Round 1 – Players, Prospects, Studs to Watch

Wharton 2023 LB Cameron Campbell

Wharton is a battle-tested team. The Wildcats had the luck of drawing Tampa Bay Tech and Armwood in consecutive weeks at the end of October. Those were their only two losses, and not by much. They fell by 9 and 7 respectively in those two games. Tonight, they head north to Pasco County to face a Mitchell team that runs the ball 70% of the time. Mitchell has accrued over 2,100 yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground. Campbell is having a terrific junior year and can be expected to continue to lead the way for his defense against Mitchell. In nine games, he has 81 total tackles, 47 solo, 8 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 4 interceptions, 4 fumble recoveries, 1 forced fumble, and 3 blocked punts. He has returned 3 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries for touchdowns. Campbell has scored more defensive touchdowns by himself than many entire teams have. He is a big-time playmaker.

Clearwater 2022 RB Efrem Only

When it comes to Clearwater, everyone knows how dangerous Aidan MacLean and Censere Lee can be. Hudson’s first priority will be to try and stop those two from connecting, which is easier said than done. However, during Hudson’s four-game losing streak in October, they were obliterated by the run. I don’t mean to rub salt in the wound, but the Cobras gave up 605 rushing yards and 8 rushing touchdowns to Nature Coast, 257 rushing yards and 6 rushing touchdowns to Wesley Chapel, 315 rushing yards and 4 rushing touchdowns to Zephyrhills, and 258 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns to Mitchell. Hudson will have to pick their poison tonight. This is one trip to Clearwater that might not be too enjoyable. 

Photo: Clearwater QB Aidan MacLean

Nature Coast 2023 LB/TE Brady Nowlan

In Nature Coast’s 27-0 win over George Jenkins last week, Nowlan was credited with 14 tackles which pushed him over the 100 tackle mark for the season. He also had 1 touchdown reception, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, 1 sack, and 2 tackles for loss. Chamberlain is 3-7 overall, but their schedule was brutal due to playing several bigger Tampa schools out of the district. Nowlan will be an x-factor in this game as Chamberlain’s number one priority will definitely be stopping NCT sophomore running back Christian Cromer. If Nowlan can have another big game on both sides of the ball, he will definitely help the Sharks’ cause tonight.

Zephyrhills 2023 RB Jaylin Thomas

Thomas will be one of the best running backs Gibbs has seen this season. With his vision and quickness, he should have some great opportunities to break some big runs against Gibbs. In two of the Gladiators’ three losses, they were gashed on the ground. Efrem Only had 169 yards and 3 touchdowns as Clearwater piled up 273 rushing yards and 4 rushing touchdowns. And in their loss to Northeast, they gave up 219 rushing yards and 4 rushing touchdowns. Thomas has 1,511 total yards and 15 touchdowns this season. Gibbs will have to slow him down if they want to return to Pinellas County with a win.

Photo: Zephyrhills RB Jaylin Thomas

Sebring 2024 LB Josiah Taylor

Taylor will be busy tonight as Sebring hosts run-heavy Wesley Chapel. The Wildcats keep the ball on the ground 71% of the time. Taylor leads the Blue Streaks with 86 total tackles/9.6 tackles per game. He is a good-looking sophomore who isn’t afraid to come downhill. He is physical and tackles well. If Taylor and crew can stuff the run and force Wesley Chapel to throw, they should survive to see round two.

Apopka 2022 DE Michael Spain Jr.

In an intriguing matchup between two powerful 8-2 teams, Creekside will make the 130-mile trek from St. Johns County to Apopka tonight. Apopka’s strengths, as usual, revolve around running the football and playing great defense. Their defense is allowing just 6.5 points per game this season. The Blue Darters will have to continue that trend tonight against an explosive offense led by Creekside senior quarterback Jacob Dennie. Dennie has been excellent this season. He has completed 64% of his passes for a total of 1,648 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has also ran the ball 90 times for 303 yards. One factor that favors Apopka is #44. Michael Spain Jr. is a bad dude who explodes off the ball and plays very physical. Creekside will have to account for him in order to protect Dennie. His motor makes him a nightmare of offensive lines. His disruptive ability allows teammates like linebacker Travion Barnes to make big plays also. During the regular season, Spain had 31 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 1 fumble recovery returned for a touchdown, and 2 blocked punts. If he can pressure Dennie early and often, it should be a great night for Apopka. 

Auburndale 2023 RB Jerrod Johnson & 2022 RB Jeremiah Austin

Auburndale quarterback Zach Tanner is having a huge season, but Belleview should expect a heavy dose of these two very dynamic backs tonight also. Johnson is the Bloodhounds’ leading rusher with 663 yards and 12 touchdowns on 84 carries (7.9 ypc). He has 5 receptions for 109 yards as well. He is making major contributions on defense also. He has 61 total tackles, 41 solo, 6 tackles for loss, 6 interceptions, 1 interception returned for a touchdown, 4 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, and 1 blocked field goal. Austin is right on his heels with 560 rushing yard and 8 touchdowns on 83 carries (6.7 ypc). Belleview is 8-2 with a low strength of schedule. Their losses were to Crystal River (17-14) and Vanguard (42-7). And even in their wins, they have been susceptible to the run. Lecanto and Springstead had success running the ball against them. With that said, I think Auburndale will make their home crowd happy tonight and these two will be a big reason why.

Venice 2022 LB Logan Ballard

One of Venice’s key objectives will be to not allow Plant City QB Clinton Danzey to get into a groove. Ballard will be one of the primary defenders executing that plan. He has been making plays all season for a great Venice defense that is allowing just over 11 points per game against a strong schedule. During the regular season, Ballard racked up 78 total tackles, 52 solo, 5 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 2 interceptions returned for touchdowns, 1 sack, and 1 fumble recovery. He has done a great job in run defense and pass defense. He is a well-rounded player with a high football IQ. He brings a ton of energy to the game and plays fast and physical.