For a team looking to make an impact on the Hillsborough County landscape, you need an impact player.
For the Blake Yellow Jackets, Shavar Manuel certainly makes an impact.
The defensive end had 10 sacks and 44 tackles as a freshman. But it was his sophomore season, when he posted 19 sacks, that put the now-highly recruited junior on the map. Manuel ranks third in ESPN’s 2016 Junior 300 list.
For head coach Darryl Gordon, the “well-earned” attention Manuel draws has created an outlet for his teammates to excel as well.
“Shavar is the No. 1 guy, the one recruiters are looking at,” Gordon said. “Shavar has two more years and if he does his job, our other athletes get a chance to shine.”
Manuel’s confidence has grown during his first two seasons, according to Gordon. But as that attention has grown, Manuel said he is thrilled it also has given attention to his teammates.
“I feel overwhelmingly blessed if I get to have a part in somebody else at Blake getting an opportunity because of all of that attention,” Manuel said. “It just feels great to have a chance to have Blake football get some recognition because of me.
“We have players on this team that people don’t realize just how good they are.’’
Attention aside, the 6-foot-4, 270-pound Manuel said all of his focus is on winning — all of the other accolades come second.
“I knew attention was going to come after (last season),” Manuel said. “It’s not really something I wanted, but because it comes from being a good athlete, I’m happy to be in that place.”
The Yellow Jackets have a weapon in running back Corey Bennett, who averaged more than 5 yards per carry last season and finished with 10 touchdowns and 852 yards. Bennett will be counted on to lead while junior Samuel Oxendine works in as the new starting quarterback. Coach Darryl Gordon said Oxendine got a few reps last season, but “it’s his job now and he has to manage the game,” and not necessarily carry the team.
Gordon is full of confidence in a unit that will be called on to carry the load in a district full of explosive offenses — Armwood, Hillsborough and Jefferson, to name a few.
Certainly Shavar Manuel’s ability on the line is a big factor, but talented linebacker Julian Jackson adds a lot of pop. Jackson led the team in tackles last season and the 220-pounder leads a good group of linebackers that also includes Marquis Daniel, Eshon Gray and Demetrius Powell.
The secondary will be led by juniors Donte Glover and Jermal Wiley and sophomore Juwan Burgess.
“We have a secondary group and a defense that has been out there together,” Gordon said. “When you’ve been out there and taken that beating, you are matured from year-to-year and are ready to go out as experienced leaders.”
The focus, Gordon said, is continuity. The team started 2-2 last season with wins against district opponents Leto and Lennard, but slipped later in the season, letting second-half stumbles spoil chances against Brandon and Middleton. Gordon said the team addressed this in the spring (when Blake topped Middleton) and during the preseason.
“One thing about this game is the focus to the details,” Gordon said. “You can have all the talent in the world, but if you just try and do it your own way, it’s never going to work out. We have our guys now buying in to the ‘want-to’ attitude about being a team, a Blake football team.”
♦ About The Yellow Jackets
Stadium: James “Big Jim’’ Williams Stadium, 1701 North Blvd., Tampa
Class-District: 6A-8 (with Armwood, Chamberlain, Hillsborough, Jefferson, King, Leto, Lennard and Robinson)
Coach: Darryl Gordon (5-15, third season)
Last season: 2-8
Aug. 29: at Brandon
Sept. 5: Armwood
Sept. 12: at Leto
Sept. 19: Lennard
Sept. 26: at King
Oct. 2: Chamberlain
Oct. 10: Middleton
Oct. 17: at Hillsborough
Oct. 24: Robinson
Oct. 31: at Jefferson