It may have lacked the sizzle of a regular season match-up, but the two New Tampa rivals squared off for two quarters of football looking to answer some questions and end the spring on a high note. In the end, it was the Wildcats pulling out a 10-0 victory at Hillsborough High School.
The Wildcats had to answer the typical questions surrounding any team’s spring, but chances are, there were more of them to answer than in years past, following an abysmal 2018 season in which Wharton went 1-9, the program’s worst record since the school’s first two years of existence (1997 and 1998). The ‘Cats will have someone new under center, someone new in the backfield and some new pieces on defense, all questions head coach David Mitchell hoped to settle, or at least get closer to settling.
Well, there weren’t really many answers at the spring jamboree against Freedom, as the Wildcats outscored the Patriots 10-0 in two quarters of football.
At quarterback, 6-foot, 2-inch rising junior Emery Floyd got the reps but only attempted one pass and it was out of bounds. However, the Wildcats have yet to test out Tampa Bay Tech transfer Pete Stuart, who saw limited action in three games as a junior. Because he transferred in January, he was ineligible to play in the spring game. Mitchell hopes to settle the quarterback position over the summer during 7-on-7 work. In the backfield, the coach has already committed to rising sophomore Johnnie Cason and rising senior Benyon Williams. Cason picked up 19 yards on four carries, including a three-yard touchdown, while Williams ran five times for 31 yards, against Freedom.
On defense, linebacker Michael Zellem seemed to have a strong command of the play calls and a nose for the football, and made a big stop on fourth down to force a Freedom turnover on downs.
Defensive end Cole Essek, a rising junior, had a very strong game, creating quarterback pressure and making solo tackles, even ending the jamboree with a sack-forced fumble. Mitchell would like to see the 6-7, 170-pound Essek put on some weight this summer but feels confident both Essek and Zellem will be major factors this season.
Stars of the Game
Essek was a force to be reckoned with on defense. He even flips around and plays offensive tackle next to a couple of behemoths in Xavian Bivens (6-2, 350) and Dorian Lewis (6-1, 325)….Kicker Zach Godbold nailed a 29-yard field goal with ease. Also a soccer player (and state javelin champion), Godbold should be a reliable point-maker when Wharton’s drives stall….Receiver/defensive back Daveon Crouch had a big punt return and an interception….Edwouens Marcelin blocked a Freedom punt and had a sack on the night.
The Patriots had a slightly better season than the Wildcats a year ago, and a 10-6 victory over Wharton in September 2018 during the regular season was part of their 4-6 record. But, with the loss of 25 seniors, Freedom hoped that a number of their new players would be able to step up into roles vacated by graduation.
“We wanted to see how some of the younger kids handle adversity,” said Freedom head coach Henry Scurry, who is heading into his second season. “We wanted to see who responded in various situations. All jobs are available at this point; we’re trying to see who can do the jobs consistently.”
“The jury is still out,” Scurry said. “There’s a lot of room for improvement. There’s a lot of things we have to clear up, like the quarterback-center exchange, and we weren’t able to establish a rhythm.”
The Patriots looked a little lost in the 10-0 loss to Wharton, unable to control any aspect of the game. They established a school record last year for fewest points scored with 83, and don’t have anyone returning who scored a touchdown last year.
Scurry did say that his defense, however, which allowed only 143 points (third-lowest in school history) is pretty much where he’d like it to be, although he is looking for someone to step up at linebacker. The coach says he felt good about his defensive line play, but linebacker remains one of the Patriots’ biggest question marks.
Stars of the Game
One of the team’s few returners, rising senior Dontae Johnson, got some looks at quarterback in the spring game, as well as some reps at defensive back. Rising sophomore lineman Tawfia Thomas is another returner. Scurry also mentioned rising senior Edwin Greene as having a fairly good spring. Rising junior Joel Pierrelus ran for 19 yards on two carries as the “wildcat” quarterback in the spring game, and Scurry said that Pierrelus could end up playing a number of different positions.