TAMPA — Shaking hands with Will Griffin is like getting gripped by five bands of steel. His fingers flex with muscle.
Griffin holds up his huge right throwing hand and says, “I think my hands are stronger from lifting all those weights.”
He grins, looking like a superhero, his face chiseled out of marble at cleanly cut angles, much like the rest of his 6-foot-3, 220-pound body.
“You look at him, and you have to remind yourself that he’s only 15 years old,” Jesuit offensive coordinator Don Mesick said. “You have to remember that he’s a freshman, because he doesn’t look anything like a freshman. You have to remind yourself all the time.”
When Griffin lifts weights, it’s especially difficult to believe his age because, as head coach Matt Thompson said, “he’s easily one of the strongest on the team.”
Humble to the core, Griffin doesn’t like to talk about his strength. But after some prodding, he admitted to “repping out” 295 pounds on the bench press.
Jesuit junior receiver Bryson Goodwin said the team doesn’t care how big, strong, smart or young Griffin is.
“We’re actually very hard on him,” Goodwin said. “We don’t cut him any slack, just like we don’t cut anybody on this team any slack. This team has high expectations, and it’s simply a matter of meeting those expectations no matter who you are or how old you are.”
Griffin, the only freshman among the Tigers’ starters, nods and says, “I like knowing that everyone is depending on me. I feel like that’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s pretty much the way it’s always been for me.”
Since he started playing quarterback at in youth football at age 7, Griffin has often the biggest, strongest and fastest kid on the field. He took after his father, Nick, a St. Petersburg High graduate who played in the 1984 state title game against Emmitt Smith and Pensacola Escambia, which defeated the Green Devils 47-14.
“I feel like a lot of this is in my genes,” Griffin said. “It feels natural.”
He started all 10 varsity games last year as an eighth grader at Northside Christian, completing 144 of 266 passes for 2,449 yards and 30 touchdowns with 12 interceptions.
After transferring to Jesuit over the summer, he began his career as a Tiger behind junior Luke Knight, who led Jesuit to a 15-0 record and the Class 6A title a year ago.
Griffin said the quarterback competition felt “tense,” but not because he was pushing any extra agenda.
“I was just trying to do whatever the coaches told me to do,” he said. “That was it for me. That was all.”
Then suddenly, after a loss 32-15 loss to Miami Columbus on Sept. 9, a game in which Griffin took a portion of the snaps, Knight announced he was leaving to play for Merritt Island, where his family was moving.
“I had no idea Luke was going to leave,” Griffin said. “Then come Monday, I heard Luke just took his stuff and left. Right away I knew I would have to step up, because this isn’t your normal team. This is a state championship team, and I have to do my job. I knew exactly what I had to do.”
Griffin learned quickly and steadily, improving with each game and adding wrinkles to the playbook, which at Jesuit is a bit more advanced than most.
Heading into Friday night’s Class 3M semifinal at St. Thomas Aquinas, Griffin’s 2022 resume is pretty solid with 94 completions in 162 attempts for 1,568 yards and 18 touchdowns with eight interceptions.
At times, Thompson said, Griffin has looked downright spectacular; at others, “like a freshman might look with some of the decisions. But that’s also to be expected. Overall, I would say he’s done a good job.”
There is no question that Friday’s game will be by far Griffin’s biggest to date — not only because of the stakes, but because it’s against one of the nation’s top programs (Aquinas is 12-0 and ranked No. 7 in the country by maxpreps.com.)
Adding intensity to the matchup is that Jesuit is the only team to defeat Aquinas — 24-21 last season — over the Raiders’ last 34 games.
“But I’m ready for whatever they bring,” Griffin said. “This is the type of game I want to play in. I love it. I feel prepared.”