One of the youngest teams in Durant’s history is taking the field this season.
The advantage of a senior-heavy squad is a roster full of experience, developed talent and, in many cases, good results. The disadvantage is, when all those seniors graduate after the season, your team might become pretty green before you know it.
That’s Durant in 2018. Many of 2017’s key starters and second-string players have graduated, which has left head coach Mike Gottman with the least experienced group in his 16-season tenure with the school.
“We’ve got 10 total seniors. It’s the smallest senior group I’ve ever had,” Gottman said. “We’ve got a big sophomore class and a lot of them are gonna be playing this year. In a couple years, they’re gonna have a lot of experience.”
Last year, the Cougars came close to getting back to the playoffs but were edged out of the cut at the end of the season. It’s fair to wonder if things would have been different if lead back Cameron Myers, who ran for 1,738 yards and 21 touchdowns in eight and a half games, didn’t get injured after six carries against district foe Bloomingdale in the second-to-last game of the season. The team had high hopes going into the season with a productive offense and a stingy defense, and they ended with that 21-15 loss.
This time, the expectations are different. They’re probably as different as could be.
For 2018, Gottman said Durant’s goals are to get these young guys the game experience they need to grow and pick up a handful of wins along the way. With an inexperienced roster and a tough schedule in and out of 7A-District 9 play, the Cougars are going to be clear-cut underdogs all season.
“It’ll be interesting to see how they face a little adversity in a football game,” Gottman said. “It’s never exactly how you want to do it — you’re going to have good plays and you’re gonna have bad plays. It’ll be a challenge to see how they react to it.”
Make no mistake, Durant’s offense is still going to try and do what it’s known for: running the heck out of the ball and eating the clock. This year, nearly all of the faces will be different. The only returning starter from 2017 is Cameron Jossi, who is moving from tackle to center for his senior season.
Junior Sean Williams came up from the junior varsity team to take over the quarterbacking duties from three-year starter Carlton Potter. The dynamic duo of running back Cameron Myers and fullback David Tabakovic, which was arguably the best one-two punch in Hillsborough County, will mainly be replaced by juniors David Haynes and Tyrhon Brooks. Marquies Gines Jr., who also happens to be a high school junior, is expected to lead the wide receiving corps after reliable target Jory Cole’s graduation. Several defensive players, including Demarcus Governor, will be used in the offense from time to time to keep things fresh.
Though some of these players have seen action on the varsity team, the skill position players are largely new to this level.
“Obviously we’re rebuilding, but we’ll see how we do,” Gottman said.
There’s more certainty with the defense. Governor, one of the best cornerbacks in Hillsborough County, is back and has embraced his role as a team leader. Free safety Corey “C.J.” Barnes Jr., another key defensive player of 2017, is also back to bring stability to the defensive backfield. Kylan Forte, a backup cornerback last year, will get a heavier workload. The linebackers are largely young and unproven at the varsity level, but Gottman likes their attitude.
“They’re aggressive, young and tough, so I’ll roll with them,” Gottman said.
That could also describe the rest of the team, Gottman said. What the Cougars lack in experience, they make up for by having the attitude the coaching staff always wants to see.
“They come to work every day. They’re wanting to get better,” Gottman said. “It’s been a pleasure to coach them.”
The players have a handful of things to rally around. They want to play hard and play well to honor the memory of teammate Grover Wills, who was killed in April, and they’re also rallying around senior Kolton “Kole” Smith, whose football career was cut short after a June car accident left him with a broken back.
Gottman and the staff aren’t expecting the team to mature and develop after just one preseason game. The Cougars are about to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire with scheduled games against Armwood, Jesuit, Tampa Bay Tech, Bloomingdale, Plant City, Sickles and East Bay. Newsome usually plays Durant well in the Alafia River Rivalry game and both Lennard and Strawberry Crest could be improved over last year’s teams. The team may not win all of these games but the experience will be valuable. They’ve got games with some of the best football teams in the state, let alone the Tampa Bay area. Gottman isn’t as concerned with wins and losses as he is with the players getting better every day and setting realistic goals.
Playing the long game is the most realistic option for the Cougars, given the youth of the roster. Even if this year’s not the best on the scoreboard for Durant, the learning experiences could translate to something much more successful in 2019 and 2020. After all, the advantage of an extremely young squad like this is that it’ll be a senior-heavy squad before you know it.
“I’m excited to see us mature,” Gottman said. “I’m excited to see us grow. We’ve got a great attitude, so I’m excited about the challenge.”
THREE TO SEE
Cameron Jossi (Sr., C)
I see you’re moving to a new position this year.
Yes, sir. I played tackle from sophomore year to junior year and started playing center this year.
You’ve got a whole new group coming in on offense and, as a senior and a center, you’ve got the responsibility of leading these guys. How are you handling that?
It’s definitely something new. I’ve never actually been a part of something when I’ve been the head. It’s definitely something new. It’s kind of fun to work with new people and be able to show the young ones what to do and what not to do.
How are you feeling about this season?
I’m feeling pretty confident. Just very, very confident about this year.
What are your strengths as a player?
Probably leading, probably just doing what I’m supposed to and making sure everybody else is doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
Tyrhon Brooks (Jr., RB)
What are you looking forward to about this season?
I’m looking forward, of course, to going to the playoffs with my team. Making sure we all make it and grind out, try to be the best we can be as a squad.
This team’s pretty young, but there’s talent out here. What do you think is the team’s greatest strength?
Our O-line and our heart. We love the sport. You can’t say we don’t. We're out here working every day, trying to prove to people what we can do.
What makes you a good player, in your opinion?
Paying attention, leading, helping out the youngins and making sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to, and loving my brothers.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned out here?
To love each other. Football, it could end at the snap of a finger. Celebrate and love everybody that’s around you.
Demarcus Governor (Sr. DB)
When people think of this defense, they first go to you and C.J. Barnes. Who else is there that people need to know?
Kylan Forte. Jack Sykes. Audea Thames. Ashton Kirkland. Lenny Woods.
Why shouldn’t teams take this defense lightly on the field?
This team — this defense specifically, but really the team when I say this — has been through so much. Our bond together is unbreakable. I really feel like the best 11 is gonna be out there. We have not only depth, but the heart to go along with it. We have corners that will fly across the field and fill the holes. We have linebackers that will drop back and pick off a pass. Our D-line is consistent, they won’t give up.
You mentioned you guys have been through a lot. How have these experiences made you stronger?
Not having my locker buddy (Grover Wills) there no more, it just shows you how fast one decision can change everything. Knowing that it’s bigger than myself. It makes me think, before I do something, about everybody that’s affected. I think about my family a whole lot more. I think about my teammates, think about my teachers, think about life and the people that are close to me.
Note: All games scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. District games marked with *.
8/24: vs. Jesuit
8/31: @ Sickles
9/7: vs. Newsome (Alafia River Rivalry/Military Appreciation Night)
9/14: vs. East Bay*
9/21: @ Strawberry Crest*
10/5: vs. Lennard*
10/12: vs. Plant City* (Battle for the Redman Cup)
10/19: @ Tampa Bay Tech*
10/26: @ Bloomingdale*
11/2: @ Armwood
Location: 4748 Cougar Path, Plant City
Head Coach: Mike Gottman (16th season with team)
2017 Record: 6-4 (3-3 district)
1 Donnald Williams DB Sr.
2 Ashton Kirkland DB So.
3 Kylan Forte DB Sr.
4 Audea Thames DB So.
6 David Haynes LB/RB Jr.
7 Nate Roark WR/DB So.
8 Marquise Gines WR/DB So.
9 Adrian Resendez WR Sr.
10 Sean Williams QB/DB Jr.
11 Alex Woods QB/DB So.
12 Demarcus Governor DB Sr.
14 Braxton Houston LB/RB So.
15 Chris Woods WR Jr.
20 Eli Reed LB/RB So.
21 C.J. Barnes DB Jr.
22 Tyrhon Brooks RB Jr.
23 Marc Monrose K/P Jr.
24 Lonel Gappy Jr. LB So.
25 Reggie Bush RB Fr.
26 Douglas Cook K/P Sr.
27 Lenny Woods RB/DB So.
28 Collin Cole RB/LB So.
32 Cy Clark LB Sr.
33 Luke Rawlins LB So.
35 Jackson Prestwood DL Sr.
36 Joey Spitler DE/TE Jr.
40 Josh Cannon LB So.
42 Mavrick Valdes LB Jr.
44 Eddie Zanato LB So.
45 Lane Robbins DL/OL Jr.
48 Michael Pearce TE Sr.
49 Xavier Hernandez LB So.
50 Bradley Guasto DE/OL Jr.
51 Derrick Mahoney OL/DL So.
52 Ethan Webb OL/DL Jr.
53 Izaya Miller DE/OL Jr.
55 Wyatt Lawson OL/DL So.
56 Jack Sykes DL/OL Jr.
57 Chris Jurnigan DB Sr.
58 Nate Brennan OL/LB So.
59 Gabe DeLuca OL/DL Jr.
62 Kolton Smith OL/DL Sr.
63 Ethan Baird OL So.
66 Triston Nichols OL Jr.
68 Logan Mayo OL Fr.
71 Hagen Sharp OL/DL So.
72 Matt Middleton OL/DL Jr.
74 Cameron Jossi C Sr.
77 Jack Powers OL Sr.
80 Matthew Curry WR/DB Sr.
85 Aaron Fraga WR/DB Jr.
88 Giovanny Benavente DL Sr.
89 Ryan Hanner WR/P So.