No playoff team in the district finished with a winning record in 2014. But, even though Brandon posted a 7-3 overall record, none of the 7A-8 teams experienced the highs Durant did.
The Cougars started 2014 about as well as most teams could hope for. After keeping things interesting with Armwood in the season opener — the 37-14 score isn’t the best indicator of how close the game was — Durant beat down a Sickles team that made the playoffs with superstar running back Ray Ray McCloud III in 2013 (and 2014), 30-20, in the home opener. The Cougars then picked up a 34-20 win over Tampa Bay Tech, whom they would later meet in the playoffs, and then got a 9-7 win over Plant City while playing in Biblical flood weather.
This stretch, plus an Oct. 2, 37-7 win at Strawberry Crest, ended up carrying Durant throughout the rest of the season. The Cougars lost every other game on the schedule, up until the season-ending, 28-7 Halloween win over East Bay that guaranteed them a playoff spot. The Cougars were then manhandled by TBT, 42-25.
“I just felt like our team kind of thought that we were just gonna roll Tech, and we just came out flat,” head coach Mike Gottman says. “It was 25-0. Then we came back, it was 25-18, but the quarterback just took over and we couldn’t get him on the ground. When we had to stop him, we just couldn’t stop him.”
He hopes the team has learned its lesson.
“You can’t overlook anybody,” Gottman says. “You’ve got to go out there every Friday night and play like it’s your last game.”
Penalties weren’t the problem for the Cougars. Part of it was injuries, and part of it was that the team just couldn’t always finish. Point to this three-week stretch between Oct. 10 and 24: a 33-31 loss to Newsome, followed by a 21-18 loss to Brandon that could have led to a 4-0 district record, followed by a 55-49 shootout loss to Hillsborough. Durant had the opportunity to win, but couldn’t get the job done.
“If we could have just held up a little bit more, we could have won a couple more games,” Gottman says. “The injuries really affected us on defense. We’re just young, and inexperienced up front.”
On the bright side, there were plenty of things for Durant fans to be happy about last season. Quarterback Erick Davis was a capable replacement for Trey VanDeGrift: Davis led all Cougars with 12 rushing touchdowns, and he picked up 833 yards on 125 carries, good for a 6.7 yards-per-carry average. Davis also threw six touchdown passes under center.
Senior tailback Crispian Atkins also had a great season, finishing just shy of 1,000 yards and scoring nine total touchdowns (eight rushing). Fans also caught a glimpse of future starter Jalen Forté, who only got 25 touches but averaged 7.6 yards per.
Defense played well as a whole, when everyone was focused. Linebacker Blake Moody led the way with 63 total tackles (24 assisted), and many of the unit’s top performers — Moody, Xavier Walden, Jalen Garrett and Tanner Jurnigan, to name a few — are coming back. Players who were injured last year, such as mike linebacker Jacob Ross, will be back with something to prove.
And, of course, winning the district is something fans should celebrate no matter what. This is especially true when the third-place team was the only one with a winning record.
2015 appears to have some hurdles for the Cougars to jump. On defense, for example, the team loses sacks leader D.J. Curry (4.5), tacklers Quenton Williams (48 total) and Dustin Miller (46 total), and passes-defensed leader Tracy Watson Jr. (four). Kicker Derek Wells, who missed only one field goal attempt all season, is also gone.
But the biggest losses come on offense. Davis and Atkins, secondary running back Kadarius Griffin, wideout Garrett Rentz (four touchdowns) and tight end Joe Williamson are all gone. Every starter from 2014 has graduated. While there will be a senior or two up front, much of the line has little to no varsity-game experience.
“We’re heavy on sophomores and juniors,” Gottman says. “A lot of learning going on in those first couple of weeks. All spring long, that was the main emphasis.”
With a monster of a schedule, what is there to look forward to?
For starters, Forté is stepping into the starting role at running back. The speedy tailback has drawn raves from Durant’s coaching staff, as well as NextLevel Sports Academe’s Gerold Dickens. Should he stay healthy, it sounds as though Durant could cover the loss of Atkins.
While it originally looked like senior Noah Johnson would take over for Davis this season, Gottman recently confirmed that there’s been a change of plans. He’s named Carlton Potter, a sophomore who most recently quarterbacked the junior varsity team, as the go-to guy for this season.
“He’s looked really good in camp,” Gottman says. “He ran our offense really nicely, so he’s gonna start. He’s just very headsy. He knows how things open up. He knows what he’s supposed to do with the football … He’s a player that’s got a lot of moxie.”
Potter will have several tall receivers to work with, including 6-foot-4 tight end Steven Witchoskey in Williamson’s old starting role. Because he can run, Gottman says that he’ll be able to run the same kind of multiple offense Durant used last season.
So with Durant, it all comes down to about three questions. Can the Cougars make up for its losses on offense? Can those young guys handle a rough schedule? And, maybe most importantly: did the upperclassmen learn to curb last year’s overconfidence?