Like overcoming injuries or a lack of depth, losing players to other schools has become another one of the problems facing high school football coaches across the country these days.
Wiregrass Ranch High (WRH) coach Mark Kantor knows that more than most others. When the Bulls, 7-4 last season, open their season tonight at 7:30 p.m. at home against Zephyrhills, they will do so without two of their spring standouts — quarterback Hunter Helton and receiver Noah Biglow — both of whom have transferred to Armwood.
That will change some things for the Bulls, but it won’t change everything. Kantor says his team is rallying around new QB starter Rocco Becht, and still plans to make it to the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
Can the Bulls do it again? Let’s take a look:
QUARTERBACK: The plan was to prepare Becht for the starting role next season. But, the son of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Anthony Becht and last year’s junior varsity starter, where he did well, has now been thrown into the varsity fire.
RUNNING BACK: Seniors Nate Miller and Keith Walker will be the starters in the backfield. Miller led the team in rushing last year with 468 yards and was tied with Walker with seven touchdowns.
WIDE RECEIVER: Walker (pictured, right) is a playmaker in the backfield and in the slot, where three of his five touchdowns in the spring game came on receptions. He will be a valuable weapon on offense. Juniors Tyler Brueckner and Broden Guirl, who is a big target at 6-foot-3, spent last year catching Becht’s passes on JV and will both be varsity starters in 2019. Senior Julian Gonzalez, who tied for the varsity team-high in 2018 with 16 catches, is back as well.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The Bulls have a wealth of experience up front. Connor Lenczden (the biggest lineman at 6-7, 275) and Robert Gibb will start at tackle, Daniel Thompson and Josh Hood will start at guard and Barit Dhugana handles the duties at center. All are seniors.
“When they get after it, they can be as good as any offensive line I have ever coached,” Kantor says.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Seniors Tyler Hayes and Dylan Ridolph are linebackers who come up and play on the ends for the Bulls — they had 33 and 21 tackles for losses, respectively, in 2018 — and both are excellent pass rushers. Senior Gabe Thompson also will see time at defensive end, while Isaiah Miller, Andres Jimenez and Ian Alford all play inside. Like the offensive line, the Bulls starters are all seniors.
LINEBACKERS: Kantor has a solid crew, consisting of seniors Nick Graziano, Tyler Mesnekoff and Mark Kieper, as well as junior Craig Kailimai, but the best of the bunch and the squad’s leader is Ridolph, who had 82 tackles and 22 sacks in 2018.
DEFENSIVE BACK: Senior Jonavon Tillis is a big corner at 6-3, and he will start alongside junior Larry Gibbs. Junior Grady Clower is the strong safety, and senior Julian Gonzalez is the free safety.
KICKER: Adam Mihalek takes over as both placekicker and punter for two-year starter Hayden Wills.
THE FINAL WORD: Losing your quarterback less than a month before opening night can be a devastating loss, but the Bulls’ schedule may be an even bigger obstacle to overcome. WRH has six teams on its schedule that made the playoffs last year, and three of those teams won 11 or more games. Not a single 2019 opponent had a losing 2018 record, and the combined winning percentage of all 10 teams was a whopping .710. Yikes.