Most coaches talk about feeling more comfortable heading into the second year in charge of their programs.
Not Cardinal Mooney High's Jared Clark.
"We went 2-7 last year (including the playoffs), so no, I'm not feeling comfortable," Clark said with a chuckle. "I would say I feel more prepared."
Clark said having a full offseason has been helpful in terms of installing the team's offensive and defensive schemes, something they did not fully get a chance to do in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic putting a halt to workouts. This year, Clark said, he's ready to show the football world what Mooney football will be about under his watch.
If the team's Kickoff Classic was any indication, the Cougars will be a team to watch.
Clark was pleased with what he saw in his team's 29-7 road win against IMG Academy Blue on Aug. 19. After allowing a touchdown on the game's opening kickoff, the Cougars allowed no more points — 140 total yards — and forced two turnovers. The starting offense, which played approximately halfway into the third quarter, looked sharp; senior quarterback Tayven Clark, the nephew of Jared Clark, completed seven of 10 passes for 106 yards and three touchdowns. Clark also ran nine times for 71 yards and a touchdown.
Jared Clark said Tayven Clark's biggest improvements have come on the mental side of things. Last year, his instincts told him to run if he sensed trouble or if a play was taking too long to develop, Jared Clark said. Now, Tayven Clark is reacting on a play-to-play basis; he'll still run if that's the best option, but he's looking to pass more, scanning the field for any open targets he can find.
He won't be doing it alone.
Behind Clark will be sophomore running back Carson Beach, who ran for 71 yards on 23 carries against IMG. On the outside, junior wide receiver Cooper Flerlage will be the veteran of the group; he caught two touchdowns against IMG. He'll be joined by young players like freshman Ryan Matulevich, who caught the other touchdown. Matulevich earned praise from Jared Clark for his poise and polish. At practice on Aug. 24, Matulevich was used as an example of proper play execution by offensive coordinator Tim Callahan in a teaching moment for other players.
The Cougars will be just as young on defense thanks to the school's necessity to play some of its athletes both ways. Sophomore Johnny Antonucci, the backup quarterback, will see a lot of time at free safety and has impressed in that role. He had an interception and recovered a fumble against IMG. Jared Clark said sophomore Jacob Brown has looked sharp at outside linebacker, as has fellow sophomore linebacker George Leibold. Those less experienced players will be mentored by junior linebacker J.R. Rosenberg, who is the team's top returning tackler (65 in 2020).
The Cougars are an inexperienced team, but that will quickly change as young players step into the spotlight early and often. Starting the season against Booker High will be a measuring stick game for both programs. If Mooney gets a win on Thursday, it could be a sign of something, though an even bigger test against Lakewood Ranch High awaits in week two. The end of the season will do the team no favors; going on the road against Bishop Verot and Seffner Christian is a tall task. But if Mooney can win two of its first three games, they'll be in good position to make a leap.
"We have to play for each other, for our brothers," Jared Clark said. "We need to love each other. If we do that and give 100% effort, we can have success."
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.