JACKSONVILLE - Middleburg High football stood in an odd situation at Wednesday’s Baker Sports High School Football Media Day as the lone playoff team from Clay County. “It’s kind of weird for …
“It’s kind of weird for us that no one is paying attention to Middleburg football and we are the only team that went to the playoffs last year,” said Middleburg High coach Ryan Wolfe, now in his fourth season. “These players are not from the
Middleburg years of losing football and they understand that what they did is from hard work and focus. We’ll use our lack of attention to motivate us.”
Wolfe traveled the Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field for the annual football fest with four senior players; defensive back Errick Fryer, linebacker Austin Cruce, quarterback/utility Jaydan Jenkins and mammoth tackle Micah George as key elements of a team chock full of talent and drive that looks to encore last year’s playoff finish.
“We’re going to have speed on our side and multiple positions,” said Wolfe. “Jaden Boyd, Errick, Jaydan, Joe Forte, and Darren Rozier will all be part of an offense that will attack from all points. Our offensive line is big with Micah here (250 Lbs.) and Luke Green with newly arrived Gage Isbell, a state weightlifting champion.”
One question Wolfe will have to answer is at quarterback where Jenkins drove the team last year, but will not as much this year.
“Two new faces, two new styles; Mason Zwilling and Carson Stewart, are now battling for the start slot and we are going to have Jaydan float in different spots on offense to use his athletic talent more,” said Wolfe. “Jaden is also our top running back after a great season as defensive back, but I think we have enough talent to cover defense and give Jaden’s speed some test on offense.”
Wolfe also talked of his opening salvo of a schedule with a gauntlet of state top-ranked teams again as in last year that saw Middleburg start out a 0-4; Hawthorne (state champion), Bishop Kenny (region qualifier), Ponte Vedra (4S contender) and Final Four finisher Bradford County.
“We know we gave them too much early in the game and had to come back,” said Fryer, a defensive back specialist. “This year, we learned about that and how costly it was and plan to come out storming from the first whistle.”’
For Fleming Island, with a new coach, former Orange Park and Bartram Trail coach Chad Parker, his quartet of Tyler Beverly RB; Braden Cunningham OL; Joey Couch OL/DL and Ladarius Jackson LB brimmed with anticipation of a new look for Fleming Island under Parker.
“We are excited to execute his plan,” said Cunningham, a top-ranked offensive line player with a college commit in his pocket. “We have new coaches and we are excited to turn the page at Fleming Island.”
The top thought at Fleming Island centers around third-year starting quarterback Cibastian Broughton.
“Cibastian is a student of the game and our new offensive coach Evan Scharf comes back to Fleming Island to direct our offense which will be able to move the ball from many points,” said Parker, who also brings back former Fleming Island assistant coach Derek Chipoletti to lead the defense. “The kids here are talented and we just want to put a new wrinkle in their step. We’ve got some great coaches back on the sideline.”
Beverly, at running back, showed his stuff with a strong sprint game against Middleburg with a handful of long breakout plays; two for scores. Beverly, unfortunately, has had FSU running back Sam Singleton in front of him for three years.
“It’s my time and I will take advantage,” said Beverly, also a state weightlifting champion. “I’ve been working for this season; learning and honing my skill set. With our offensive line like it is, we should move the ball quickly downfield.”
Couch and Jackson will man the defense from Chipoletti’s shifting schemes and surprise attacks with Couch a top sack master from the line.
“I moved into the defensive tackle position and will be closer to the action,” said Couch, also part of the offensive line with Kevin Reyes, also a state weightlifting champion. “We will be mobile and disruptive.”
Oakleaf, also under new leadership with former Andrew Jackson coach Chris Foy; who won two district titles for Jackson in his three years, looks primed to return to the days of their deep playoff run (region finals) during Chipoletti’s tenure.
“We will be ready for a strong fourth quarter and be able to finish games,” said Foy. “Last year, Oakleaf scored a ton of points but lost games that they should have won. We will change that.”
Senior quarterback Brandon Wallace, Jr., will be the focal point of Foy’s pound-and-ground offensive attack that features a massive offensive line led by senior Quory Ambrose and Chase Johnson.
“We are big and agile,” said Ambrose, nearly 300 pounds. “Coach Foy has us in conditioning to be fast, strong and in shape for the duration. We will be attacking in the fourth quarter.”’
Wallace, who was in mentorship, kind of, behind graduated Drew Ammon last year who amassed gigantic stats, sees his opportunity to show off his own physical skills as well as his football IQ.
“Watching a guy like him put points on the board in the ways he did it gave me something to put into my game,” said Wallace. “Drew was also thinking of ways to get downfield no matter who was in front of him.”
For Foy, Wallace is a quarterback with a special skill set physically. “He took a bunch of plays to the house after breaking from the pocket in camps we have been to,” said Foy. “He has wheels and that makes him dangerous.”
Foy’s defense features a host of young, physical faces; including top tackler De’Shun Brown and safety man James Kitchens with youth Foy’s top concern.
“We are young and aggressive, but this district is full of very good teams that like to throw the ball,” said Foy. “So far, I like their responses at camp against good teams that we’ve seen.”
Ridgeview will look to reverse two seasons of 1-9 with a power-packed line up that finally has size on it.
Running back Rayhn Hutchinson is 215 lbs., defensive end JJ Moore is 235 pounds, offensive lineman Jacob Jones is 250 and fullback Braylon Hawkins is 255 pounds.
“This could be our biggest team ever,” said coach Bryan Arnette. “We have been undersized since I’ve been here and maybe this year, we’ve found big guys in our hallways that are good football players.”
Moore is a monster defensive end with 14 sacks last year plus a bruising tight end, Hawkins converts from an offensive line to a Sniffer-type player to be a lead blocker with more space for momentum and Jones is going to be a force up front.
“These guys want to end their Ridgeview football on a solid note and they are capable of it,” said Arnette. “With a little luck, we can turn our records around.”
Orange Park coach Marcus Wimberly has had immense offensive firepower around him and 2023 is the same with trickster Jermel Brown a top threat anywhere, but Wimberly has had his anxiety finding quarterbacks to deliver the ball to his weapons.
Keystone Heights has the look of Keystone Heights of the past with big offensive linemen, rugged running backs, ornery defenders and, this year, a passing game that could become a key part of the offense under new coach Steven Reynolds, the former defensive coach at Keystone Heights under Chuck Dickinson. ‘
“I see a lot of Chuck’s success from his strong run game approach and dominating offensive line play and we look to keep that intact,” said Reynolds. “We are just adding a passing game that can capitalize.”
Reynolds had senior running back Cartez Daniels on hand with lineman Bryce Wester, wide receiver Wyatt Van Zantt and fullback Ben Ulsch.
“I’ve been here for the good I10-0 season 2021) and the bad (2-8 last year after massive graduations) and this team gives me a good feel,” said Van Zant. “Coach Reynolds has new eyes on the program but is keeping tradition. We will always come with a big running game and Cartez will answer that call.”
Daniels, at 6-0, 210 lbs., showed off speed on top of his physical skills in the Indian's spring games against Santa Fe and Ridgeview and the Keystone Heights offensive line; with Wester and two near 300-pound underclassmen Tyler Duncan, and freshman Bryce Daniels, getting into the mix with a year under their belts.
“Both of those guys have learned with our top offensive line from that unbeaten team and will take the reigns this year,” said Wester, a four-year starter on the line. “We pride ourselves in driving downfield and we have a big running back and a fullback that will put us where Keystone Heights is strong.”