The Tribune’s preseason rankings were voted on by staff writers Scott Purks and Nick Williams, high school sports editor Doug Jacobs and correspondents Mike Camunas and Jarrett Guthrie. 1. Plant Plant looks like it is not only good enough to win its fifth state title in eight years, but if the stars align and everything across the country falls into place, it also could win a national title. “It’s not something we’re thinking about every moment, but it is out there,” Plant coach Bob Weiner said. “Right now, we’re focusing on the tasks at hand.”
The first priority is winning in the regular-season opener in Tyrone, Ga., against Sandy Creek, the nation’s fifth-ranked team, according to MaxPreps. A great deal of Plant’s optimism begins with its offensive line, which has the potential for greatness. Leading the way is senior tackle Ray Raulerson (committed to Tennessee), senior center Richard Bush and junior tackle Jake Fruhmorgen (recruited by several major colleges). Defensively, the Panthers are anchored by linebacker Andrew Beck, who has committed to Texas, and cornerback Mazzi Wilkins, who this week announced his commitment to South Florida. 2. Armwood Darryl Richardson is at San Diego State. Leon McQuay III is at Southern California, and Alvin Bailey is at the University of Florida. Armwood’s top three weapons from the 2012 season, which ended in the region finals, have graduated. Yet, as they always do, the Hawks will reload and are the favorites to win the county’s toughest district, which includes Hillsborough, Jefferson and Robinson. Defense, as in years past, will be Armwood’s calling card, led by four-star Vanderbilt commit Kyle Gibson at safety and junior defensive lineman Byron Cowart, one of the top junior prospects in the nation. Greg Newton, a senior, and Caylan Holloway, a junior, will share the load in the backfield, while junior Noah Johnson will take over at quarterback. 3. Hillsborough There are those who say No. 3 is too high a ranking for the Hillsborough High football team after it lost 29 players to graduation. The Terriers say, “Not so fast.” The main reason for hope begins with junior quarterback Dwayne Lawson, perhaps the most dynamic running/passing threat in Hillsborough County. In 2012, Lawson threw for 1,459 yards and rushed for another 426, numbers that could rise because Lawson is bigger, stronger and more experienced. The optimism continues with junior wide receivers/defensive backs Junaid James and Xavier Byrd and running back/defensive backs Anthony King, Rudy Dawson and Antonio Brown. 4. Jefferson The past two seasons, Jefferson went 1-4 in its first five games and ended with five straight victories. This year, third-year coach Jeremy Earle says that scenario is not acceptable. Expectations have been set way beyond a 6-4 record, all the way to a state championship, which the Dragons won in 2010 when Earle was a Jefferson assistant. But, Earle says, first things first, which translates to “one game at a time” in brutally tough Class 6A-District 8 that includes Armwood, Hillsborough and Robinson. Leading the way is senior quarterback Deiondre Porter, who last year completed 157 of 256 passes for 2,276 yards and 27 touchdowns. 5. Tampa Bay Tech At first glance, Tampa Bay Tech’s football team resembles a mid-level college program. With so many college recruits on the roster, it’s easy to make that comparison. Highlighting the roster is senior Tajee Fullwood, a receiver/defensive back, who verbally committed to South Florida during the summer. Junior quarterback Deon Cain, who threw for 1,645 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, has drawn interest from programs such as USF and FSU, and linebacker Fred Russ verbally committed to Florida International. The Titans lost in the first round of the playoffs last season but return several key athletes on both sides of the ball that should give the program an opportunity to return to the postseason for a sixth consecutive season. 6. Wharton Saying goodbye to Vernon Hargreaves III, the top recruit in Florida last season, was certainly hard for the Wharton High faithful in the offseason, but there’s still reason to believe the Wildcats will reach the playoffs for a third consecutive season. For starters, Wharton features senior Chase Litton, who enters the season as the top-rated quarterback in the Tampa Bay area. Litton ended the 2012 season as the top passer in Hillsborough County and the state’s No. 3-ranked quarterback for passing yards after he completed 181 of 310 attempts for 2,732 yards and 23 touchdowns. Running back Jeff Keil, who ran for 701 yards and eight touchdowns last season, will complement Wharton’s passing attack, while 6-foot-3 defensive end Antonio Joseph will lead the defense. 7. Robinson Everybody thinks Robinson must be in big trouble after graduating 26 contributors and 16 starters and losing legendary coach Mike DePue to retirement. Everybody but Robinson. The Knights, who finished last season 12-2 after losing in the Class 5A state semifinals, say they not only had a solid team in 2012, but they also have developed a solid program overall. The strength starts with an intense weight and conditioning program, new head coach Shawn Taylor (a former Robinson assistant and alumnus) and middle linebacker Jordan Guyton, who led Robinson in 2012 with 99 tackles. Robinson will have its hands full in Class 6A-District 8 with Armwood, Hillsborough and Jefferson, but the Knights insist they are afraid of no one. 8. Sickles In most parts of the country, a 7-3 record would qualify any team for the playoffs. Last year, Sickles played in one of the toughest districts in Florida and was the odd team out. This season, the Gryphons return several key members in a newly formed, yet still competitive, district. Junior running back Ray Ray McCloud III rushed for 1,319 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, and paving the way will be Missouri-commit offensive lineman Zach Hudson. Senior tight end/receiver Chett Levay, who is committed to Florida International, will add to the offensive attack. Linebacker Josh Black, one of the most recruited prospects in Florida, will lead the defense. 9. Plant CIty Over the past few years, Plant City High has had its share of star talent: Jordan Prestwood, Bennie Coney, Dazmond Patterson, Keith Dawson, all of whom signed with Division I programs. This year, the Raiders field a trio of stars at key positions that should help turn around last year’s 4-6 finish. Senior quarterback London Galloway, a Central Florida commit, is not a traditional signal caller and will likely play receiver in college, but head coach Wayne Ward wants the ball in the hands of his best athlete. Protecting Galloway will be a strong offensive line, led by 6-foot-4, 330-pound lineman Montel McBride, who is verbally committed to two-time defending national champion Alabama. On defense, 6-3, 220-pound lineman Sedrick King, also committed to UCF, will pester quarterbacks with his length and speed. 10. Gaither If this summer was any indication of what Gaither is capable of this season, the Cowboys are poised for another district title run and trip to the playoffs. The Cowboys won the 30-team 2013 Bright House Sports Network 9 Route 7-on-7 tournament with an 8-1-1 record, led by returning starting quarterback and tournament MVP, senior Alex McGough. A 6-foot-3 signal caller who earlier this summer committed to Florida International University, McGough threw for 1,727 yards and 22 touchdowns last season while leading the Cowboys to an 8-3 record and the Class 7A region quarterfinals. Gaither graduated defensive lineman Ernest Suttles, who after signing with Nebraska has since transferred to the University of Miami, but returns a solid group of linebackers in Matt Williams and Jimmy Golden, in addition to two standout defensive backs in Javon Hammond and Amani Oruwariye.