SEFFNER — They pack muscle, grit and tenacity. They run fast, jump high and hit like hammers.
All of them.
Meet Armwood High’s defense.
No weakness. No give. No mercy.
“We enjoy crushing quarterbacks,” said 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end Byron Cowart in the jazzy baritone of a giant.
“Yes sir,” Cowart crooned.
On Saturday in Orlando’s Citrus Bowl, Cowart and Co. will get another chance to crush a quarterback and a running back or two, but it might be a little tougher than usual because the Hawks (14-0) are playing Miami Central (13-1) in the Class 6A state final.
For once, Armwood’s vaunted D — which this season has not allowed a team to rush for more than 100 yards and has held 11 of its opponents under 10 points — is considered an underdog.
That’s because the Rockets, ranked No. 3 in the nation by USA Today, not only sport one of the country’s best backs in Dalvin Cook (committed to the University of Florida), but also feature an offensive line of four Division I commitments led by four-star talent Trevor Darling, who is going to the University of Miami. Add it up, and this year’s Rockets have rushed for 50 touchdowns and 3,200 yards.
“Bring ’em on,” Cowart said.
The confidence runs deep because Armwood is a proven commodity grown from a long tradition, surviving the loss of position coaches and last year’s defensive coordinator Matt Thompson, who took the head coaching position at Jesuit.
In the previous 10 years under Thompson, Armwood produced 46 shutouts and held opponents to fewer than 10 points in 94 games. It also won a couple of state titles, and perhaps most importantly, established a relentless tenacity.
That’s why when Armwood announced that Hawks defensive backs coach Darrell Palmer would take over for Thompson, the Hawks barely blinked.
“That first few days after I heard coach Thompson was leaving I was hurt because I was close to coach Thompson,” Cowart said. “But I learned that coaches come and go, that’s life.
“The good thing was that coach Palmer knew us and we knew him. He’s come in and done a great job. We love playing for coach Palmer.”
For Palmer, who has coached for 30 years, including the last nine at Armwood, the transition was relatively seamless.
“We’re running the same system (a 3-4 with a linebacker rushing from one side or the other on nearly every play),” Palmer said. “We have the same aggressive style.”
Hawks linebacker Jordan Griffin, who leads the team with an average of 11 tackles a game, describes the Hawks’ D as a “well-oiled machine.”
“We all know our assignments and we stick to them,” Griffin said. “We work together on every play.”
This year’s blend begins up front with Cowart (ranked as the nation’s No. 1 defensive end prospect in 2014 by rivals.com) and Hyriam Fredrick (6-0, 245), then moves to Griffin (6-0, 210) and back to safety Kyle Gibson, a 6-foot, 170-pounder who, pound-for-pound, might be the Hawks’ most ferocious hitter.
“It’s a great group,” Palmer said. “I know they’re not afraid of anybody. I know they’re ready for this challenge against Miami Central.”
Said Cowart: “We can’t wait.”