ORANGE PARK - Football is here.
Monday, July 30, was the first official day of practice for area high school football teams and the prognostication of who wins and who loses will start at the most …
ORANGE PARK - Football is here.
Monday, July 30, was the first official day of practice for area high school football teams and the prognostication of who wins and who loses will start at the most significant position on the field.
Gone are Clay High’s Caleb Eason, Middleburg’s Garrett Blanchett and Keystone Heights’ Adrian Ciena, who transferred to Bradford County High School. Also via transfer, Orange Park’s top candidate, A.J. Mealer, is now at Baldwin High with wideout Terrance Johnson a potential returner to quarterback for coach Tom Macpherson.
Back behind center are Ridgeview senior Tyler Huff, Fleming Island junior Dean Hyams and two underclassmen, St. Johns Country Day School freshman Max Monroe and Oakleaf High sophomore Walter Simmons, Jr.
Tops in the county at quarterback, thus far, barring the fleeting ability for athletes to transfer to other schools on a whim it seems, Ridgeview High senior Tyler Huff stands out as the guy to watch for 2018.
“He kind of has the keys to the engine for us,” said Ridgeview High coach Cameron Porch. “He struggled his first year as a sophomore which is expected, he improved a ton his junior year as he started to understand our scheme and, this year, he will run the show as his team. His maturity level at this point makes his expectations very high.”
Huff, who finished with nearly 1,700 yards of passing offense with 21 touchdowns and a 54 percent completion rate, returns to the helm with a bevy of targets to choose from in the Panthers’ unique run-pass option setup.
Top catcher will still be junior Denali Lindo, who grabbed a team-leading 26 passes last year with five touchdowns as graduated Kiaran Turner’s nine touchdowns will have to be replaced.
Also impressive over the summer, with Ridgeview engaging in a handful of 7-on-7 passing scrimmages with area opponents has been senior Brian Jackson. Jackson was a critical sixth-man last year with 14 catches and four scores, but his “glue” factor has been up-ticked over the summer.
“We really don’t have one go-to guy with our offense and that’s a plus,” said Porch.
Porch led the Panthers to a scorching start last year with a 6-1 season opening record led by a ton of scores, but Fleming Island, Clay, Menendez and Baker County all stumped the party with wins over the Panthers.
“The Clay game ( 49-3 district loss), I think, shocked the team,” said Porch, who noted three straight losses to end the season; one to Menendez, that knocked Ridgeview from playoff contention with a 6-4 record. “I think this year we know what it will take to take on the big programs on our schedule.”
At Fleming Island High, where the Golden Eagle defense was the focal point of the attack, junior Dean Hyams returns at quarterback to guide a potentially explosive offensive unit complete with a big running back; junior Dewayne McBride, and a huge pass catching target; 6’-5” tight end Sam Snyder in his holster.
“He has to become more consistent in his directing of the offense,” said Fleming Island coach Damenyum Springs, who got a region championship berth against Bartram Trail last year that ended the season with a second loss to the Class 7A runnerup Bears. “With the firepower around him and a great summer of preparation, he just has to stay calm and deliver the ball. He’s got all the tools.”
Hyams, in summer passing sessions, looked smoother out of the pocket and a bit more patient in waiting for his targets to clear defenders.
Having Snyder as his main target, as was graduated tight end Nick Ferendo, also a 6’-3” product, will make Hyams job easy and the pair has already started clicking through passing scrimmages over the summer including a 19 scores in three games output at the Jacksonville University pads camp in July.
Snyder, a Louisville verbal commit after a slew of college offers came in when he shifted back to his tight end position after being an All County offensive tackle, could very well be the most productive point scorer in the county next year.
“He did us a favor last year and stepped in at tackle last year due to injuries,” said Springs, who finished at 11-4 last year. “He’s a natural tight end with great size and is one of our fastest guys on the field.”
At St. Johns Country Day School, two-year starter Max Monroe, only a sophomore, has the benefit of one of the top returning coaches in all of Florida in former Oakleaf, former Fleming Island coach Derek Chipoletti.
Chipoletti has an outstanding record of developing quarterbacks with Oakleaf freshman Jordan Johnson playing all four years for the Knights with an undefeated playoff season in Chipoletti’s final season. Monroe, who struggled through a one win season last year, showed some toughness in the pocket for the Spartans who, though lacking size and depth, competed in most of their first halves before succumbing in second half drop offs.
“Max can be a premiere quarterback at any other school,” said Spartans’ assistant coach Steve Reynolds. “He has the tools; great arm strength, tough, leader and has not missed a workout all summer. He can be the beacon that leads St. Johns into the future.”
Missing will be graduated Cade Walden, Monroes top target and running back Troy Myers as Chipoletti will have to work his magic with a team near 20-25 athletes.
Monroe is one of the biggest kids on the team, has visited a handful of quarterback camps through the summer, including the Peyton Manning Camp and has a good eye on the field, of course, Walden being 6’-3” was an easy target.
At Oakleaf, sophomore Walter Simmons was impressive in leading the Knights under new coach Frank Garis to a 14-14 tie in the spring game against Class 5A runnerup Baker County with a few drops of probable scoring passes within the first half.
“We are blessed to have a quarterback of his talent as a sophomore,” said Garis. “Walter started every game last year. He’s made tremendous strides and his teammates like him. That’s half the battle.”
Simmons finished with 1,100 yards passing with five touchdowns off 44 percent completion rate, but must rely on pass catching help to show off his skills; a soft long ball and accurate slant and out slices, that could give Garis’ high-flying offensive mind from Ponte Vedra High in 2017 with a state runnerup finish capable of putting big points on the board.
Simmons has the fastest running back in north Florida, Keshawn King behind him with All-American game invite Jalen Rivers on the offensive line. Between the three, Garis should be able to get the ball downfield quickly.
At Middleburg, a third Justino, Joseph, takes over the Broncos offense with dad Robert Justino and big brother Daniel Justino in his dugout ready for advise for the agile and quick-footed little Justino.
“He has a great football IQ and with his family all being quarterbacks, I don’t think there is a question that he can’t ask that they won’t have an answer,” said Middleburg coach Karl Smeltzer. “He opened with the spring game and showed some good survival skills out of the pocket. Our offensive line will be the key to him being more productive.”
Middleburg has three massive offensive linemen; underclassmen Larry LeClair, Colby Warner and senior Jesse Saunders to protect Justino. LeClair and Warner were impressive at a line camp at FSU over the summer.
“Last year, injuries killed us,” said Smeltzer. “We lost 30 of our 43 players for at least one game last season.”
At Clay, coach Joshua Hoekstra has been bantering about three or four names; senior Spencer LeSage, a converted wingback/receiver last year; senior Turner Erstad, who is hoping to return full time prior to the season start; sophomoresT.K. Kocak and Tre Griner.
LeSage and Kocak took most of the snaps over the summer passing sessions and both had their ups and downs. Ironically, with Kocak throwing and LeSage back catching, Clay was most proficient against opposing secondaries. Griner showed off some good passing touch with his reps albeit his reps may have been against second stringers in passing scrimmages. Erstad is the unknown of the quartet with backup reps behind Eason last year, but none through the summer session.
For Orange Park, whomever Macpherson finds for quarterback, with underclassmen Vinny Walker who had two starts last year in the mix, will have a speedy tailback in Alex Collier (third in 3A 400 meters on track), a rugged full back Zykiem Sermons and the Raiders typically athletic wide receivers corps; Sean Dixon (part of Raiders 4 x 400 track state relay team). The Raiders will have one of the biggest offensive lines in the area with James Rhodes, Silas Littles and Cedrick Flanders all near 300 pounds.