The last time Wharton was led by a football coach that was a former All-American at the University of Southern California, won a Rose Bowl and went on to play in the NFL, the Wildcats made it all the way to the Class 5A State Championship game way back in 2002.
Those who remember that guy, Richard “Batman” Wood, might be getting a case of déjà vu this year.
Mike Williams, a former All-American at the University of Southern California who won a Rose Bowl and went on to play in the NFL, is entering his third season as the Wildcats head coach, and he might have the best team in the school’s history.
On paper, Wharton is loaded heading into the 2022 season, which kicks off Friday when it hosts Jesuit.
Williams is quick to temper his team’s expectations. Wharton return stars like leading rusher Arkese Parks; linebacker and tackle machine Cam Campbell; junior linebacker Booker Pickett, Jr., and senior defensive back Dijon Johnson, who have 70 college offers between them; as well as the entire offensive line.
What positions they don’t have returning due to graduation they have filled with enough transfers to make the NCAA transfer portal look tame, with 4-star running back Stacy Gage, rated the No. 2 back in the country for 2024, heading up a group of more than a dozen new players from at least 10 different high schools.
“That doesn’t mean (anything),” Williams says. “I firmly believe just because you get talented kids, it doesn’t equal winning. You must have the right kind of kids, that will be good teammates and work for the success of others. You get some ‘me’ kids, who want to know what’s in it for them, so it’s a fine juggling act.”
The prep pundits may not agree — they see a team that is one of the championship favorites in the Metro Division of State Class 3A.
It won’t take long to get an idea of how good this Wharton team can be. Jesuit went 15-0 last season, won the Class 6A State Championship, finished ranked No. 5 in the country (according to HighSchoolFootballAmerica.com), and returns RB Joquez Smith, who had 1,976 yards rushing and 29 touchdowns last year.
They start this year ranked No. 32 in the U.S., and MaxPreps.com ranks them No. 6 in Florida and No. 2 in Class 3A.
Wharton is No. 9 in the State.
“We are in wait-and-see mode, and the best part is we don’t have to wait long,” Williams says. “That’s a gravy train on biscuit wheels. It’s a great opportunity for our program.”
Williams doesn’t want to put too much emphasis on one game, especially the first one. “We’re going to be better moving forward no matter what happens,” he says.
The Wildcats still have to get out of Class 3M, District 4, which includes State No. 3-ranked Tampa Bay Tech (October 14 on the road) and No. 8 Armwood (September 30 at home).
Those two teams were 3-0 against Wharton last year — handing the Wildcats their only blemishes in a 9-3 season — with TBT ending the Wildcats’ season in the third round of the playoffs 42-6.
No matter how closely you look, it’s hard to see many holes on the Wharton roster this season.
Three quarterbacks transferred in, with Jackson Jensen, who threw for 1,450 yards and 11 touchdowns for Carrollwood Day School last year, earning the starting spot over Noah Bryant (Chamberlain) and Luke Sather (Tampa Catholic).
Gage, a youth football legend in Tampa in his younger days, transferred in from IMG Academy, and has 42 college offers. He will start in the backfield alongside promising Nahiem Doctor, who ran for 400 yards at Tampa Catholic last year.
“They are built the same way,” Williams says. “Some guys say they have thunder and lightning. At Wharton, we have thunder and thunder.”
Parks — who ran for 570 yards and seven touchdowns last year, is a smaller, shiftier back who can go the distance every time he touches the ball — will get some carries but also play a bigger role in the receiving game, teaming up with Deandre Newton, Tyrese Smith and Javaughn Singleton, all juniors.
Everyone is back on the offensive line, including center Eddy Dominguez and twins Tolu Onikeku (a guard) and Lolu Onikeku (tackle). Pickett’s younger brother Kenyon, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound freshman, and Chamberlain transfer Stone Ferguson also are in the mix for starting jobs.
On the defensive line, two notable newcomers at defensive tackle will start — junior R.J. McCollough, who played for Jesuit last year, and senior Zyon Nobles, a Zephyrhills Christian transfer who recorded 24 sacks in 2021.
The duo will be a handful for opposing offensive lines, and free ends C.J. Green and Jeremiah Jacobs for additional sacks. Jacobs had nine sacks as a freshman but missed almost all of last season with a knee injury. Williams is excited about his return, and Green started on the offensive line in 2021.
“He told us he was tired of blocking people, that he wanted to hit some people,” Williams says. “He’s been one of our biggest surprises of the offseason.”
Booker Pickett, Jr., and Campbell head up a strong linebacking group. Pickett had 22 sacks last year, while Campbell added four to go with a team-high 105 tackles.
“If you’ve got 4 or 5 of him on your team, you’re hard to beat,” Williams says. “He’s everything you want in a football player.”
Tyler Green and Andre Ellis, two juniors, also will see time at linebacker.
Dijon Johnson, who re-opened his recruiting after initially committing to Ohio State, is ranked as the 10th-best cornerback prospect in the country, and leads a very strong cover group. Jamari Thomas, from Sumner High, is a rising star and John Doan was an All-Conference player for Steinbrenner last year.
Wharton has such a glut of riches that Williams can claim to have the county’s fastest…punter. William Hineline, the Hillsborough County champion and State qualifier in the 200 meters last spring, has decided to move over from wide receiver and handle kicking duties for the Wildcats.
“It’s an exciting time,” Williams says. “You want kids to set high goals and winning State is the highest goal. There’s a feeling here that we are on our way, but you try to fight the feeling of thinking that you’ve already arrived. There’s still a lot of work to do between now and December.”