a lucky three games and that we're going to go on this big-headed hype and fall down," Gonzalez said. "Big-headedness isn't getting us. We're working hard every day."