JACKSONVILLE - Friday night football excitement got jump started on a Monday of all days as area high schoolers and coaches gathered for the Baker Sports Media Day afternoon at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.
With the media frenzy about to start on 12-15 weeks of Friday night action in north Florida, area gridders spoke with local media about expectations and aspirations for 2022.
Here’s a quick sneak peek of one small part of what coaches and players shared about the upcoming season (See full anaylysis in the upcoming Clay Today Preseason Football Magazine, due out on August 25.)
Ridgeview High coach Bryan Arnette has kept his competitive smile in tact despite some off-field hiccups and it is because his team has kept the eye on the real value of the Ridgeview program.
With his four seniors at the Baker Media Day; Sheppard Bridges, Hunter Creech, Rayhn Hutchinson and J.J. Moore, Arnette reiterated that his goal as a coach is to build the team, the players and the community around the program to make the boys men by days end.
“What we have here is a strong culture especially the 24 returners from last year,” said Arnette. “These guys as juniors and the rest of the young one got lots of quality snaps last year and, with the seven or eight senior leaders, we are going to have a really good team coming back.”
Creech, a tough inside tackler and explosive tackler returning full strength after a broken collar bone, sees the team’s cohesiveness as a positive.
“We all buy in to pulling our weight,” said Creech. “Our guys are coming in with a chip on our shoulder, we took last year personally. Now we have something to prove.”
Arnette’s positive attitude despite the hiccups; losing guys to transfer mainly, keeps the remaining players strong, he believes.
“We have learned to control what we can control and move on,” said Arnette. “And, that’s real life stuff that will create better people in the end from the football. The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory.”
Quarterback is one position that was a hiccup.
“TBD at this point as we lost our guy after a great spring game,” said Arnette. “We got a few guys in mind even a shotgun to Sheppard.”
Sheppard Bridges, the 6-1, 220 pound grinder for Arnette on both sides of the ball is athletic enough to run the ball downfield and powerful enough to fill holes from a linebacker position.
“You may see him in a Wildcat,” said Arnette, who has junior Kayden Zamor as a possible speed back out of the backfield. “With our depth less than most teams, we have to be creative.”
Bridges and Hutchinson offer two strong downhill runners to the offense when tight yards are needed with Moore offering his heft at 220 pounds for tough yards in a pinch over the top.
“We are both willing to go with extra effort to win games,” said Bridges. “We want to wear people down up front. We’re going to keep coming.”
Moore, a massive tight end product with a ridiculous touchdown run in the spring game through, over and away from at least seven Fort White tacklers in the 31-7 first half showing for the Panthers, repeated the oft-heard wherever the coach wants me mantra of the team leaders.
Another key returner, according to Creech, is lineman Collier Stephens, who tore an ACL early last year but has rebounded to be arguably the strongest guy on the team; 25 reps of 225 pounds in an NFL-type combine set up by Arnette last week. Stephens will team with Seth McCormack, James Laycock on the line with Khalil Combs for line duty.
“Collier is looking strong and he’s ready to go after being injured most of last year,” said Creech. “I think he benched 375 and has been leading our conditioning all summer. He’s sure beast on the front line of defense.”
Ridgeview will host Keystone Heights in their preseason game on August 19.
Clay High: Youth
Clay High’s high-energy coach Kyle Kennard is in a particularly precarious position that football coaches may dread in that graduation and transfers have empty the coffers of the Clay High roster.
“We graduated 22 starters, had a few transfers and injuries,” said Kennard, 7-3 last year. “It is what it is.”
That grad list included quarterback Billy Mobley, running back Chris Goldstein, O-Liners Ethan Daniels and Gabe Shaw, wide receiver Jonathan Rouw, tight end Brandon Peavy and playmaker De’Maurion Frazier of offense; plus, on defense; “The Lumberjack” Zach Fordham, defensive end Hunter Huckleberry, linebacker Tanner Thacker and nosetackler Martez Martin. From the transfer portable, Clay Today defensive player of the year Blake Thompson is now at Santa Fe High School while secondary highlight reel Jarvis Lee, a commit to University of Virginia is in Bradenton’s IMG Academy.
For Kennard, a staple push for Blue Devil style tactical football; “11 hats to the ball,” the pads are coming on Saturday (Clay Blue White scrimmage at Clay High School) and fans can get that first glimpse.
Kennard returns just two on defense; linebacker Dominic Martin and defensive end Brian Prince, and four on offense; running back Chandler Thomas and three of the five offensive linemen; Bradley Warren, the ringleader, with Cody Mobley and John Johnson also returning.
“We got a good group of youngs that so far want to learn, want to play hard,” said Kennard. “Every year is a different challenge to fitting the puzzle pieces together.”
At the Baker Sports Media Day, Clay was represented with Martin, Prince, Warren and wide reciever Payton Dykas with Martin speaking to the fresh faces about to take on Blue Devil football.
“Getting stronger in the weight room is one of the things we are working on right now to get the young guys ready to go,” said Martin, who paused a long time while adding to the new face list. “We’ll see when we put the pads on who is going measure up. Speed is something we have, size maybe a little small.”
Warren, at center, has two holes to fill along with coach Jarrod Leeds, a former Clay High Blue Devil standout to give Kennard some offensive push up front.
“The three returners plus Eli Iscoa, a sophomore, and a welcomed return from Ronan Carns, a smaller brother to one of Clay High’s best linemen of the Mikey Carns, who played alongside Leeds on Clay’s 206 Final Four squad (10-4, lost 52-42 to Ponte Vedra).
Clay will host Bishop Kenny and former Orange Park/Ridgeview coaching rival Tom Macpherson, now a defensive coordinator at Bishop Kenny, in preseason action August 19.
Fleming Island: Loaded
Talk about the coach that has it all, Fleming Island coach Damenyum Springs pieced together a strong finish and a region playoff berth last year with a freshman quarterback, five in experienced offensive linemen and a first game loss to rival Clay High.
In August, thinkgs could change.
“We’re excited about having a bunch of playmakers coming back with Cibastian Broughton (sophomore quarterback) who has grown tremendous into that position,” said Fleming Island coach Gio Portabanco. “We have a lot of pieces set in the puzzle to have an exciting season.”
Fleming Island returns a bevy of talent to the gridiron; mainly senior running back Sam Singleton, wide receiver Darion Domenick on offense and Abram Wright and Jhoel Robinson on defense, that can only have Golden Eagle fans foaming at the mouth for the opening kickoff.
“Cibastian is improving to stay in the pocket, read coverages and get the ball downfield,” said Portabanco, noting Broughton was second leading rusher for Fleming Island; most often off escapes downfield on passing situations. “Our linemen have made the biggest improvement on the offense; you can’t miss them, they are all very big. When you have the size we have, it’s very exciting.”
On the line, where senior Ethan Hoffstetter is the probable team leader at center, size does matter with the five man crew; Hoffstetter, Braden Cunningham, Ethan Williams, Michael Zeray and T.J. Lawrence pushing the weight scales to more than 1600 pounds up front.
“This off season, all five of us worked together as a unit,” said Hoffstetter, the smallest at 260 pounds? “We are big, but coach Silberman (OL coach Ian Silberman) has worked to keep us athletic up front.”
Cunningham tops the scales at a massive 320 pounds.
“That adds up to about a 280 pound average,” said Hoffstetter.
Silberman noted that this five man unit, from last year, got a little trial by fire as new starters in a tough schedule for Fleming Island.
“They got better and better as the season progressed and started to trust the process,” said Silberman, an ex-NFL veteran and college standout at Florida and Boston University. “We analyze a lot of film so we can see what good technique looks like and these guys are very quick to pick p technique.”
With Singleton returning as the top rusher for the team, Portabanco and quarterback coach Donte Roberts, both former Fleming Island High grads, will be tasked to find the right plays in game time to move the ball.
Domenick, a lithe 6-2, near 200 pounder at wide receiver, could emerge as the solid playmaker downfield with his ability to catch and keep going i traffic.
“We had a good trio last year with me, Brenden Cook, a returner, and Caleb Jones all able to get downfield quickly,” said Domenick. “With the offensive line so much better, Cibastian will be able to get passes off quicker and stronger for us to go get. He started hitting with Brenden last year with some long scores.”
On defense, where Fleming Island has had a history of solid linebacker crews; Walker Whiddon, the final Whiddon to play at the Rock, sees this year’s crew; himself, Jhoel Robinson and Abram Wright, as up to the task of putting their names in the book as another three-man wrecking crew for Springs.
“It’s going to be the best linebacker crew in the county with some good guys in front us to make things difficult,” said Whiddon. who follows brothers Wesley and Heath as outstanding playmakers for the Golden Eagles. “It definitely motivates me to be the last one because I want to be the best one.”
Where Fleming Island loses a senior load of talent is in the secondary.
“We had great athletes out there last year, but the guys we got are all solid athletes, including Kaylib Singleton, Sam’s brother, and DeVonta Lewis,” said Portabanco. “As far as the enforcer on defense, you can’t go wrong with either Abram or Jhoel. Our defense will be just as explosive as the offense.”
Fleming Island will host Westside High in their preseason classic on August 19 with Fleming Island also traveling August 13 to Flagler Palm Coast for a summer scrimmage with Flagler and Deland high scnools at 10:30 a.m.
Middleburg High football coach Ryan Wolfe took on the spectacle of changing the culture of football at the ‘Burg as one his chief targets in this first year.
“Middleburg has to learn that they can win at the highest level” was one of Wolfe’s philosophical targets for his initial campaign.
With a 5-5 final season record with a few close calls against the likes of Clay and St. Augustine, Wolfe looks to prove the first year was a legit learning experience that has his Middleburg troops offering a new mentality of ‘yes, we can’.
One solid key to that goal is senior running back Mike Mitchell, a top tier rush yards hammer last year with a handful of 200-plus games.
In 2022, Mitchell will have a wing man in T.J. Lane, a Mandarin transfer running back that brings his own brand of power and speed.
“I’m going to take some of the heat off of him so he can get the ball on the outside,” said Lane, a solid, stocky speedy back that will force defenses to think about which way the ball is going with equal attention. “With our quarterback (Clay transfer Jaydan Jenkins), we are going make defenses back up because we can run and pass on both sides with different looks.”
Mitchell spent a lot of the summer scrimmages as an H-back wing back catches passes off the edge.
“Jaydan Jenkins proved he can throw on the run all summer so that’s something for defenses, but he is also ready to take the ball downfield on his own,” said Mitchell. “He has the speed of a running back and the arm of quarterback. He’s going to spread the field.”
Up front seniors Dakota Gober, Khoda Moses and Landon Padgett bring experience to their game with departed Tanner Peery a big part of the success of Wolfe’s first year behind quarterback Luke Padgett. Gober welcomes two very large new faces to the line in 300 pounder Jaylen Booker and Micah George, both juniors.
On defense, with linebacker Robert Steele attending for Middleburg at the Jacksonville event, Steele and senior linebacker Austin Cruce, the team’s leading tackler, give Middleburg some firepower to half enemy offenses.
“Me and Cowboy (Cruce) will also have Kendrick O’Neal as a linebacker with a strong front line group,” said Steele. “Aiden Postemski, Kristian Russell and Jaden Boyd will be key players in the secondary.”
Middleburg will host Episcopal for their August 19 preseason game.
St. Johns Country Day School: Legacy
At St. Johns Country Day School, soccer is sport most considered as the sport of the Spartans with baseball recently making a chase for that mantra, but the Spartan football program has taken its hits over the years; on and off the field.
Seniors for the upcoming Spartan season; Trey Dubnansky, a linebacker running back; Jack Mooneyham, a lineman and defensive back and soccer guy Jacob Graston, a first timer looking to see where he can fit it.
“We know he can kick field goals,” said Spartan defensive coach Cory Rogers. “His athletic skills have been displayed on the soccer field and we are hoping he can contribute for us as a skill player.”
For head coach Rocky Bantag, the goal, in the fast-growing eight-man football leagues in Florida, always is to put a competitive team on the field; Spartan athletes in general have always been competitive at their sport, check; play a smart game utilizing strategies to succeed, success in competition being paramount in St. Johns sports with multiple state medalists and state champions throughout the school seasons; soccer girls, track, cross country ace Matthew Stratton, tennis girls, boys soccer, etc.
“We have a good corps group of seniors this year of our 22 players, but we want to leave the program in good standing by encouraging the younger players to participate,” said Dubnansky. “We’d like to build the program up so I can come back and watch games when I’m in college or when I’m done in college. That’s important to me.”
Rogers noted that, in last year’s initial 8-man campaign, St. Johns’ schedule featured two of the top teams in the state right out of the gate; Merritt Island Christian, who finished at 10-1 and lost in the second round of the Sunshine State Athletic Conference AAAA Bracket, and Duval Charter, a 5-2 team that also lost in round two of the playoffs.
“That makes it tough to start a season like that, but the team stayed the course and battled to the finish,” said Rogers. “You can’t ask for more for guys not to quit after stuff like that. These guys are in it for the game and for the school.”
Graston joins the squad as a first year footballer, but a standout soccer athlete.
“In my first year, I’m real excited to see what I could do,” said Graston, a top goal scorer for Spartan soccer.. “St. Johns is such a small, close knit school that I want to contribute to the program.”
St. Johns opens on the road at Eastland Christian out of Orlando, a first-year team, on August 26.
Keystone Heights: Rebuild
Keystone Heights football ran the table in quite possibly the best season for the coach Chuck Dickinson, but it came with a price tag of a heavy senior graduation number.
Now, new faces will fill the space left by The Four Horsemen; running back phenoms Dalton Hollingsworth, Tyler Jenkins, Logan Williams and Kade Sanders who accounted for nearly 5,000 total offensive yards and near 60 scores and the monsters up front that cleared the way; Mason Dicks, Caleb Moncrief and Luke Snider, aptly named the Keystone Heights Trucking Co., LLC, because they delivered.
“Don’t know who made the nicknames, but we will see about creating our own guys that deserve a nickname,” said senior tight end, running back, safety, linebacker, pretzel concession stand guy and PA announcer Bryar Schenk, Dickinson’s Swiss Army Knife returner.
“He was a good, solid tight end for us last year that caught several of the few passes that we throw each season, but he was a guy we could put in any number of positions to chip in” said Dickinson. “This year, he will become one of our main go to guys.”
The guy for Dickinson to shoulder the rebuilding of the next generation of Indians.
“One of our goals is to outdo what we did last year,” said Schenk. “Our main goal whenever we step on to the field is to out do what we did the last game.”
Schenk’s success, as is much of the Indians legacy, is the power of the weightlifting program run by coach of the year Lantz Lowery. Lowery has produced back-to-back state titles for Keystone Heights’ boys team and that prowess is very visible on the gridiron.
“We had a lot of guys in the summer weights and coach Lowery’s workouts are legendary,” said Bo Overton, a senior lineman. “He works us knowing that our strength and durability come from the weights.”
Two of the strongest returners; Trey Jeffries and Tyler Anthony-Rozier, bring the weightroom into the fold, both were state medalists in the upper weights for Lowery.
“Trey will be a lineman running back kind of athlete,” said Anthony-Rozier. “I’m on the line returning with Trey, Tyler Duncan, a freshman giant, with Jayden Goodman and Jackson Herman on the line.”
Wyatt Van Zant will be a key element for Keystone Heights a s possible running back and defensive secondary guy. VanZant also a weightlifting state medalist.
Quarterbacking for the Indians is a matter of flawless execution and no fumbles with a couple of passes and may fall to the hands of an Ulsch; Sam or Ben as upper classmen, Ben a senior, with a few more to come.
“There are four of the Ulsch’s at Keystone Heights,” said coach Steven Reynolds, who ushered the boys to the Bakers Sports Media Day. “We also have two brothers; the Westers. Bryson and Brayden, a 250 pounder, who could add to the offensive line.”
On defense, the Indians usually just turn the guys around as most will be two-way players.
Keystone Heights will travel to Ridgeview for their preseason classic on August 19.
Orange Park: Unpredictable
Orange Park has a first year head football coach in Marcus Wimberly, a former University of Miami wide receiver and defensive back, and that is a bit of coincidence as the prowess of the upcoming Raider season will be whether one of two quarterbacks can drop the ball into one of handful of speed merchants the Raiders have in the huddle. “
“We have to guys right now battling for the start spot; Elijah Craggette and Durrionte Myrick, both who have quality skill sets at the position,” said Wimberly. “When we get the pads, we’ll see who can play.”
Myrick, who transferred to Ridgeview at the end of last season, played in the Ridgeview spring game and got the Panthers on the board with a solo 80 yard scoring jaunt on the second play of the game, then transferred back to Orange Park, has the legs to produce highlight reel material quickly while Craggette has been in the pocket for the Raiders since last year as a backup for graduate Tavien Wilkerson.
“We have the weapons for sure,” said Wimberly, who had two of his weapons; running back JoJo Restall and wide receiver Nolan Chambers, with him in Jacksonville along with all state tackle Roderick Kearney and senior lineman Ean Huffaker, a 250 pounder across from Kearney on offense.
“I think our offense will click pretty quickly while our defense may develop over the first couple of games.”
For Wimberly, the prospect of unleashing the raw speed of Chambers and his entourage of tracksters; Brian Green, Jermel Brown and Restall is daunting, but still relies on the quarterback.
“Coach Wimberly is a ‘get things done’ kind of coach,” said Restall. “Practices are really intense because coach knows what it takes to go to the next level.”
Chambers concurred that the chemistry with the quarterback is essential to the Raiders’ success.
“That’s on me a little to get me and whomever is quarterback to develop that confidence,” said Chambers, who houses his speed in a muscular, prototype, 6-2, 225 pound frame that may get some reps at linebacker and safety as well. “We get that click, we’re scoring lots.”
Contingent on that ‘click’ is partly on the shoulders of Kearney and his boys upfront including wingman Braylon Hawkins and Huffacker.
“We got some great athletes on this team and it is up to me and my guys to get them the space to get downfield,” said Kearney. “We learn from each other when we return from camps in things we learned at the camp.”
One of Wimberly’s first challenges to Orange Park was to schedule a midseason game with Melbourne High School with former University of Miami teammate (1983 National champions) David Kintigh.
“We talked at a coaching clinic and we both needed a game, so we set it up,” said Wimberly. “Football is football, not much different from Tennessee football and these guys are locked in and ready to go.”
Melbourned, in class 7A last year, finished at 11-3 last year with a region finals loss to Lake Gibson.
Wimberly acknowledged the offense will be exciting to watch with the athletes on the lineup, but the defense is still considered a work in progress.
“We have alot of young players; quality players and we need to find the Alpha Dog guy to lead the defense,” said Wimberly. “We are looking for that guy once we get the pads on. I’ll be able to tell you that one next week.”
Orange Park will travel to Bolles for their preseason game on August 19.
Oakleaf High’s coaching switcharoo; Frank Garis out, Marcus Miller in, provided about 15 minutes of conversation between Miller, the scnool’s athletic director and his new team for a year.
“When coach Garis came to me in June and said he was not returning, we had to move quickly as an administration to decide what to do,” said Miller, a former Oakleaf High offensive coach prior to his athletic director duties and a former Englewood High School head football coach. “We decided we could hit the ground running with the momentum from what coach Garis accomplished with me as the interim coach then do the coach search after the season.”
With that being decided, Miller, who had seniors Drew Ammon, Taylor Bradshaw, Kyland Armstrong and Devin Outlaw with him at the Baker Sports Media Day on Monday, hit the ground running, as he called it, with a short 15 minute team introduction after the decision.
“The team is full of seniors and experienced underclassmen who kind of just accepted their fate and made a collective decision to just move forward,” said Miller.
Ammons, last year’s Clay Today offensive player of the year after amassing a mountain of stats, liked that Miller saw the talent pool of his team and kind of left things alone if not made things simpler.
“Coach has tweaked just a bit to make the strategy a little simpler and little easier to be successful,” said Ammons, who threw for 1700 yards with 17 scores last year for Oakleaf’s 4-6 record. “The team just plain wants to get on the field and go.”
To go, Ammons has a plethora of offensive weaponry around him led by Bradshaw, a lithe 6’2”, maybe 200 pound gazelle with the wingspan of an eagle and the leaping ability of Michael Jordan.
“Drew and I have been throwing passes to each other since we were 10 years old,” said Bradshaw, with 47 catches last year and eight scores. “We are going to have a few guys on the field that will create challenges for defenses to decide who to try and lock down. Drew will find the open guy.”
One of few guys will be senior running back Devin Outlaw, who blasted his way on to varsity reps as a freshman, then got banged up a few times to slow down his sophomore and junior season stat packs, but is healed up and ready to return with a vengeance.
“Devin is the kind of running back that will get 25 carries between the tackles and not go down on the first or second contact,” said Miller. “Do that for 10 games and you are going to get dinged. I’m aware of the rest of our offense enough to let him do his thing but keep him healthy along the way.”
Outlaw acknowledged that his style is rugged, but that is not changing.
“That’s what I do,” said Outlaw, who finished with a not so shabby 850 yards last year with spurts of 189, 215, 149 and a massive 259 yards against Bartram Trail. “I’ve learned over the year how to absorb impact a little different this year and I’ve gotten stronger, more explosive and more flexible in my conditioning.”
A fourth weapon, senior H-back, full back, tight end and tailback Isaiah Schevchook is the reliably out of backfield ace that was a main red zone threat for the Knights.
“Isaiah is the kind of guy every team needs as the guy who shows up with the lunch pail and just works wherevery we put him,” said Miller. “He caught some key first downs off tight end last year, snuck underneath for red zone touchdowns and was as a capable a corner blocker as anyone. He should be the guy releasing Devin downfield.”
Leading the charge up front is Wake Forest commit Kyland Armstrong, at about 6’3, 250 on the front line as center, who welcomes back fellow unlimited state wrestler Jordan Mitchell on one of the line and has another mountain, Krishawn Sanders, at 260, manning a post.
“Our three returners are pretty big and pretty athletic and we will be moving people,” said Armstrong. “We are working now to fill the fourth and fifth spot to complete the line.”
On defense, Miller noted that last year’s defense featured 4-6 freshman on the field at any one time with freshman Drake Stubbs, a defensive back with six interceptions last year, the eye in the sky guy.
“He has a spatial awareness about him where he knows exactly how fast he can close on a pass headed his way and can capitalize on that with an interception,” said Miller. “We run drills against him and the offense will execute nearly perfect from the snap to the throw the way the play is designed and he will still get the pick. He’s also not afraid to stick his nose into the pile for tackles (51 stops last year).”
tackling leader Vladmir Rosa returns with his team leading 72 stops, but is likely to be full strength in game three.
“He tweaked a wrist, but is recovering quickly,” said Miller.
One new name, a Jared Hicks, a transfer from Virginia, has emerged as a new kid on the block that is not afraid to let people know who he is.
“Dwight has a way about him that he sees things way ahead of the play,” said Miller. “He’ big, strong and nasty in the middle and we could line him up in different spots behind the defensive line because he is so athletic.”
Hicks, at 6-1, 235 lbs, has yet to be seen with pads on, but Miller is highly anticating that day.
“On paper, and on the field now, he is very intelligent in his decisions and quick to the ball,” said Miller. “If he brings some contact ferocity, it will be explosive.”
The rest of the secondary; James Kitchens (a good looking freshman last year 18 tackles, 1INT) and Nasir Bailey (23 tackles, 2 fumbles) will be tasked to cover enemy receivers along with freshman Dajon Brown, who pounded 64 stops, a sack and two fumbles, in his first outing with the big boys.
“We will see some great offenses in our new district and Fleming Island is loaded at all spots on their offense and defense,” said Miller.
Oakleaf will travel to Sandalwood on Thursday, Aug. 18 for their preseason game.