Sickles pass rusher Josh Black was a jittery sophomore when he started his reign of terror against Hillsborough County quarterbacks.
In the 2011 preseason game against Gaither — his first varsity game — Black was lined up at the Gryphons' outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid. He exploded at the snap, beat his blocker and sacked the Cowboys' Division I passer.
"I could get used to this," Black thought.
Black has led the Gryphons in sacks (16) and quarterback hurries (40) the past two seasons. He's third in Tampa Bay with nine sacks and will be pivotal tonight when the Gryphons (5-0) try to disrupt Plant's Colby Brown, the county's leading passer.
"He can't be blocked," Sickles coach Brian Turner said.
Black's success comes from his blend of strength, size, speed and instincts.
He benches more than 300 pounds and squats more than 400. In practice, he gets to push himself against a loaded offensive line, led by 285-pound Missouri commit Zach Hudson. During games, he has learned how to bulldoze opponents with his 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame.
"I was always bigger than other kids, just about," Black said. "And I worked hard — I always worked hard. I believed that I could be great one day."
But what impresses Turner is Black's ability to fly to the ball at that size.
Black is quick enough to line up at linebacker and powerful enough to play tackle so Sickles can move him around to exploit mismatches. And Black's instincts are good enough — and his reaction time is quick enough — to blow up plays anywhere.
"Sometimes he's making plays doing the wrong thing," Turner said. "He just does it based on, I think this is gonna happen."
That's the way Black has always been.
Teammate Deven Santana remembers watching Black overpower smaller linemen to get into the backfield when they first played together as 10-year-olds.
"He was always getting after the ball, swarming to the ball," Santana said. "It's just how we grew up."
The two pass rushers form the backbone of one of Tampa Bay's best defenses.
Through five games, Sickles has totaled 25 sacks and 14 takeaways. Only two county teams — Armwood and Plant City — have allowed fewer points than the Gryphons (51).
Santana, a 6-3, 205-pound senior, has 41 tackles and three sacks at defensive end. A secondary with six interceptions has locked down its receivers, giving Black and the pass rushers time to close in.
But the undisputed star is Black. The three-star linebacker prospect holds offers from USF, Arizona, Marshall, among others, and draws gushing reviews from his coaches.
Turner, a game-film junkie, said he hasn't seen a better defensive player in the county this year. Turner goes so far as to compare Black with James Wilder Jr., the Florida State running back who tallied 145 tackles and 15 sacks as a sophomore linebacker at Chamberlain under Turner.
"He's the same kind of player that James Wilder is," Turner said. "He's as good on defense as James was."
Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected].com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.