TAMPA — Gaither running back Curtis Wilder is ready to be tested. He’ll get his shot in an offense that is looking to make the change from pass-happy to run-oriented as Cowboys coach Jason Stokes said he is expecting his backs to provide 2,500-3,000 rushing yards this season.
“We are definitely going to feed our (backs) this year,” Stokes said.
For Wilder, the leading candidate to spearhead the running game, it means a significant increase in carries from last season, when the then-junior had 278 rushing yards on 44 carries.
“All the expectations for us every time out is to go 110 percent, so whatever the play call is, that’s what we plan to do,” Wilder said. “Obviously, I’m excited to have a bigger role this season. Every running back should strive for 1,000 yards, and I know that’s what we all are expecting of ourselves this season.”
Wilder said he is excited for his opportunity to show his own skills but said he also wants to be a vocal leader his teammates can count on.
Stokes said the 5-foot-8, 185-pound power runner lives up to his attitude.
“I think he’s the type of runner who can lead this team with 6 or 7 yards a run,” Stokes said. “I think Curtis’ determination when he runs, he is just the type of guy who can do that for us.”
The Cowboys will have a different look this season as need to find a new driving force after the graduation of quarterback Alex McGough (now at Florida International). Senior David Mazur will be the quarterback and coach Jason Stokes said he’s confident in Mazur’s abilities to pick up where his predecessor left off. That said, Stokes admits the running game will see a big uptick from 2013.
“We’re definitely going to have a heavy run contribution this year,” Stokes said. “Hopefully that opens up play-action and our passing game.”
How big a change will this be? Well, Cowboys rushers accounted for just over 1,000 yards last season with 13 touchdowns — and 330 yards and three touchdowns came from McGough. Curtis Wilder will lead that charge and Stokes said he believes he has the ability to average 6 yards per carry this season. Malik Huff and Michael Rodriguez are expected to be a big part of the rushing attack.
The secondary is Gaither’s strength, according to Stokes, and is led by senior cornerbacks Javon Hammond and Sam Ford, who also will play receiver.
“Defensively we have to take chances because we don’t have too much size,” Stokes said. “We are going to have to shoot gaps, take chances coming off the edge and play games in our secondary to get that eighth man into the box.”
Middle linebacker Josh Michael will serve as the defensive captain and have a key role in the run defense as the Cowboys plan to use a number of secondary-heavy sets.
Stokes said it will be key to cut down on mental mistakes while competing in a tough 7A-District 7, which includes Sickles and Tampa Bay Tech.
“I’ve been around teams that haven’t been this full of talent, but what really makes a good team is good leadership and a tough state of mind,” Stokes said.
♦ About The Cowboys
Stadium: Cowboy Stadium, 16200 North Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa
Class-District: 7A-7 (with Freedom, Sickles, Steinbrenner, Tampa Bay Tech and Wiregrass Ranch)
Coach: Jason Stokes (38-28, sixth season overall; 22-13, fourth season at Gaither)
Last season: 5-6
Aug. 29: Chamberlain
Sept. 5: at Newsome
Sept. 12: at Plant
Sept. 19: Freedom
Sept. 26: Durant
Oct. 2: at Wiregrass Ranch
Oct. 17: Sickles
Oct. 24: at Tampa Bay Tech
Oct. 31: at Steinbrenner
Nov. 7: Plant City