To preview the 2012 high school football season, The Tampa Tribune is counting down the top 10 teams in Hillsborough County. These preseason rankings were voted on by Tribune writer Bill Ward, high school sports editor Doug Jacobs and correspondents Mike Camunas, Jarrett Guthrie and Scott Purks. Today: No. 1 Plant.
Plant High football coach Robert Weiner makes no bones about it: The Panthers have never looked more prepared before the start of a season.
That's quite a statement from a coach who has won four state titles in the past six years, but has, admittedly, gotten off to relatively slow starts.
Consider last season's preseason game when Plant lost, 35-7, to Miami Columbus, or the 2009 version when the Panthers got thumped, 49-33, by Bradenton Manatee.
Then consider this: Plant won the Class 8A state title last season, 31-20, against Miramar. And this: In 2009, Plant won the Class 5A state title, 21-14, against that same Manatee team. And this: In 2010, Plant lost to Manatee, 48-10, in the preseason game, only to bounce back and reach the Class 5A state final before losing, 29-7, to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.
"We tend to get a lot better and work on a lot of things as a season goes along," Weiner said. "It's how we've done it."
Which brings back Weiner's initial thought that this year's team is farther along at this point than any of his teams before.
"We're really just doing a lot of fine tuning," Weiner said. "Most of the guys know the schemes and the plays and the practices have been fantastic."
This statement could bring concern to early regular-season opponents, and in a way, to Weiner himself. Is there any concern for complacency? Because in the past there has been a lot of things to work on and keep players engaged.
"No matter where you are, there is always room for improvement," Weiner said. "There are always reasons to be motivated. Always."
This isn't to say that Plant has 22 returning starters who have played full-time for three years. This year's starting quarterback, for instance, is senior Aaron Banks, who has never started a game.
Banks has, however, played plenty, and like all the Plant quarterbacks in the past seven years, he feels prepared.
"There is a lot to learn when you play quarterback at this school, but coach Weiner makes sure you learn it," Banks said. "I feel I'm ready to go. I'm eager to lead this team."
It doesn't hurt Banks' confidence that Plant's offensive line — led by Richy Klepal and Richard Bush — is arguably the best the Panthers have had, or that pound-for-pound, running back Wesley Bullock is one of the best running backs in the state, or that his wide receivers, including transfer Tristan Cooper (son of Bucs assistant coach Ron Cooper), are full of speed and coordination.
"(Cooper) is very smooth and knows what he's doing out there," Weiner said. "He will definitely make us more dynamic."
The one style change this year might be more designed running plays for Banks, a longtime soccer star who has 4.54-second speed in the 40 and runs a lot like a running back. In the past, Plant's quarterbacks have looked to run mainly after passing plays have broken down.
Defensively, Plant will be stout behind the experience of safety Paris Bostick (committed to Georgia), linebacker Mitchell Wright (South Florida) and defensive lineman Quinn Metoyer.
Surrounding those three is plenty more talent, including safety Reeves Rogers, cornerback Mazzi Wilkins, linebacker Terrance Jenkins and defensive end Max Baker.
"It looks good right now, but of course the proof is yet to come," Weiner said. "Ultimately, our expectation is always the same: Be the best we can be, in the classroom, on the field and off the field.
"If we take care of those things then everything else takes care of itself."
KICKOFF CLASSIC: Friday vs. Lauderdale Lakes Boyd Anderson
SEASON OPENER: Sept. 1 at Jesuit
TRIBUNE'S HILLSBOROUGH TOP 10
7T. Tampa Bay Tech