To preview the 2014 high school football season, the Tribune is counting down the top 10 teams in Hillsborough County. The preseason rankings were voted on by staff writers Scott Purks and Nick Williams, high school sports editor Doug Jacobs and correspondent Jarrett Guthrie.
TAMPA — Tampa Catholic graduated 15 players — 14 of those being starters — from last year’s state semifinal team, including an All-American offensive lineman, two Division I linebackers, a quarterback and a receiver.
Yet, optimism is high at Crusaders Stadium.
“My expectation is the same as it always is,” coach Mike Gregory said. “Win the district, make a run in the playoffs and play for a state title.”
The Crusaders are the defending Class 3A-District 4 champions, but Gregory said it’s too early to pick a favorite, especially with Berkeley Prep returning plenty of starters.
“Anytime you play those guys, it will get physical and you’ll play a lot of talent,” Gregory said. “Frostproof and Fort Meade, you have to play your butt off and you have to prepare your butt off to win that district.”
A tough nonconference schedule prepared Tampa Catholic for a competitive district race last season, and Gregory expects the same to happen this year. The first two games are at Madison County and at 2013 state runner-up Clearwater Central Catholic.
The Crusaders have two quarterbacks — junior Tyler Simms and sophomore Kevin Knox — capable of leading the offense. Both played sparingly behind starter Kyle Ploucher last season.
Regardless of which QB is on the field, getting the ball to junior receiver Nate Craig will be a priority. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound wideout is rated the No. 1 junior in the country by Rivals and has committed to Auburn.
“Nate gives us a lot of versatility,” Gregory said. “Wide receiver, slot or quarterback. It’d be silly not to find a way to get the ball in his hands.”
The strength of the Crusaders’ defense is junior lineman Malik Barrow, who had 13 sacks last season.
“He’s explosive,” Gregory said. “He’s just naturally stronger than the competition he’s going to face. He can get off the ball and hand fight.”
Gregory is expecting senior linebacker Cody Endris, a three-year starter, to be the quarterback of the defense. Endris’ 83 tackles and four interceptions ranked second on the team last season.
Friday, Aug. 22, vs. Sickles
Friday, Aug. 29, at Madison County