- August 12, 2021
Football whistles don’t sound like other whistles, even though they are ostensibly the same.
They are more shrill, somehow, and are followed by the sound of pads colliding, athletes grunting and coaches clapping. Football whistles can be long, signaling the end of a session, or short, meaning someone messed up real bad and is about to get an earful from an assistant in front of everybody, starting with a boisterous “Hey!”.
When you hear a football whistle, you know where you are, and you know the drill. Those whistles are back across the county this week, with local teams participating in spring practice. The spring is a time of discovery for football teams, as seniors depart and underclassmen step into larger roles. The practices are even more important when starting anew, like Sarasota High and coach Spencer Hodges are trying to do.
The Sailors finished 5-6 last season under former coach Brian Ryals, and Hodges has taken a “tear it down to build it up” approach to the program since he was hired in February. Hodges’ first priority was to “stop the bleeding,” meaning persuading the talent within the program not to transfer, and he did that successfully (last year’s star running back, Brian Battie, had already left when Hodges was hired). The next step is talent evaluation and teaching kids the fundamentals that most of them never learned. Wide receivers, Hodges said, were running routes based on number of steps last season, which creates timing and location problems as not everyone’s “step” is the same distance. The Sailors will now run routes based on yardage, creating consistency.
Hodges has preached three things to his team this spring, consistency being one of them. The other two? Accountability and football IQ, neither of which were close to his standards when he arrived, he said. He’s having his team watch 35 minutes of film before each practice to improve its IQ, and all players with GPAs less than 2.3 (the minimum required to play college football) will be required to attend summer school and learn accountability. Players take classes over the summer in college, anyway, Hodges said. Players might as well get a taste of that now.
Through this work, Hodges hopes to establish “dependables,” or players you know will produce to their ability every game. The Pack brothers, current junior Thomas and sophomore Terrell, are examples of this, he said.
He and his staff also led the charge for incoming ninth graders to practice at their future high schools during the spring, a change which was approved by the county.
“It’s about player development,” Hodges said. “Kids can see what the new era is about, and they get to be with the school for four and a half years instead of four.”
Even teams coming off strong seasons, like Riverview High, have things to fix. The Rams went 11-2 in 2017, reaching the Class 8A regional finals, but lose key pieces in quarterback Arthur Brantley, defensive back Jamar Johnson and wide receiver Stephon Turner, among others. Coach Josh Smithers isn’t worried about replacing those guys, though he’ll miss their production. He’s confident he and his staff will find a way to maximize the talent they’ve got.
“Every spring, you kind of start over,” Smithers said. “We have to figure out, ‘What is our identity as the 2018 Rams?’ We’re finding the pieces to the puzzle right now. We’re keeping things simple and looking to find out who is going to compete, step up and make plays for us.”
In terms of identity, Smithers added that the Riverview will always have the running game on its mind, both in terms of attacking with and stopping it. Smithers said the Rams have three strong running backs in current juniors Ali Boyce and Antrone Thomas and freshman Michael Hayes, and said fans can expect more two-back formations this season to exploit that matchup.
Smithers also said that junior Shaun White, a transfer from Cardinal Mooney, has played himself into the starting quarterback job, but that the team will keep working other quarterbacks into the mix as well.
At Cardinal Mooney and Booker high schools, the problems mirror those at Sarasota and Riverview.
The Cougars lost coach Drew Lascari to Rutgers University, but legendary replacement Paul Maechtle said the scheme would remain mostly the same, since Maechtle had been on Lascari’s staff. Unlike at Sarasota, Maechtle wants to continue the foundation Lascari laid.
The Tornadoes, like the Rams, lost offensive stars in quarterback Jermaine Ziegler and wide receiver Talik Keaton. How coach Dumaka Atkins, entering his third season, deals with these losses will be key to the program’s success.
Thankfully, fans longing for the sound of those football whistles won’t have to wait until August. All area schools will be playing in a spring game, starting when the Tornadoes host Lakewood Ranch at 7 p.m. on May 11.