The Cougars hope learning from last year’s experiences will help the team stay on the right track in 2019.
The great thing about having a senior-heavy football team is that is usually gives you the best chance to win games. The bad thing about it is sometimes the following year.
Graduation hit Durant hard after 2017, which led to an influx of inexperienced players stepping up in 2018 to fill key roles from the prior season. The Cougars couldn’t match that production on offense and defense and finished at 3-7 (3-3 district).
Though the Cougars did suffer their fair share of blowout losses thanks to a tough, back-loaded schedule, they were often quite competitive. Durant surprised everyone by playing Jesuit (13-2; 4-0 district) to a 7-7 tie at halftime in its home opener. Two weeks later, the Cougars used a big second quarter to secure a 14-7 halftime lead over Newsome in the Alafia River Rivalry game. Both of those games ended with Durant losses, but that led to a three-game win streak from Sept. 14 through Oct. 5 highlighted by a 10-7 win in overtime at home against an East Bay team that had just scored 83 points in three games. Durant picked up a 24-6 win at Strawberry Crest the following week and, after a Set. 28 bye, hosted Lennard and got a 31-21 win.
Durant has once again lost numerous key players to graduation and transfer, but some familiar faces in important places are back.
This is the only team in the area that can say its starting quarterback is back for the second consecutive year. Sean Williams has one last season of high school ball left and he’s looking to make a big impact for the offense this time around. Williams’s first season as Durant’s QB1 didn’t require much from his throwing arm, as the team used an extremely run-heavy offense, but he proved to be up for the task of using his legs. In one such case, he caught Tampa Bay Tech’s defense slipping and broke off an impressive 53-yard run in a game where he also finished with two rushing touchdowns.
Williams will lead an offense head coach Mike Gottman said will once again focus on running the ball, though it may not look much like the Durant offenses of recent years. Like the New England Patriots, the Cougars are keeping the fullback position alive with Eli Reed and L.J. Gappy set to receive big workloads.
Durant’s going with a flexbone offense in 2019 to make life on the ground easier for everyone involved. The flexbone is a two-receiver set with the quarterback taking snaps under center, a fullback behind him in the backfield and two “A” backs (Collin Cole and Nate Roark) lining up slightly behind the tackles on each end of the offensive line. It’s the ideal formation for any team that wants to run the triple option. That play, which you’ve seen plenty of if you’ve watched Navy or Georgia Tech football in the last two decades, gives an offense three “options” for running the ball with one snap. Should Williams want to hang on to the ball himself, he can run either left or right depending on which side his line is asked to block. One of the “A” backs will go in motion pre-snap to cut behind the fullback and get to the other side of the backfield. The “A” opposite him, on the side where he and Williams are running to, is responsible for blocking. Williams can pitch to the pulling “A” if he wants or keep it if he sees defenders keying in on that back, anticipating the pitch. Reed or Gappy, meanwhile, can run between the tackle and guard on either side to either fake out defenders in the “box” right up on the line of scrimmage or take the handoff from Williams for a gain if there’s room to run through there. Flexbone teams have to make sure there’s equal or near-equal touches for those three possible ballcarriers for the play to work, but the confusion the exchange (or not) can cause also makes it possible for teams to run other plays disguised as the triple option. As long as your offensive players can read a defense, they can give opponents fits all four quarters. Gottman would like for the passing game to improve over time, which gets wideouts like Tyler Bokor more involved.
Gottman said Durant will still work multiple formations, three and four-man fronts, into the defense. Bradley Guasto and Josh Cannon are going to be focal points of the defense in 2019. Guasto, a senior outside linebacker, brings size (he’s 6-foot-4) and athleticism to the mix and can cover some ground. Cannon, a junior middle linebacker, brings leadership and tenacity to the group that the coaching staff is very pleased with. Luke Rawlins will return to start at inside linebacker next to Cannon. Ashton Kirkland will head up a secondary that Gottman hopes will be helped by game experience.
“We’re a little bit raw in the secondary, but we’re trying to get those guys schooled up pretty quick,” Gottman said.
The Cougars are also working with a new kicker, senior Edgar Posadas Jr., who has never kicked before. Gottman said Posadas has done some good things in practice, but just needs to get more comfortable in a game situation.
“I’ve seen him boom it here,” Gottman said. “We’ve got to bring him along.”
Even with an overhauled, retooled roster with inexperienced players at some positions and others learning new positions for the first time, the Cougars are staying positive. They’ll let you know it, too. Players talk about getting rid of “the negativity” that apparently had hung over the program before this season, whatever that may have been, and say the change of attitude has benefitted the team overall.
“Togetherness, playing as one team and doing the right thing to do so we don’t have a lot of off-the-field distractions,” Gottman said. “Our acronym is E.A.T. Effort, attitude and toughness. We can control those things. We need to control those and everything else follows.”
It remains to be seen how well the team will respond to adversity this time around, and it does help that the 2019 schedule isn’t quite as harsh as last year’s. But in 17 years leading the program, Gottman has pretty much seen it all and knows what the staff needs to do to keep the Cougars clawing.
“When the lights come on and you forget about half the stuff we work on out here, it’s difficult to get that consistency, that game-type consistency,” Gottman said. “We’ve got to continue to get better every practice, every game, and continue to grow as a team.”
Location: 4748 Cougar Path, Plant City
Head Coach: Mike Gottman (17th season with team)
2018 Record: 3-7 (3-3 district)
Note: All games scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. District games marked with *.
8/23: @ King
8/30: vs. Riverview
9/6: @ Blake
9/13: vs. Bloomingdale*
9/20: @ Newsome (Alafia River Rivalry)
9/27: @ Kathleen*
10/4: vs. Lennard
10/11: vs. Lakeland*
10/18: @ Strawberry Crest*
10/25: @ Plant City* (Battle for the Redman Cup)
THREE TO SEE
Sean Williams, QB
From last year to this year, how do you think you’ve gotten better?
I think, as a team, we’ve improved very much and we’re looking to get many more wins this year.
What do you bring to the table as a quarterback?
I bring a lot of leadership.
What’s something you’ve learned from last season that you’ve been really working hard at to improve?
I learned that there needs to be no negativity on the whole team, or else it’ll go downhill very fast.
Bradley Guasto, DE
When you’re working with these younger guys and getting everybody ready for the season, what’s the mindset you try to bring to the defense?
We’re just trying to do everything in a precise manner. We’re trying to make sure that everything we do is down to the T. We’re making plays. We’re getting around.
What’s something about this defense that might surprise a lot of people, in a good way?
Right now, we’re playing with a lot of younger guys. Definitely on the smaller side. But I think this season, we’re gonna be pretty good. We’ve been working hard. We’ve been making sure that we perform well this season.
What do you bring to this defense?
I would consider myself a playmaker and I definitely try to hold everyone to high standards on the field, to make sure that they’re doing their jobs properly.
Wyatt Lawson, OL
Tell me something about this team that people may not know, but need to know.
Well, we got rid of a lot of negativity last year. We have a lot of young guys in here that are willing to fight for a position and do work on and off the field.
What’s something you’ve learned at Durant that’s helped you become the best player you can be?
Just to fire up the ball, be fast, physical and don’t slack around. That helped a lot for the varsity level.
What’s something from last season you look at now and know you have to change for this year?
Like I said before, there was a lot of negativity. When something went wrong, everything went wrong. We’re keeping that in check this year. If something goes wrong, we keep the guy’s head up. Whoever made the mistake, or myself if I made a mistake, the team always has my back to keep me going.