Gio Benedetto looms large for Land O'Lakes. But not because of his last name. He would be the Gators' leader on and off the field, whether or not he was coach John Benedetto's son.
As the team's third-year free safety, the senior directs the defensive calls. There is little he has not seen and few offenses he cannot read. And, of course, he gets to hit people.
Gio has been one of the catalysts for the first 11-0 season in Land O'Lakes' 28-year history. He was one of the offseason leaders who rallied teammates after last year's 7-6 playoff loss to Ocala Forest, setting the stage for Friday's Class 4A region semifinal against Merritt Island.
"(He brings) leadership, intelligence," the coach said of his son. "For a kid who doesn't really have the size, he really does bring a lot with him. He's a great tackler, an outstanding blocker and he has such a big heart.
"He, along with (quarterback) Drew (Weatherford) are really the two who have brought this team together from the time we left Ocala last year."
Gio (short for Giovanni) said he did what he felt had to be done.
"It was a big deal to us," he said. "We took that loss personally. So we came back and tried to dedicate ourselves as much as we could."
"There were times that all we could think about was football and how the season ended. From that point on over the summer, we worked hard."
All that hard work has paid off on both sides of the ball. But while the Gators' prolific offense has drawn all the accolades, scoring 60 touchdowns and compiling 4,114 yards in 11 games, the defense has been just as stout, giving up an average of 10.5 points per game.
It is a defense Gio takes a certain amount of pride and ownership in. "I definitely feel like it's my defense," he said. "I've seen it all. I'm not confused about what goes on back there."
"G's been a great leader for us," coach Benedetto said. "As a starter for three years now in the secondary, he brings a lot of experience, and when coach (Al) Claggett needs to call the defense, he turns to G."
The coach's son is also a versatile talent. His 29 tackles rank fourth on the team, and he has rushed 15 times for 112 yards and a touchdown and caught seven passes for 77 yards and a score. He's as good a blocker as he is a tackler.
But as much as the son wishes his father would play him more on offense (hint, hint) Gio said it is the physical contact of defense that he relishes, and he's 5-foot-8.
"I don't think the fact that most safeties are 6-0, 6-1 really matters," Gio said. "I just make sure I'm ready to make the tackle.
"My favorite thing to do is, I love it when the running back gets tackled and someone always comes in to finish him off, getting a nice good stick in there."