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August 17, 2014

Central Florida preview

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The Central Florida region is stacked with talented teams in 2014, with national and statewide pundits considering this perhaps the best collective class of individual and collective team-talent in area history. While preseason national rankings are only that - preseason national rankings - Central Florida has four teams ranked within the top 60 of the major high school football polls followed nation-wide.

Those teams - Apopka (#20 in USA Today Super 25), Daytona Beach Mainland (#27 in HSFB100), Cocoa (#35 in HSFB100) and Dr. Phillips (#58 in HSFB100) - boast considerable talent and could wreak havoc on three of Florida's most competitive classifications, 8A, 6A and 4A, in 2014.

This year's Central Florida Football Preview will highlight some of the area's most competitive football programs, and will also highlight teams that are knocking at the door and could make a statement in the great state of Florida in 2014.

This season, weekly updates will be made available for action in Orange, Seminole, Osceola, Brevard, Volusia, Sumter, Flagler and Lake County right here on FlaVarsity!

HIGHLY TOUTED

Apopka (8A, Region 1), fresh off of two consecutive 8A state title appearances, will be led by highly-sought after offensive utility man Chandler Cox, and all signs point to this explosive offense putting up video game numbers once again in 2014. After the Blue Darters averaged 52.4 points per game last season, this type of production has become expected in northwest Orange County.

The offensive line has fresh faces but is anchored by one of the best in the nation; 6'6, 270-pound tackle Martez Ivey, which should make room for shifty senior running backs JJ Simmons and Ray Ray Smith as well as up-and-coming junior running back David Douglas. Wide receiver-tight end hybrid James Crider could provide a spark through the air that allows this multi-faceted attack to cruise once again in 2014, as the senior is among the more physically-gifted receiver prospects in the Central Florida area. He has been listed as injured, but he will be needed during the post-season in a loaded 8A classification.

Defense has been a point of emphasis over the summer and through fall camp for the Blue Darters, and senior linebackers Billy Caughell and Johnny Robinson lead a deep and experienced interior group that also includes 2016 prospect Roddre Hardwick. Ben Bascom is the most experienced defensive back returning, but the Blue Darters gave up big yardage through the air in a spring game versus Winter Haven and finding depth at the position will be crucial in fall camp. One thing is for sure, if this Blue Darter defense is able to hold opponents to short drives, the Darters will win most of their games by halftime once again, as the offense has the potential to be spectacular.

Apopka was not shy when filling the hole left by Byrnes, South Carolina after their one year deal with the Rebels, as the Blue Darters will play national juggernaut American Heritage Plantation on October 17th. Count this game (as well as the Mainland-American Heritage game) among the best in the 2014 Central Florida football season.

Mainland (6A, Region 3) is the highest-rated Central Florida team in the HSFB100, coming in at #27, and all of the talk surrounds a defense that punished national caliber offenses in 2013. Mainland allowed just 17.0 points per game against south Florida powers Miami Central and American Heritage Plantation last year - two teams the Bucs will likely see again in 2014 - and absolutely decimated Central Florida competition a year ago. The Bucs are led by playmakers across the board on defense, and it's tough to determine where to start. Senior linebacker Marcus Brunson is debatably Central Florida's best linebacker, and he is teamed with senior standouts A.J. Westbrook and Meiko Dotson, both of whom are shut down defensive backs. Mainland smothered teams last season, and junior defensive lineman Jachai Polite and Kevin McCrary should continue that trend in providing sideline-to-sideline stopping power.

Mainland's defense should provide plenty of opportunity for its offense, which hopes to play up-tempo and is anchored by junior lineman Marcus Tatum and Nick Ross. Wilfred Taylor returns at wide receiver, and joining him in the offensive backfield will be shifty junior running back Adrian Killins and highly-touted wide receiver Jaylo Hannah. Sophomore quarterback Denzel Houston could surprise many in the Central Florida area this season, as the athletic youngster has good talent around him and big-play ability himself. Houston gained considerable recognition over the offseason and could push this offense to new heights in 2014. Overall, this Mainland team has the talent to compete for a 6A state title in 2014, as there is enough talent on both sides of the ball to compete among the best in the nation.

Dr. Phillips (8A, Region 2) may be the most complete team in the Central Florida region, as the Panthers have 10 players with Division 1 College offers, with many expected to follow. Quarterback Rudy Norwood, an efficient game manager with playmaking abilities, will return to complement an extremely deep offensive backfield that includes playmakers Mike Macon (Sr, WR), Daquan Isom (Sr, ATH), Alvin Bryant (Jr, ATH), Emare Hogan (So, ATH), Jaquarius Bargnare (Jr, ATH), Jeremiah Harris (Sr, ATH) and Jaylon Hamer (Sr, RB). To complement depth at the offensive skill positions, the Panthers have three division one offensive lineman and two others who could develop into college-bound talent. Sophomore Calvin Ashley and seniors Colby Meeks and Bo Alexander provide for perhaps the best offensive line in Central Florida, which averages over 275 across the front. The Panthers have backup plans, too, as sophomore quarterback Marvin Washington is considered one of the top-rising class of 2017 quarterbacks in Florida and should see playing time this season.

This is Dr. Phillips, however, a team coached by former DP linebacker Rodney Wells, and as always the tone and intensity will be set on defense. Senior Vernon Walker will be field commander at free safety and leads an experienced defensive backfield unit that also includes Olympia transfer Jalean Perkins (Sr, CB), Jamari Smith (Sr, CB), D.J. Charles (So, CB) and James Green (So, SS). The linebacker and defensive line core is somewhat scrambled, but a group of players who can play multiple roles make this group dynamic and deep. Sophomore Dylan Meeks (DL/LB/TE) and junior Jonathan Pollock (LB) lead a stellar interior group that also includes 2017 prospects Nick Smith (LB/DE) and Robert Porcher IV (DE) alongside a plethora of players that netted considerable playing time in 2013. Nailing down the depth chart at the defensive line has been a point of emphasis during the offseason and will see an instant test during a week one matchup versus Jacques Patrick and Timber Creek.

Cocoa is a tradition-rich program with high expectations entering the 2014 season. After falling to eventual national champion Miami Booker T. Washington in the 4A Final Four a year ago, the Tigers believe they have the talent and experience to threaten the Tornadoes for the 4A crown this year. Among the top off-season news was the development of quarterback Bruce Judson, who has been touted as one of the top 2017 signal callers in the nation. His arrival. His arrival should complement up-and-coming sophomore wide receiver Juwan Armstrong, who is also highly touted, as well as physical junior tight end Zach Armour. The offensive line has a high-riser of its own in Jawaan Taylor and should give Bruce Judson some time for some highlight reel-material.

Also high among the recruiting ranks on this Cocoa team is four-star junior defensive back Chauncey Gardner, who leads an excellent secondary that also includes three-star 2015 prospect Jamel Dean. The Tigers should be strong in the middle as well, as veteran linebacker Marquise Lewis returns to call the shots.

Overall, this Cocoa team is in a very manageable region and a rematch with Booker T. Washington is among one of the more concrete possibilities to statewide pundits at this point. This is Florida, however, and the Tigers will have to earn it one game at a time. The Tigers schedule includes a September, 9th matchup with Louisville, Kentucky power Trinity, as well as a matchup against historic power Daytona Beach Seabreeze.

KNOCKING AT THE DOOR

Three other area programs are very close to competing and national level, which is candidly unusual for a region that typically produces four-to-six state-competitive teams. Those schools - Kissimmee Osceola (7A), West Orange (8A) and Lake Mary (8A) boast top-end division one talent and could threaten the teams mentioned above when playoff time comes around.

West Orange and Lake Mary both reside in 8A, Region 1 alongside Apopka and Jacksonville-area power First Coast, but these teams are a considerable threat to the historic power programs of 8A-north. Kissimmee Osceola, meanwhile, is rated highly in statewide polls and is looking for another shot in the 7A final four after falling there one year ago.

West Orange has lived in Apopka's district shadow for what seems like - or is, quite literally decades - but a slew of talent across the board has pundits in greater Orlando thinking this could be the year that the Warriors finally get past Apopka. It all starts with running backs Dexter Williams and Jalen Julius, rated four-stars and three-stars by rivals, respectively. Complementing them in the offensive backfield is junior wide receiver Eddie McDoom, who is among the top 2016 wide receiver prospects in Central Florida. Three-star quarterback Woody Barrett, only a junior, joins McDoom, Williams, Julius and a stout offensive line to make this perhaps the most top-heavy offense from a skill perspective in Central Florida. Make no mistake, the Warriors will score some points this year.

West Orange is also no stranger to defensive talent, and this year it could get the Warriors over the hump and turn close games into second-half barn burners. Senior defensive end Brandon Wilson is the stud of the group, and he is joined by linebacker Jeremy Samuels and defensive end-opposite Nolan DeFranco to create an equally impressive defense. Watch for linebacker Roman Kerr and cornerbacks Ramon Lyons and Bryceden Jones to develop into potential college-bound prospects for the Warriors.

Lake Mary is coming off of a program-record 11-1 season and has a diverse set of playmakers on offense that could allow the Rams to run the table once again. Sophomore running back Marquis Mickens is one of the few names in the 2017 recruiting cycle being thrown into the 'excellent' category, and Mickens is not alone as senior wide receiver Nick Westbrook and senior running back CJ Lamar round out yet another stellar Central Florida backfield. The Rams are well-off at quarterback, too, as well-respected field commander Cannon Thompson returns to lead the offense at quarterback. Horonadis Tillman may also see action on offense and can play multiple positions, including slot back and corner, and could add a different dimension to this offense outside of the blatantly-stacked running talent.

Lake Mary has always been known as a hard-nosed and discipline team out of the Seminole Athletic Conference, and good depth on defense has arisen. Star-power on the defensive side includes linebacker Jalen Burgess, defensive back Julius Washington and defensive tackle Eric Hale, all of whom are division one recruits. Overall, this Ram team has the makings to be among the best in program history. A manageable district that includes long-time rival Lake Brantley is there for the taking once again, but the Rams will have fierce competition in a loaded 8A-north. The Rams first three rounds of the playoffs could include teams to the likes of Jacksonville First Coast, Apopka, West Orange, Oviedo or Jacques Patrick-led Orlando Timber Creek.

Osceola is a team that should have been mentioned by now. I mean, really? Knocking at the door? The Kowboys have had their foot in the door for years now. Mark my words, the Kowboys will be solid in 2014, and it all starts with a loaded offensive backfield and a deep 2016 class. Junior running backs Laderrian Wilson and Nazayah Brown are experienced runners with big-play potential, and senior athlete Trey Simmons provides an element that could keep defenses from cheating to stop the Kowboys 1-2 punch. The offensive line, led by junior standout Parker Braun, will be needed if the Kowboys are going to grind it out as they have historically.

What could be the catalyst for a storybook year for the Kowboys is excellent skill on defense, primarily in the secondary. Senior defensive backs Dominic Lee and Stephon Brown are proven playmakers, and they will be joined by juniors Carlos Becker and Devon Clarke in what should be among the areas deepest and most skillful defensive secondaries. Linebacker Riley Nicholson, who is committed to North Carolina State, is a quick player with size who will lead this defense from the middle. Other players to keep an eye on are defensive lineman TJ Kelly and Shayvai Gordon.

DARKHORSE MATERIAL

Set your calendar to August, 29th. I've already circled this one in because area darkhorse Oak Ridge, stacked with talent, will be facing off against area power Apopka. The Pioneers are known as one of the more athletic, flashy and high-scoring Central Florida teams and it's hard not to be a fan. Oak Ridge is led by speedy three-star wide receiver Nyqwan Murray, who ran amuck Central Florida in 2014, and Deangelo Antoine, who can play multiple positions but could excel in the slot this year opposite Murray. The Pioneer defense recently got a boost with defensive back transfer D'Shawn Powers, who is among the top Central Florida recruits for the class of 2016, but the general is junior linebacker Jonathan Jones, who is being recruited by some major BCS programs. Joining Jonathan Jones in a top-heavy junior class is Tyrek Tisdale, who along with Powers should aid in air traffic control defensively. While depth may be an issue at certain positions, although certainly not in the defensive secondary, the Pioneers have the top-end talent necessary to possibly up the blood pressure of some of the more "comfortable" Central Florida high school football fans. That could start week one against Apopka.

STATEMENT TO BE MADE

The following teams are also capable of doing damage this season. Look for these programs to make a statement in 2014 and challenge the teams mentioned above:

Oviedo (8A, District 2): Oviedo is perhaps the most capable team that has not been mentioned thus far, and running back Jurell Green is the primary reason. The senior running back, who exploded onto the scene during Oviedo's final four run in 2012, is primed for a breakout year in 2014. The Lions have considerable talent and from a statewide perspective, could currently be seen as an overlooked team in a loaded 8A-north. Joining Green in the offensive backfield is talented receiver Malcolm Bryant, while tight end Connor Kowalczyk looks to make an impact in the air attack as well. The defense is led by standout defensive lineman Alec Shriner, as well as Brayce McKenzie (LB), Justin Spencer (CB) and Kyle Panagiotou (ATH).

Timber Creek (8A, District 3): Let me introduce the elephant in the room - the man, the myth, the legend, the machine running back known around the nation as Jacques Patrick, who has pounded his way yard for yard into the Central Florida record books heading into the 2014 season. There is no secret here, the success of Timber Creek lies heavily on Patrick's shoulders, but what really beat Timber Creek last season was a somewhat inconsistent defense. Those questions have yet to be answered, but a week one matchup versus area power Dr. Phillips will give statewide pundits a good idea of where this team is outside of Jacques Patrick. The development of upcoming junior Quarterback Preston Samoden could be key to Timber Creek's success in developing a fluent passing game.

Winter Park (8A, District 3): The Wildcats marquee win a season ago came during the first round of the playoffs in an upset over West Orange, but those emotions were quickly stifled by Apopka a week later. The elephant in the room for Oviedo is a deep district and an extremely deep two-district combo that will comprise the first two round of the playoffs (Apopka, West Orange, Oviedo, Timber Creek are all in play here). The offense will be led by baseball standout JP Colton, a veteran of the job, and the Wildcats two standout junior running backs, Tyshaun Ingram and Malik Foy. While depth may be an area of concern in some areas, the Wildcats have one of the top linebacker cores in Central Florida, which includes Tommy Whitted and Malik Chatman. Expect this team to compete for a playoff spot alongside Timber Creek and Orlando University.

Lake Nona (7A, District 6) - Talk about being top-heavy; that's exactly what Lake Nona is. Led by senior quarterback Tucker Israel, the Lions boast an excellent offensive backfield that includes top-rated wide receiver Deondre Farrier and wide receiver/safety Mehdi El Attrach. Together, these three players should combine for some incredible stats through the air in 2014. However, this is the ever-competitive state of Florida, and the Lions have some big-talent schools in their way of a deep playoff run. The Lions district includes previously highlighted Kissimmee Osceola, one of the state's most consistent programs, and a round one matchup against a Lakeland-area school would seem inevitable for Lake Nona. That said, it should make for an exciting 2014 season for the pass-heavy Lions.

OTHER TEAMS TO WATCH

Palm Bay Heritage (6A, District 14): After recent success, is this the year for Heritage?

Palm Bay (5A, District 12): Strong Brevard County power is among the top 40 teams in the state.

Orlando University (8A, District 3): Playmakers on offense make this team a wildcard in 8A-3.

South Sumter (5A, District 6): Historically-talented Raiders should make deep playoff run once again.

Lake Brantley (8A, District 2): Rivalry with Lake Mary will be in full effect in 2014; plus, coach returns.

TOP WEEK ONE GAMES (AUGUST, 29)

Orlando Oak Ridge @ Apopka
Orlando Timber Creek @ Orlando Dr. Phillips
Winter Park @ Orlando Lake Nona
Lake Brantley @ Oviedo
Cocoa @ Champagnat Catholic (Hialeah)

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