A look at the top teams in Tampa Bay from week to week.
1. Armwood (13-2 in 2018, Class 7A state finalists)
Up next: vs. Plant, 7:30 Friday
The skinny: This is by far the most loaded team in Tampa Bay. Seventeen players hold college offers, including 13 who with at least one from a Division I-A school. On offense, the Hawks return their leading passer (Cam’Ron Ransom), leading rusher (Eric Wilson) and leading receiver (Agiye Hall), as well as the bulk of their offensive line. There is plenty of depth, too, with the addition of running backs Charles Montgomery (Bloomingdale) and James Smiley (Superior Collegiate) and athlete Hunter Helton (Wiregrass Ranch). The defense is just as talented. Defensive tackles Clyde Pinder Jr., a North Carolina commit, and Desmond Watson, a top college prospect, anchor the line. The strength is in the secondary. Every starter in that unit has an offer from a Power Five program and at least eight players will be in the rotation. Last week, Armwood got off to a solid start with a 28-0 preseason win over defending 7A region finalist Jacksonville Lee. The Hawks forced five turnovers. Pinder returned a fumble for a touchdown and Tavaris Thomas picked off two passes. Ransom threw for a pair of touchdowns, including a 51-yarder to Hall. To reach the state title game for a third straight season, Armwood, ranked fifth overall in the state regardless of classification by MaxPreps, will likely have to get by defending 7A champion Lakeland in the playoffs. To prepare for that inevitable matchup, the Hawks put together a solid schedule that starts with their annual clash against another area powerhouse, Plant. Watch Friday’s game live at www.theidentitytb.com or download The Identity Tampa Bay’s app.
2. Jesuit (12-2 in 2018, Class 5A state semifinalists)
Up next: vs. Plant City, 7:30 Friday
The skinny: This is the most talented team coach Matt Thompson has had in his seven seasons at the school. And that’s saying something for a program that has made the state semifinals three of the past four seasons. It could even be enough for the Tigers to take the next step and reach the title game for the first time since 1992. Tight end Jonathan Odom, a Florida commit, and offensive lineman Connor McLaughlin, a Stanford recruit, headline an offense that includes plenty of other stars. Quarterback Kiael Kelly returns, as does running back Ricky Parks. On defense, there are three players who already have or will be committing to Army — defensive lineman Raleigh Oxendine, linebacker Brett Gerena and defensive back Spencer Williams. The secondary includes Jordan Young and Junior Vandeross, both of whom are major college prospects. Jesuit was unable to play last week’s preseason game against Gaither because of poor field conditions. But that also allowed the Tigers to get healthy. Odom (knee tendinitis) and McLaughlin (broken wrist bone) will be both be back for the regular-season opener against Plant City.
3. Plant (11-2 in 2018, Class 7A region semifinalist)
Up next: at Armwood, 7:30 p.m. Friday
The skinny: The Panthers had to replace some key components on offense with lineman Will Putnam (Clemson) and Everett Smalley (Air Force), running back Walter Wilbon III (Ohio) and receiver Leonard Parker (USF) all now in college. But Plant still has Tucker Gleason, a dynamic dual-threat quarterback who has already committed to Georgia Tech. Last year, Gleason threw for more than 2,000 yards and ran for more than 1,000. In last week’s preseason loss to Venice, Gleason accounted for 185 total yards and threw for one touchdown and ran for another score. The big target in the passing game will be Frank Murphy, the son of the former Buccaneers receiver (same name) who is returning from a torn ACL. Defensively, Plant is led by a trio of linebackers — Christian Carvajal, Jackson Hacker and Ben Hestorff — as well as defensive back Zaequan Gilliespy. The schedule is front-loaded with tough games, starting with Friday’s matchup at Armwood.
4. Clearwater Central Catholic (12-1 in 2018, Class 3A state semifinalist)
Up next: at Berkeley Prep, 7 p.m. Friday
The skinny: The Marauders have won 23 straight regular-season games, a streak that dates to 2016 and is currently the longest of any area team. That mark will be put to the test with a schedule that includes eight games against teams that made the state playoffs a year ago. And that does not include a Week 2 matchup against Brentwood, the top-ranked team in Tennessee in all classifications by MaxPreps. Clearwater Central Catholic wanted a schedule that yielded few easy nights because it has the pieces in place to make the state semifinals for the seventh time in the past eight seasons. Jordan Niles, a transfer from Calvary Christian, should put up big numbers running behind a veteran line. Quarterback Zach Burrill, who came over from Indian Rocks Christian, takes over for graduated two-year starter Rory Hicks. The defense is loaded with playmakers such as lineman Jerzhan Newton, linebackers Harrison Thomas and Jack del Rio and defensive backs Kevary Jenkins and Giancarlo Margarejo.
5. Chamberlain (8-2 in 2018)
Up next: at Tampa Bay Tech, 7:30 p.m. Friday
The skinny: Since taking over the Chiefs in 2015, Jason Lane has made steady progress. In fact, Chamberlain has won 21 of its past 25 regular-season games. Last year, the Chiefs went 8-2 but missed the playoffs because they did not accumulate enough points in the Florida High School Athletic Association’s revamped postseason format. Part of the issue was the lack of wins against quality programs. That should not be a problem now that Chamberlain was placed in a higher tier in Hillsborough County’s scheduling system. But it’s not just about playing great games. The Chiefs should make the playoffs because they have great players, too. Lineman James Ash, a Wake Forest commit, and linebacker Johnny Walker, a major Division I-A prospect, are the leaders on defense. Antony Guzman, who already has an offer from USF, will get the bulk of the work in the ground game. He will run through holes created by heralded lineman Cesar Reyes. Kaleb Long and Jefferson transfer Joe Hodge give new quarterback Bruce Jackson a pair of dynamic targets in the passing game.
6. Plant City (9-2 in 2018, Class 7A region quarterfinalist)
Up next: at Jesuit, 7:30 p.m. Friday
The skinny: After winning their first district title since 2015, the Raiders spent the offseason filling holes in the lineup. The biggest task was finding a replacement for Braxton Plunk, the Tampa Bay Times’ Hillsborough County offensive player of the year last season. Makenzie Kennedy, a transfer from Strawberry Crest, takes over under center. Kennedy played well in the spring jamboree against Armwood and in last week’s preseason rout over Spoto. There are plenty of other pieces in place for the offense to put up big numbers. Mario Williams is an electrifying receiver who has offers from just about every major college program in the country. And Zamir’ Knighten should continue to build off his impressive junior season. On defense, Plant City had to replace its top two tacklers, linebacker James Gordon and defensive back Tyreke Harrison. The Raiders will look to leadership from inside linebacker/defensive lineman Keyshawn Green and defensive back Antron Robinson.
7. Lakewood (6-6 in 2018, Class 5A region semifinalist)
Up next: vs. St. Petersburg, 7:30 p.m. Friday
The skinny: Spartans coach Cory Moore said this team could make a run at a state title in Class 4A. Lakewood certainly has the talent. Quarterback Greg Spann, a dual threat who has plenty of Division I-A offers, returns, as does receiver TJ Tampa, who recently committed to Iowa State, and tight end Marques Alexander, a UConn commit. The backfield has plenty of reinforcements with the addition of several St. Petersburg transfers, the biggest being Aumhryaun Brown. There are lots of playmakers on defense, too, led a pair of Miami commits, lineman Tre’von Riggins and linebacker Cortez McKenzie. Riggins returned to Lakewood after spending the past two seasons at Bradenton’s IMG Academy. McKenzie came back after transferring to Superior Collegiate midway through last season. The key will be whether the Spartans can avoid another slow start. Lakewood started last season 2-4 on the field (the Spartans eventually picked up a forfeit win against Gibbs) before getting hot down the stretch.
8. Nature Coast (11-2 in 2018, Class 5A region finalist)
Up next: vs. East Lake, 7:30 p.m. Friday
The skinny: There was nothing that could make the Sharks feel better about the way last season ended. Nature Coast attempted a winning field goal against North Marion in the final seconds, only to have it blocked and returned for a touchdown. North Marion went on to advance to the Class 5A title game. The painful memories of that loss will serve as a powerful motivator this season. The biggest need on offense was finding a replacement for 2,000-yard rusher Michael Weston. The Sharks will do it by committee. Fabian Burnett, who did not turn the ball over once last season, returns at quarterback. He will also help in the run game with his scrambling ability. The defense returns three of their top four leading tacklers — linebackers Anthony Houston and Michyl Shaw and defensive back Kinyatah Morgan.
9. Largo (7-4 in 2018, Class 6A region semifinalist)
Up next: at Braden River, 7:30 p.m. Friday
The skinny: On paper, this team rivals some of the great ones from the school in terms of talent. There were a ton of transfers in the offseason. Linebacker AJ Mathis, a Miami commit, and quarterback Brandon Coppola both came over from Pinellas Park. Two other linebackers, twins Connor and Garrett Gurney, arrived from Seminole. They will join linebacker Jayion McCluster (FSU commit) and defensive back Keylen Gulley (Iowa commit) on a strong defensive unit. The offense has playmakers, too, led by receivers Khaishef Edwards and Quavon Matthews (Iowa commit). The key will be how the Packers fare during a brutal early-season schedule. Their first five games are against teams that either had a winning record or made the playoffs last year.
10. Gaither (7-4 in 2018, Class 7A region quarterfinalist)
Up next: at Jefferson, 7:30 p.m. Friday
The skinny: The Cowboys have made the playoffs each of the past two years as a wildcard in the same district as Plant. Now, in a more favorable district, Gaither could win its first title since 2007. Despite losing leading tackler Brysen Roth, who graduated, the defense is a veteran unit with nearly everyone else returning. Linebacker Chance Coleman, a USF commit, and ball-hawking defensive back Jordan Oladokun, another coveted prospect, lead the way. Quarterback Tony Bartalo, who threw for more than 1,600 yards last season, is back. He will be throwing to a lot of new targets with the top three leading receivers from last year all graduating. The Cowboys also have to find a replacement for running back Jeromy Reid, now at USF.
11. Clearwater (6-5 in 2018, Class 6A region quarterfinalist)
Up next: vs. Plantation American Heritage, 7:30 p.m. Friday
The skinny: Tornadoes coach Don Mesick expects dramatic improvement from last year. Part of that optimism stems from a potentially prolific offense that returns quarterback Rent Montie, a Lafayette commit who threw for 2,485 yards and 24 touchdowns. Keedrik Murray, a dynamic deep threat who had 1,066 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns, also is back. The sleeper in the passing game could be receiver Marquvion Jeter, one of the best athletes on the team, according to Mesick. Former Palm Harbor University coach John Scargle was hired as defensive coordinator. He has some quality starters, led by lineman Tim Williams, lineman/linebacker Matthew Nieves and defensive back Kaiden Padgett.
12. Tampa Bay Tech (7-4 in 2018, Class 7A region quarterfinalist)
Up next: vs. Chamberlain, 7:30 p.m. Friday
The skinny: The Titans have made the playoffs seven of the past eight seasons. They lost a lot in the offseason, including running back Treshaun Ward, now at FSU. Though Tampa Bay Tech is young, coach Jayson Roberts is confident his team can contend for another playoff appearance. Roberts heaps most of his praise on quarterback David Wright, whom he said is poised for a breakout season. In last week’s 39-6 preseason win over Sickles, Wright threw for 185 yards and four touchdowns. Greg Gaines should emerge as the go-to target in the passing game. Defensively, the Titans return linebacker Quincy Hipps and defensive back Bobby Moore, among others.
13. Pinellas Park (10-1 in 2018, Class 7A region quarterfinalist)
Up next: at Palmetto, 7:30 p.m. Friday
The skinny: After going undefeated in the regular season for the first time in school history, the Patriots were expected to be even better this year, especially with the bulk of their starters returning. But there was a mass exodus of players in the offseason. Quarterback Brandon Coppola and linebacker AJ Mathis both transferred to Largo, and receiver One Williams transferred to Clearwater Academy. The latest blow came this week with 1,000-yard rusher Derek Bryant leaving to go to American Collegiate (formerly Superior Collegiate). Pinellas Park coach Kenny Crawford could not elaborate on why he left. “I have to respect our students’ privacy in dealing with disciplinary situations,” he said. “I have no comment on this situation.” Brandon Brearley will take over at quarterback. The offense still has its biggest playmaker, running back Lawrance Toafili, an FSU commit who is the Tampa Bay Times’ top player in the HomeTeam 100. He will run behind a beefy and experienced offensive line. Lineman Nicholas Syms and defensive backs Brenyen Scott and Cody Willoughby all return on defense.
14. Boca Ciega (7-3 in 2018)
Up next: at Gibbs, 7 p.m. Friday
The skinny: Despite a solid record last season, the Pirates did not make the playoffs because they were unable to get enough points to qualify for a wildcard spot. Boca Ciega is the clear favorite to win its new district (Class 6A-8), which includes Dixie Hollins, Northeast and St. Petersburg. The offense should be balanced with quarterback Taffrey Peterman (2,264 yards, 19 touchdowns last season) and running back Chris Phillips (946 yards, 13 touchdowns) both returning. The defense is led by lineman Julius Hawkins (73 tackles, three sacks), linebacker Savion Hawkins (72 tackles) and linebacker Evan Graham (54 tackles).
15. Jefferson (7-6 in 2018, Class 5A region finalist)
Up next: vs. Gaither, 7:30 p.m. Friday
The skinny: At first glance, it appeared the Dragons would be in rebuilding mode after their leading passer (Tyler Thomas), rusher (Niko Duffey) and receiver (Ahmarean Brown) all graduated. That’s not all. The top four leading tacklers on defense graduated, too. But Jefferson doesn’t seem to have fallen too far off. Last week, the Dragons beat Pahokee 30-17 in their preseason game. Tre Simmons, a transfer from Armwood, ran for a score, and Charles Williams returned a kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown. The defense also delivered with cornerback Eric Felder picking off two passes and linebacker Jonathan Dixon recovering two fumbles.
On the bubble: Bloomingdale, Zephyrhills, Steinbrenner, Berkeley Prep, Tampa Catholic, Wiregrass Ranch, Admiral Farragut, Zephyrhills Christian.