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Nature Coast in unfamiliar role of playoff underdog

BROOKSVILLE — Even with the late-season 13-10 victory over Hernando High, Nature Coast found itself playing for an at-large bid to the football playoffs after a disappointing loss to Citrus the week before. It is a new situation for most of the players on the Sharks' roster, who were coming off back-to-back 10-0 regular seasons.

The transition from former coach Justin Worden, who led Nature Coast to that success and a region final berth, to new coach Cory Johns has not been entirely smooth. Johns is making his first trip to the postseason as a coach. But the Sharks (7-2) seem to be peaking at the right time, as evidenced by a strong 29-21 victory over Springstead to wrap up the regular season.

"The crazy thing about the win over Springstead was it ended up being big for both of us," Johns said. "We know we needed it, and if they had won, they might have been in as well. We had trouble rescheduling it (after the hurricane postponement), but it was so important."

The strength of Nature Coast is the running game, centered around junior Mike Weston. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound back is a load to bring down and can wear down even the strongest defensive front. A commitment to the run is important to the Sharks' success behind a talented group of linemen.

"We like to mix it up, but Mike is hard to stop," Johns said. "The offensive line does a really good job of plugging up holes and not letting anyone into the backfield, and Mike just takes it from there."

Last season, Weston was an inside complement to standout T.J. Owens, but as the centerpiece this year, he has 970 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging an amazing 12 yards per carry.

Sophomore Fabian Burnett is the man under center. While he can pass when called upon, Burnett's greatest asset is his ability to scramble. The first-year starter has thrown for 525 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions, but it is his 779 yards and five touchdowns on the ground that scares most opposing defenses.

Speaking of defense, the Sharks boast one of the best in the area. Former Nature Coast head coach and Hudson defensive coordinator Charles Liggett has taken over his past role on the Shark sideline. Always seen as one of the better X's and O's coaches around, Liggett readies his unit with good schemes for any opponent.

This season the defense has been led by junior Dajour Morgan (92 tackles, two sacks, three forced fumbles). His partners in crime have been fellow junior Corey Peterson (86 tackles, three sacks) and senior Zack Powell (85 tackles, two fumble recoveries, two interceptions). Powell was expected to lead the unit after putting up 102 tackles as a junior, but his new role on offense limited him early in this season.

The Sharks are aware that the defense is going to have to play its best game of the season as Baker County (9-1) holds the top seed in the region.

"We've had penalty issues all season, but we have been able to clean some things up as the year has gone on," Johns said. "It's huge for our success."

Much like Nature Coast, the Wildcats are centered around the running game. With three legitimate FBS recruits in the backfield, the damage can come from almost anywhere.

East Carolina commit Seth Paige was an all-state selection last season when he ran for 1,293 yards and 20 touchdowns. He has been just as good as a senior. He is joined by fellow senior Josh Haygood, who provides a speedy changeup to Paige. Diminutive junior John Green (5-foot-7, 155 pounds) mans the quarterback position. All three have posted multiple 100-yard efforts individually in an offense that can go the distance on nearly every play.

The Wildcats defense is anchored by middle linebacker Savoy Jefferson. The senior swarms to the ball and seems to be involved on nearly every play. His size (5-11, 195) has him under the radar of most colleges, but he has received an offer from Mayville State (N.D.).

If Nature Coast can pull off what would be considered a massive upset, the Sharks would travel to the winner between Belleview and Melendez.