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ROBINSON KNIGHTS // Robinson working to improve

(ran TP edition)

The roads leading to Robinson's Jack Peters Field are blocked off, part of a rebuilding project on the streets around the south Tampa school.

On the Peters Field turf, another project is under way. The youthful Knights, much like the roads around them, are decidedly a work in progress.

Coming off a 1-9 season, the worst in coach Bud Hodgens' three-year term, the Knights are hoping to improve after a shift from Class 5A to 4A. The roadblocks to a .500 season are plenty, mainly inexperience and injuries, but Hodgens remains optimistic as the Knights prepare to open Friday at Jefferson.

"Right now, I've set the expectations very high. We feel we can win more than we lose," Hodgens said. "We were competitive in a lot of games last year that we lost."

The freshman-laden lineup took a beating last year. The Knights lost their last five games by an average of 37.4 points. Several starters graduated, including Times' All-County honorable mention defensive end Willie Poole, but Hodgens has faith in his young lineup.

"Our roster only had about 35 kids on it at best last year, so the ninth-graders were the best we had," Hodgens said. "We started them out of necessity, not because we were building."

After struggling to establish any type of offense last season, Robinson is attempting to build around the offensive backfield. The freeze option thawed last year. But the shift of speedy Mekiel Johnson from quarterback to tailback may help..

"We suffered through a season of quarterback problems because Mekiel wasn't a thrower, he was a runner," Hodgens said. "He's at home as a back."

The defense faces the same task as the offense in having to learn on the job. As with the offense, hope centers around the play of a Johnson: Mekiel's younger brother, Larrel, a middle linebacker.

Passing game: The Knights won't air it out as they did under Jason Rutledge two seasons back, but they wil have more than just a ground game. Junior Chuckie Powell, a mobile 6-foot-1 basketball player, takes over at quarterback. The emphasis will be on short passes.

A pair of sophomores, Damien Todd and Zack Nelson, will be Powell's primary targets.

Running game: This should be looked upon as the team's principal strength. Mekiel Johnson and Zane Gilmore are slated to start in a two-back set, with Tim Lane lining up when the team moves to a wishbone formation.

Offensive line: Senior David Panas is the lone returning starter. At 250 pounds, Panas is the team's largest player. With Panas, Mike Kim will be expected to make up for the losses of Ryan Hayes and David Swilly to injuries.

Defensive line: Opponents battered Robinson on the line last year, with the Knights lining up an inexperienced and outsized group. No starters return, so the new unit will have to mature in a hurry to avoid a repeat of last season.

Linebackers: Larrel Johnson is a sophomore and will anchor the middle. Seniors Chris Adams and Pat Powrie will flank him.

Defensive backs: A weak area last year, the secondary is again a question mark. Strong safety Frankie Rivera returns, but the other spots are filled by newcomers. Lucas Dinja is at free safety, with 10th graders Nate Henry and Marcus Moody at the corners.

Kicking: The graduation of Tommy Vars leaves a hole in the kicking game. Gilmore has been working as a placekicker, along with Justin Blalock, a soccer player. Todd returns to handle the punting.

The coach: Hodgens has a few years to develop this team, but he wants to see some results this season. His optimism may be challenged if his team gets off to a rough start.

Outlook: The move to 4A doesn't guarantee an easier schedule. Road games at Jesuit and Pasco and a visit from Osceola are among the toughest on the schedule. Those games should show the Knights whether their preseason goal of a winning season is legitimate or a year off.

AT A GLANCE

Coach: Bud Hodgens, fourth season (9-22).

Assistant coaches: Robert Burns, Mike Depue, Bobby Fenton, Mike Fenton, George Peoples, Von Volpe.

Colors: Black, white and gray.

Nickname: Knights.

Stadium: Jack Peters Stadium 6311 S Lois Ave., Tampa.

Class: 4A, District 9.

Playoff appearances: 1963; 1967; 1971; 1977.

Last playoff appearance: Class 4A _ Beat Largo 14-0; beat Orlando Oak Ridge 14-6; lost to Fort Walton Beach Choctawhatchee 20-17.

1994 results (1-9)

at East Bay 12-0 W

Jefferson 43-12 L

Gaither 12-0 L

at Plant 18-7 L

at Armwood 21-17 L

Kathleen 49-12 L

at Auburndale 50-3 L

Jesuit 41-17 L

Tampa Bay Tech 49-17 L

at Hillsborough 47-0 L

Glory Days

Not many schools get to say they played in the state championship game, much less the first one in state history. The Knights were there, losing 16-14 to Coral Gables on a late field goal by Larry Davidson. Robinson, which played host to the game at Phillips Field, finished 11-1 for the season under coach Holland Aplin.

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