LAND O'LAKES — Sunlake's traditionally strong defense has never been as impressive as it was last week in a 17-6 win over mighty Pasco. The Pirates failed to score a single offensive touchdown for the first time in six years. They had their lowest rushing output (34 yards) since 2009, while averaging 1 yard per carry — their lowest average in six years. Sunlake coach Bill Browning credited his defense's physical nature, from his cornerbacks to his interior linemen. But at the center of a dominant performance stood three players — Jacob Guzman, Ben Wood and Austin Yeloushan — who combined for 22 tackles and took three different routes to one of the biggest wins in program history.
Yeloushan's route to his Week 1 success was the most direct. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior earned his stripes on the JV squad last year, impressing teammates with his work ethic in a more relaxed environment.
"He actually grew up a little," Wood said.
Yeloushan moved up to varsity for the final three games of last season, to get a taste of varsity speed and intensity against River Ridge, Central and Gulf. In the season finale against the Buccaneers, two of his eight tackles were for a loss.
The linebacker showed his maturity and progress in his biggest varsity test so far. He harassed Pasco's quarterback, forcing one fumble and notching two sacks. One of his four tackles for a loss came in the second half, when he and Wood combined to stuff a fourth-and-goal rush from the 3 to save a touchdown and keep momentum from slipping.
"He's got that innate ability and good instincts at the position he plays at," Browning said.
So does Guzman. The 5-10, 190-pound senior proved that last season at Mitchell, where he led the Mustangs with 41/2 sacks in only seven games.
His family moved to Sunlake in the offseason, and the Seahawks coaches made him feel welcome immediately. Guzman bonded with his team, and the results have been obvious on the field.
"Since he's moved over, he's done a super job," Browning said. "He's been leading on the field. He has a football mentality. …
"He has a nose for the football, and he likes to mix it up. He fit right into the physical realm for us."
Guzman has been pivotal in both of his team's performances this fall. In the classic against Steinbrenner, he snared two interceptions — and returned one for his team's only touchdown in an 8-6 win.
Last week, the strong safety/outside linebacker hybrid followed his debut by grabbing a key interception near midfield and rushing for a two-point conversion.
"I think I've just been in the right place at the right time," Guzman said.
Eleven months ago, it seemed uncertain whether Wood would be able to get back to the right place by Week 1.
The 5-10, 190-pound linebacker was on his way to an all-North Suncoast season — 86 tackles and seven sacks in his first seven games as a junior — until he sped past a River Ridge lineman on a blitz and was cut from behind. The blow tore his ACL.
Wood's rehab quickly flew ahead of schedule. Instead of waiting four months to run, he was jogging eight weeks after surgery.
"Everyone likes to make it a bigger deal than it is," Wood said. "To me, it's just getting back to work."
Wood spent his recovery period lifting weights and watching film as much as possible. He realized he was coming in too high on blitzes, which either took him out of plays or led to cuts like the one that injured his knee.
He used his greater strength and refined techniques well in his return to the office: a team-high 14 tackles (four for a loss), a fumble recovery and two fourth-down stops.
"If there's a better inside linebacker in Pasco County," Browning said, "I haven't seen him yet."
While last week's win is enough to suggest whether Sunlake has become Pasco County's top team this fall, Browning insists his Seahawks and their defense haven't arrived yet. Their goals remain high — a perfect regular season and the school's first district championship.
"We're getting there," Browning said. "We're getting there."
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.